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11:00 - 31 January 2006

Ministers were facing mounting pressure to sanction a cull of badgers to control bovine TB yesterday after figures showed a 40 per cent increase in the number of cattle with the disease in the Westcountry last year.

The annual TB statistics, which were released by the Government without comment at the weekend, showed that more than 10,000 cattle in Devon and Cornwall were slaughtered because of the disease in 2005 - an increase of more than 40 per cent on the previous year. Nationally, the figure rose by 28 per cent.

The figures also showed that one in five of all livestock farms in the two counties were placed under restrictions because of the disease last year - itself an increase of 15 per cent on the previous year.

In total, 1,864 farms in Devon and Cornwall suffered the expense, disruption and heartache of being placed under restriction last year.

The scale of the increase led to renewed calls for the Government to back proposals for a cull of diseased badgers to bring the spread of TB under control.

Geoffrey Cox, Conservative MP for Torridge and West Devon, said the figures should act as a "clarion call" for action.

Mr Cox, whose constituency is one of the worst affected, said farmers faced the prospect of having to accept an expensive and impractical new testing regime, coupled with reduced compensation, without the promise of an effective badger cull.

He said: "I am very concerned that instead of genuine action we are getting the botched imposition of a pre-movement testing regime and a fudge on culling.

"Livestock farmers are living on hope. If we want a living, working countryside with a surviving livestock industry then we have to impress on the Government the need for action."

Anthony Gibson, director of the National Farmers' Union in the South West, said the figures underlined the "very worrying" situation faced by the region.

Mr Gibson said: "These figures just reinforce the urgent need for effective action. We need a strategy that acknowledges all aspects of the disease, including the wildlife reservoir. We appreciate the practical difficulties faced by the Government but it has got to be done - we cannot allow TB to continue spreading at this rate."

Lib-Dem rural affairs spokesman Colin Breed said the figures showed the need for a cull of infected badgers.

Mr Breed, MP for South East Cornwall, said: "We cannot sustain this sort of growth in outbreaks of the disease - it will lead to the complete collapse of either milk or beef production in the South West. So many farmers have now been placed under restriction for months on end and they are beginning to wonder whether it is worth carrying on."

The figures also highlight the extent to which the Westcountry has become the main focus for bovine TB. Devon and Cornwall now account for a third of all cattle slaughtered for the disease. While more than a fifth of the Westcountry's cattle farms suffered TB restrictions last year, the national figure was less than one in 16.

Animal Health Minister Ben Bradshaw launched a consultation on a badger cull last year, although the debate about its likely effectiveness continues, particularly given the Government's apparent preference for snaring and shooting as a method of control.