Farmers and unions have described the decision not to cull as a betrayal
The Welsh government has dropped plans to cull badgers as part of an attempt to wipe out bovine TB in cattle.
Environment Minister John Griffiths said he had instead opted to vaccinate the animals after carefully considering the scientific evidence.
A review of the science involved in controlling bovine TB was commissioned after last year’s assembly elections.
The Farmers’ Union of Wales attacked a “cowardly betrayal”, while the RSPCA said it was “delighted and relieved”.
The previous government had planned a pilot cull of badgers in west Wales.
But Mr Griffiths revealed on Tuesday that he was scrapping the plan, saying a five-year vaccination programme will start in the intensive action area – the TB hotspot in north Pembrokeshire where the cull was due to take place.
His decision disappointed farming unions and Labour’s political opponents who strongly backed the cull.
Officials hope to start vaccinating within two to three months.
Badgers will be trapped in cages and marked so they are not vaccinated multiple times.
Other areas where vaccination might contribute to TB eradication will be considered.
Mr Griffiths said he remained committed to eradicating a “terrible disease” that had “devastating” consequences.
Deciding to cull would have to be justified on the basis that it was necessary to substantially reduce bovine TB in cattle, he told AMs in the Senedd chamber.
“At present I am not satisfied that a cull of badgers would be necessary to bring about a substantial reduction in cases of TB in cattle,” Mr Griffiths added.
It is understood ministers had advice that a cull might not survive a legal challenge under the Animal Health Act 1981.
The cull was drawn up under the previous Labour-Plaid Cymru coalition Welsh government. At last May’s election, Labour said it would take a science-led approach to the policy.
The previous government first announced a cull of badgers in April 2008, but it was halted in the courts after an appeal by conservationists. The plans were revived last March, before being put on hold by Labour when it commissioned a scientific review.
Opponents have accused the minister of delaying since a 13-page report by the review panel arrived on his desk in December.
Plaid’s former Rural Affairs Minister Elin Jones, who drew up the plans for a cull, said: “Farmers will now have to decide how best to protect their cattle and I for one would not blame them for anything they do.”
Deputy minister for agriculture Alun Davies said her comments were “totally unacceptable”.
Farmers in the action area have been subject to a raft of extra controls on their cattle since 2010, the Farmers’ Union of Wales (FUW) said.
FUW TB spokesman Brian Walters said: “Those who have now gone back on their words have not just betrayed farmers in north Pembrokeshire but the industry as a whole. They should hang their heads in shame.”
NFU Cymru deputy president Stephen James said the decision would leave diseased badgers “continuing to roam the countryside infecting more cattle with the disease for which there is yet no known cure”.
It is now time for the British government to wholeheartedly commit to a programme of vaccination”
British Veterinary Association president Carl Padgett said it was a “political decision, rather than a scientific one”, that would “potentially set back our efforts to tackle this devastating disease by many years”.
Welsh Conservative rural affairs spokeswoman Antoinette Sandbach said the minister had “hamstrung the eradication programme by abandoning culling, despite voting in favour of that policy less than a year ago”.
Welsh Liberal Democrat spokesman William Powell said: “There will continue to be a dangerous vacuum in this policy area which could be filled by twilight operators and others who despair in the face of this devastating virus.”
Rock star Brian May, who has long campaigned against the cull plan, said he was thrilled at the news.
“It is now time for the British government to wholeheartedly commit to a programme of vaccination – the only route which can guarantee, long term, the elimination of bovine TB from our British countryside,” he said.
RSPCA Cymru external affairs manager Claire Lawson said badger vaccination had already been shown to “significantly reduce the prevalence and severity of disease in the badger population and could reduce the potential for transmission of TB from badgers to cattle”.
Campaign group Pembrokeshire Against the Cull said it was “delighted” by a “brave decision” to reject culling.
In a statement, it said: “We are sure that there will be much relief, especially from those worried about the potential impact on tourism from culling, and cross-community support for this approach within the intensive action area.”