The country has "lost control" of tuberculosis in cows, and a cull of badgers is essential to preventing the epidemic doubling in the next ten years, two top Government advisers have warned.
Professor Ian Boyd, chief scientific adviser at the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and Nigel Gibbens, Defra's chief veterinary officer, today made a defiant case for the Government's controversial plan to stem the disease ravaging cattle herds across the Westcountry.
In a Whitehall briefing with journalists, they explained culling badgers – which spread the infection – would prevent more cattle becoming sick than by deploying vaccinations.
They also defended what critics say is the negligible 16% reduction in the disease that culling promises, arguing it is vital to end the trend of the bovine tuberculosis (TB) spiralling upwards.
The pair also warned of a future potential threat to human health if the march of TB is not checked.
Prof Boyd, pointing to official figures contrasting 235 cases of TB in 1986 to 28,000 today, said: "We had bovine TB under control in the early 1980s. And essentially we've lost control of this disease in the UK, and particularly certain parts of the UK."
And he warned at the current rate "in ten years time we will have double the problem we have at the moment". He said: "We also will have a TB epidemic in the countryside that is uncontrolled. That is something we need to take extraordinarily seriously.
"And partly as a result of that we would have increasing pressure from the European Commission to do something about it. We are already under pressure from the European Commission to get TB under control in the UK."
He added one of the "more speculative" impacts of maintaining the status quo would be increased risk to human health as the disease becomes "more prevalent" in wildlife including deer and foxes.
"We'd have TB in other livestock," he said. "And possibly into domestic pets – and when it starts to get into domestic pets you start potentially seeing the breaking down of measures we have in place to stop risks to human health."
Mr Gibbens explained that TB as a serious health risk to humans had been "largely been dealt with by the introduction – a long time ago – of meat inspection and pasteurisation of milk".
But he added: "If you let TB rip, and there was more TB around, in a larger number of animals and different animals, that brings a different human health risk. And we want to make sure that doesn't happen."
Prof Boyd concluded: "The current direction of travel is not tenable in the long-term. We have to try to do something to get this disease under control."
A total of 28,000 cattle were slaughtered in England last year, a 7% increase on 2011 – 20,000 in the South West, underlining how the region has been affected more than any other.
Cornwall recorded an 18% increase, meaning 2,014 cows were killed after being found to be infected with TB. In Devon, which has the highest number of cattle victims in the country, 6,535 animals were slaughtered, a surge of 8%.
The Government has confirmed two culls of disease-carrying badgers this year – one in Somerset, the other in Gloucestershire – as part of a package of control measures, including cattle control.
The "pilot" culls, which could be rolled out throughout the South West if effective, are opposed by Labour and animal welfare organisations, and could go ahead as early as next month. Up to 5,000 badgers could be killed across the two regions over the four-year period of the cull.
At the briefing, Prof Boyd and Mr Gibbens explained up to around 50% of TB infections are caused by badgers, and tackling animal disease in the wildlife reservoir has had demonstrably positive effects in other countries.
They underlined the importance of vaccination of both cows and badgers, but argued in the short-term five years of culling would have greater success in tackling the disease compared to vaccines, according to Defra modelling.
They made clear a cattle vaccine is more than 10 years away and oral dosing of badgers is still being developed. Injectable badger vaccines are too costly and impractical, they said.
Mr Gibbens said: "People talk about the impact of culling being not that great. We could say the same about vaccination."
Prof Boyd said: "We are highly committed to this (vaccination) but isn't a current solution which is why we have to talk about culling."