Controversial plans to cull thousands of badgers to tackle tuberculosis in cattle are to be delayed until next summer, it has been announced.
Environment Secretary Owen Paterson told MPs that culling was originally delayed by the Olympics and legal proceedings, and now by bad weather and the news that there were more badgers in the cull areas than previously estimated.
As a result, farmers could not be confident they could cull enough badgers this year and two pilot culls that were due to start imminently will now take place next summer.
Mr Paterson insisted the Government remained absolutely committed to the policy of culling, which he said he was "utterly convinced" was the right thing to do.
Speaking as Queen guitarist and campaigner against the cull Brian May listened in the House of Commons, Mr Paterson said the science showed that at least 70% of badgers must be removed from an area for there to be a reduction in TB in cattle.
Last week it emerged there were many more badgers in the two areas in the south west of England licensed for pilot culls than previously estimated, with some 3,600 in the West Gloucestershire area and 4,300 in West Somerset.
"Despite a greatly increased effort over the last few days and weeks, the farmers delivering this policy have concluded that they cannot be confident that it will be possible to remove enough badgers based on these higher numbers and considering the lateness of the season," Mr Paterson said. "It would be wrong to go ahead if those on the ground cannot be confident of removing at least 70% of the populations."
He said he had received a letter from the National Farmers' Union (NFU) explaining why the pilot culls could not go ahead this year and requesting a postponement until next summer, a decision he said he respected. And he said: "Having looked at all the evidence over many years, I am utterly convinced that badger control is the right thing to do, and indeed the higher than expected badger numbers only serve to underline the need for urgent action."
NFU president Peter Kendall said the cull had been delayed to autumn this year by the need to focus policing resources on the Olympics. Due to the lateness in the year, the news that there are more badgers in the pilot cull areas than previously estimated and the recent "appalling" weather, the industry had taken the decision to put back the cull until next year.
Mr Kendall said farmers would be massively disappointed by the delay to the cull, because TB in cattle "destroys people's farming businesses and lives". But he said: "The industry is saying we need to do this, but we must get it right. The weather has been appalling and we've learnt the numbers are higher than anticipated. This is a responsible decision by the farming industry to make sure we get this right." And he warned that there was a desperate need to confirm the policy worked, by starting the pilot culls, so it could be rolled out more widely from the following year. The pilots aim to test whether the cull can be carried out "effectively, safely and humanely" as a first step to a wider programme of culling badgers to tackle TB in cattle.