There was confusion last night about the future of the controversial badger cull after ministers called off interviews with journalists prompting speculation that rising costs might mean a postponement of the project.
Speculation is rife that the two pilot culls in South West bovine tuberculosis hotspot areas may be called off or postponed at short notice. The Government insisted, however, it remained committed to the policy of carrying out pilot culls.
The two pilots in West Somerset and around Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire, involve licensed marksmen shooting all badgers across 70% of a cull area.
But now it appears there are more badgers in the cull areas than previously calculated. That means that in the case of West Somerset the cost of culling could possibly have as much as doubled. Rumours suggest farmers may be balking at paying more.
Previous calculations showed it would cost more than £1,000 overall for every animal killed, according to research by academics from Exeter University.
Professor John McInerney, emeritus professor of agricultural policy there, based figures on the Government's own impact assessment, and concluded that the cull would cost more than it saved.
He calculated that for over 150 square kilometres, where up to 1,500 badgers could be shot, the costs of culling would be more than £1.5 million.
More than £800,000 of the cost would be for policing and monitoring, while farmers would pay a much smaller amount for employing marksmen to shoot the animals.
Professor McInerney said the cull cost was "not worth it." He added: "Purely in financial terms the value gained is less than would be spent. But public decisions are not just made on financial terms. The calculations imply the cost would fall on the taxpayer. In my own opinion, you shouldn't spend public money in this way during a time when it is scarce." He described the policing and monitoring costs as "astounding", adding: "Over half of the assessed cost for the cull is on the police. This may show the extent of public opposition and the desire to maintain law and order. Or, more disturbingly, it may show the danger posed by a threatening group of animal activists."
His colleague, Professor Robbie McDonald, former head of wildlife science at the Government Food and Environment Research Agency, conducted separate research on the impact of the cull. He said: "Managing wildlife to reduce TB in cattle is likely to produce unimpressive results."
Last year 26,000 cattle were destroyed as a result of bovine TB, costing £90 million to the taxpayer and causing anguish to farming families that saw their herds decimated. Dealing with bovine TB has cost the nation £500 million. Research is continuing to perfect a reliable vaccine for cattle and badgers.