The Government is under pressure to put plans to expand badger culling to a vote in Parliament amid growing Conservative unease at the policy to halt tuberculosis in cattle.
During a fierce debate yesterday, a cross-party section of MPs criticised the two recently-completed "pilot" culls in Somerset and Gloucestershire that have come under fire for missing their targets.
Tory MPs – notably in the South West, where bovine TB is ravaging the farming industry – remain broadly behind culling the wildlife said to spread the disease.
But the Westminster Hall debate underlined how some Conservatives are adopting the position of Labour and many Liberal Democrat backbenchers.
Anne Main, Conservative MP for St Albans in Hertfordshire, said her position had gone from "neutral to negative".
She told MPs: "Bring it back before the House. It's what Members want. The public will not understand concerns from people like myself who have moved from neutral to negative."
The two pilots fell short of the 70% target for badgers to be culled. An independent panel will examine the results before a decision on a roll-out to up to 40 areas, which could include bovine TB hotspots in Devon and Cornwall.
Tracey Crouch, Conservative MP for Chatham and Aylesford in Kent, was also publicly critical of the policy. She said: "It's a bit of a cheek for the Government to say the pilot culls have been a success yet those of us who are actually anti-cull are being told not to leap to conclusions before the independent panel has concluded."
Huw Irranca-Davies, Labour's Shadow Farming Minister, said any further culls should "test the democratic legitimacy". MPs have yet to vote on a binding motion over the badger cull, which the Labour spokesman said was an "affront to parliamentary democracy".
The disease led to the slaughter of 28,000 animals last year – more than 20,000 in the South West – at a cost of £100 million to the taxpayer.
There remains strong support for culling, particularly with vaccination of cattle and badgers seen as being many years away.
Simon Hart, Conservative MP for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire, alluded to musician Brian May backing animal welfare groups opposed to the cull.
He said: "Farmers have been through hell over the last 20 to 30 years. The involvement of the animal welfare organisations only cropped up in the last few. (Farmers) are the celebrities we should be listening to."
Geoffrey Clifton Brown, Tory MP for the Cotswolds, warned increased restrictions to cattle movement would mean "no beef cattle" in "vast areas of the South West".
He said: "We will end up importing more beef and we'll lose jobs in this country."