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11:00 - 08 February 2006

Beef and dairy farming will be abandoned across large areas of the Westcountry unless the Government sanctions a badger cull to help tackle bovine TB, MPs were warned last night. In a highly charged performance in front of the Commons rural affairs committee, the NFU's vice-president Meurig Raymond said many farmers were "at the end of their tether" over the lack of Government action to tackle a disease which increased by 40 per cent in the Westcountry last year.

Mr Raymond, who visited the Westcountry to talk to local farmers last month, said there was now a real danger that many would simply give up.

He said: "Having been to the South West recently, I can tell you that there are some farmers who are at the end of their tether, whether it is physical, emotional or financial. We hear a lot about the welfare of badgers and the welfare of cattle, but there is also a big issue of the welfare of the farmers involved - some of them have been under restriction for three or four years.

"There are parts of the country which will cease cattle production if this disease is not tackled soon - we will see the countryside go into disarray."

Geoffrey Cox, Conservative MP for Torridge and West Devon, said Mr Raymond was right to raise the alarm about the future of livestock farming in parts of the Westcountry.

Mr Cox said many farmers felt they had been "abandoned" by the Government. And he warned that some might be prepared to take "desperate" action to protect their livelihoods.

Mr Cox said there was now clear evidence that an extensive badger cull would work. But he said it was "irresponsible" for the Government to suggest that a piecemeal cull, conducted by farmers themselves could be effective.

"The question is whether the Government has the political will to provide the means to deal with this issue," he said. Mr Raymond's comments came after scientists appearing before the committee warned that the Government's proposals for badger culling would not work.

Professor John Bourne, chairman of the Government's Independent Scientific Group on TB, which oversaw the recent badger culling trials, said he had not been consulted over the culling proposals published by the Animal Health Minister Ben Bradshaw in December.

Professor Bourne said the proposals to allow individual licensing of farmers or a targeted cull over specific areas would not work as the trials had shown that surviving badgers would spread the disease to neighbouring areas.