Drawing up proposals for a badger cull has cost taxpayers more than £400,000 as ministers attempt to avoid a legal challenge from animal welfare groups, it has emerged.
Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman has said she is “strongly minded” to sanction a targeted cull as part of a range of measures to combat tuberculosis (TB) in cattle.
Bovine TB, which is widely believed to be spread by badgers, is most virulent in the South West and cost the Government more than £90 million last year.
Government figures released following a Freedom of Information (FoI) request show that a total of £400,000 was spent between May 2010 and July 2011 on developing the policy, chiefly on staff and legal advice.
The costs underline how ministers are consulting widely against fears of a legal battle similar to that faced by the Welsh government over its proposed cull.
The FoI revealed Mrs Spelman has met representatives of animal welfare groups, including the RSPCA, RSPB, Badger Trust and Wildlife Trust.
She also met with farming industry groups such as the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) and Country Land and Business Association.
A public consultation, which took place last autumn, garnered some 59,540 responses.
The latest consultation phase ended last month, and no decision date has been confirmed yet by the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).
The Government is considering two “pilot” culls, which are earmarked to take place next year and will almost certainly happen in the far South West.
Speaking at an NFU fringe event at the Conservative Party conference last week, Farming Minister Jim Paice said a final decision will be made within the next few weeks.
Mr Paice admitted coming up with the final policy was proving to be a far greater challenge than he had anticipated.
Mr Paice said: “It has been a lot harder than I thought to ensure we can rebut the judicial challenge that would be inevitable.”
A spokesman for Defra said a decision on a badger cull would be announced “as soon as we can”.
He added: “Bovine TB is a devastating disease that last year led to 25,000 cattle being slaughtered, and cost the Government £90 million.
“We need to get on top of it using a package of measures and have consulted on badger culling as part of this – otherwise it will cost £1 billion over the next 10 years.”