Another day, another U-turn: Badger cull grinds to a halt

The government's series of gaffes, U-turns and disasters continued today, when it pulled the plug on the controversial badger cull plan.

The decision to shelve the plans for at least a year will be celebrated by environmentalists, animal rights campaigners and many scientists, whose findings questioned whether the cull would succeed in limiting the spread of bovine TB.

"The government's handling of the badger cull has been incompetent and shambolic," Mary Creagh, shadow environment secretary, said.

Environment secretary Owen Paterson had to cut short a trip abroad to announce the U-turn in the Commons this afternoon, where he was greeted by mockery and laughter on the Labour benches.

"We remain absolutely committed but we must make sure we get delivery right," he said.

"At this late stage of the season, because of the various delays and the larger numbers than previously planned, the NFU (National Farmers' Union) have come to me requesting a delay.

"This policy is absolutely intact. We will deliver pilot culls from next summer."

The decision follows a census which suggested badger numbers could be twice as high as previously thought.

That was a particularly galling statistic for the government, which faced the prospect of actually having spread bovine TB if fewer than 70% of the badgers were killed. If the cull fails to reach that crucial level, escaping badgers could spread the disease and increase cattle infections.

The first full debate on the cull – tabled for today in the Commons – could easily have resulted in a defeat for the government.

The government also had to simultaneously deal with a legal challenge from the Badger Trust, which could have secured a judicial review due to the government's failure to establish badger numbers.

There is also the possibility the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) being pursued for costs by farmers who have already bought stocks for the cull in anticipation of the programme.

Last year, 26,000 cattle had to be slaughtered, with £90 million of taxpayer money going to farmer compensation.

The U-turn is just the latest embarrassment for the government, which last week saw the resignation of Andrew Mitchell for swearing at police and a botched energy policy announcement.

Tory grandee Lord Tebbit recently branded David Cameron's administration a "dog of a government".