HUNDREDS of badgers have been killed in Cumbria in a bid to halt the spread of deadly bovineTB, according to new government figures.

A total of 602 badgers were culled over last autumn in an operation carried out in an area described as east Cumbria.

A report by Defra reveals of the 363 badgers tested for the disease only 40 (11 per cent) were positive.

It also concluded that the disease was most likely to have been introduced by cattle imported from Northern Ireland.

While Defra officials claim the controversial operation was playing a successful role in disease control, Cumbrian environmentalists and wildlife campaigners warned populations of badgers could be pushed to extinction.

Stephen Trotter, CEO of Cumbria Wildlife Trust, told the News & Star that the report confirmed that badgers in the Shap area definitely caught bTB from cattle.

“Vaccination should have been the right option to take as culling can actually make the situation worse. This may seem counter-intuitive but experience has shown that culling disrupts and unsettles the social structure of badger families. This disturbance causes them to move to new areas more frequently and over longer distances – which can result in increased bTB transmission by displaced individuals. Slurry spreading is also one of the key ways that bTB is spread into the badger population.”

Mr Trotter, in his response to the government report, argued that the Government needed to put its effort into fighting the disease in cattle through measures such as better detection of btB in cattle, better cattle movement controls, and on-farm biosecurity measures.

He added that the best and most cost-effective way of dealing with bTB in the badger population was by targeted vaccination.”On top of this, the costs of killing badgers are much higher than vaccinating them.”

The Government also released figures this week on the numbers of badgers vaccinated last year. Their figures show that 641 badgers were vaccinated in 2018 – with half of these through the Badger Edge Vaccination Scheme (BEVS), the government-sponsored badger vaccination programme.

Mr Trotter said: “When you compare the number of badgers vaccinated across the UK last year – 641 – to the numbers of badgers culled nationwide in the same year – at least 32,602 – vaccinations represent a very small proportion.

“There is robust scientific evidence to prove that badger vaccination reduces the transmission of bTB in badgers. Several studies demonstrate that vaccinating badgers reduces the progression, severity and the likelihood that the infection would be passed on, once a badger is infected.”

National Farmers’ Union North West regional director, David Hall, said the culling of badgers in Cumbria last autumn was part of a ‘suite of measures’ which was being led by the Animal and Plant Health Agency.

He added: “The NFU has always supported a comprehensive and proportionate eradication strategy, which balances disease controls measures with business sustainability. We must have every option available to us to tackle bTB – including cattle testing, cattle movement restrictions, biosecurity advice, vaccination and control of the disease in wildlife.”

Farmers were given the green light to begin culling badgers in east Cumbria at the end of last August. The county is in the bTB Low Risk Area.

It came after Defra revealed between November 2014 and August of this year a total of 35 outbreaks of the deadly disease had occurred across 31 farms. Government vets maintained that after investigation the disease was ‘well established’ in the badger population and as such are a potential source of cattle infection.

But at that time wildlife campaigners criticised the cull and said they feared the controversial move could lead to ‘illegal persecution’ of badgers in the county.

Dominic Dyer, CEO of the Badger Trust, said there wasn’t enough evidence to prove that the disease was endemic in the wildlife in Cumbria. “I believe there has been a lot of political pressure for this to happen and that is why the licence was agreed. But how many will be killed, we could see whole populations disappear - and at what cost to taxpayer?”