LONDON (Reuters) - Britain has delayed a plan to shoot thousands of badgers to stop the spread of tuberculosis in cattle in the face of overwhelming public opposition to the cull.
Critics of the cull, which was supported by farmers, said it would be ineffective, not least because fleeing badgers would simply spread the disease beyond the pilot areas in southwest England where it had been due to begin shortly.
The debate is a sensitive one in Britain, where the mass slaughter of cattle to control disease in livestock has left deep scars in farming communities following outbreaks of other diseases over the past two decades.
Last year, 26,000 affected cattle were slaughtered and the disease cost taxpayers 90 million pounds ($145 million), including compensation to farmers.
Environment Secretary Owen Paterson said on Tuesday the delay had been due to surveys showing a higher number of badgers than thought in the afflicted areas. The opposition Labour party branded it a further example of government ineptitude after several blunders this month.
"The farmers delivering this (culling) have concluded that they cannot be confident that it will be possible to remove enough badgers based on these higher numbers," Paterson told parliament.
"It would be wrong to go ahead if those on the ground cannot be confident of removing at least 70 percent of the badger populations."
Public opposition to the cull has been widespread, with more than 150,000 people signing an online protest petition initiated by former Queen guitarist Brian May.
Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservatives have fallen further behind Labour in the polls and critics say they are increasingly seen as both incompetent and out of touch with ordinary voters.
One of Cameron's senior ministers resigned after he was accused of calling police "plebs", a condescending insult for working people. A botched attempt to find a private company to run a railway line and a Cameron statement on energy bills that sowed confusion have added to the government's problems.
"Labour has warned the government for two years that a cull was bad for farmers, bad for taxpayers and bad for wildlife, and it is right that it has been delayed," opposition environment spokeswoman Mary Creagh said.
Paterson said that while the government remained committed to vaccinating cattle against TB, the vaccine was not yet fully developed, and so the shooting would start next summer.
Animal rights activists had threatened to disrupt the night-time shooting and police leave had been canceled until the New Year in one of the areas for fear of violence.
(Reporting by Peter Schwartzstein; Editing by Alison Williams)