BADGERS could be culled across Hampshire from as early as May in a bid to protect cattle herds from bovine tuberculosis.

Hundreds of farmers have lobbied the government, calling for a "strategic cull" of the badger population, which is estimated at between 300,000 and 400,000. They claim the much-loved animals are responsible for passing on TB to cattle and and have expressed "despair" with the government's "inadequate approach," to controlling the disease.

Bovine TB casualties are rising at 20 per cent a year. About 22,000 infected cattle had to be destroyed in 2004 and 20,423 were euthanised in the first eight months of last year.

The slaughter costs taxpayers more than £90m a year in compensation, hitting farmers' pockets through reduced milk yields and increased feed bills for cows that cannot be moved to fresh pasture.

Last month, the government announced a new strategy for controlling TB involving both pre-movement testing of cattle, to ensure that stock movements did not spread the disease, and a badger cull in affected areas.

From February 20, all cattle over 15 months of age from herds under one- and two-year testing restrictions will be subject to a pre-movement test.

The department for environment food and rural affairs announced a 12-week public consultation period to consider whether and how to kill badgers. A Defra spokesman said: "This public consultation aims to explain the issues and involve the wider public in the process to decide whether or not to cull badgers and the methods by which this could be done as part of the overall approach to control the spread of bovine TB in England in cattle."

The spokesman conceded that any badger culling would have to be done under licence to comply with the Protection of Badgers Act 1992 but confirmed that the department was not ruling out issuing licences to farmers.

The consultation also seeks views on three methods of culling gassing, shooting of free-running badgers and snaring.

The snares used would be "body" snares that restrain the animal without causing it any harm. The snared animal would then be shot by the licence holder.

The National Farmers' Union has urgently called for clear guidelines from the government to help eradicate bovine TB in herds.

President Tim Bennett said the fact that there would be a badger cull in 2006 was "not a debate."

"Frankly this is going to happen," he told reporters at a recent news conference at the annual Oxford Farming Conference.

He said he favoured starting a cull in May.

The government's decision to move towards a cull has sparked outrage in leading animal welfare organisations, including the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Wildlife Trust, which claim there is not enough evidence to justify a badger cull.

Dr Arthur Lindley, the RSPCA's director of science, said: "This consultation may open a pathway to cull badgers, rather than looking at sound scientific evidence of the spread of bovine TB in cattle."

He said results of a long-term trial of badger culling were published in December 2005. It highlighted that pro-active badger culling increases TB infection in cattle in surrounding areas and achieves only a limited reduction within targeted areas.

Available evidence also indicates that the majority of badgers are not infected with TB.

A survey of road deaths in badgers over a three-year period, published by Defra in September 2005, found that six out of seven badgers were free of the disease.

"While we understand farmers' frustrations about the problem of bovine TB," said Dr Lindley, "killing badgers shouldn't be used as a bargaining chip.

He added: "This would be particularly misguided when the science shows there is a serious risk that culling will make matters worse. It could also condemn a protected wild animal to unnecessary suffering."

Hampshire Wildlife Trust echoes the views of the RSPCA, claiming that a badger cull will not reduce the disease. "We must not allow a situation to develop where our native wildlife is sacrificed for political expediency," said Stephanie Hilborne, chief executive of The Wildlife Trust .

Chairman of the Dorset and Hampshire Badger Society Elizabeth Boxall said the society was "completely against a cull".

She said: "We support the increased use of the more reliable gamma-interferon test in cattle and other additional effective measures, including the post-movement testing of cattle. I am sure these measures would be far more effective and the money normally spent on a badger cull could be used more effectively in tackling the problem in a different way."