A HAMPSHIRE MP is backing controversial plans to kill tens of thousands of badgers in a bid to halt the spread of bovine tuberculosis.

Desmond Swayne, Tory MP for New Forest West, has thrown his support behind proposals for a badger cull – currently the most controversial issue in the countryside.

Campaign groups have hit out at plans to carry out the mass shooting and say they may decide to mount a legal challenge.

But Mr Swayne has rejected criticism of the scheme, saying opposition to the cull was often based on what he described as “pure sentimentality”.

“Our typically English view of nature owes so much to Beatrix Potter and Kenneth Grahame,”

he said.

“The tenor of most of my e-mails is that badgers are nice cuddly creatures and it is wicked and beastly to kill them.”

Mr Swayne cited the huge number of cattle that had to be slaughtered every year because of bovine tuberculosis and added: “The unchecked spread of this disease is the real animal cruelty.”

The MP acknowledged that many people were calling for badgers to be vaccinated rather than shot. He added: “This is an excellent idea but we do not yet possess a vaccine that is practical and effective, which is why we are spending £20m trying to develop one.

“In the meantime, it would be irresponsible to just stand by and hope.”

In 1986 the number of cattle that tested positive for bovine tuberculosis was just 235. By last year the figure had soared to 28,541, including a large number of cases in Hampshire and Dorset.

Over the past ten years hundreds of thousands of cattle have been slaughtered – at an estimated cost to the taxpayer of £500m.

Now a pilot project is due to be carried out at two secret locations in south-west England next summer to determine if shooting is a safe, effective and humane way of killing badgers, which have been blamed for the spread of the disease.

If successful the cull will be rolled out across the country, resulting in the deaths of up to 90,000 badgers in 40 tuberculosis hotspots.

The controversial scheme has been criticised by members of the Badger Trust, some of whom live in the New Forest.

A Trust spokesman said Natural England would find it difficult to police the cull and claimed that any permanent benefits would be “small and long delayed”.

But Peter Kendall, president of the National Farmers’ Union, described it as a massive step in the right direction.

“We need to stop the spread of bovine TB and the devastating impact that it is having on farmers and their families.”