Support from vets for the Government's controversial badger cull appears to be faltering in the absence of independent assessment of the pilot scheme, leaked documents show.
The minutes of a recent meeting of the British Veterinary Association (BVA), which has publicly backed culling if it is effective and humane, show members of its ethics and welfare group believed support should not continue without independent analysis of the culls.
The second year of two pilot culls in Gloucestershire and Somerset have just taken place as part of efforts to tackle tuberculosis in livestock.
Ministers and farmers insist culling is necessary to tackle TB, which can be spread from badgers to livestock, with more than 26,000 cattle slaughtered in England last year and multimillion-pound losses.
But opponents say badger-culling is inhumane and ineffective, and alternatives such as vaccination should be pursued.
An independent expert panel concluded that "controlled shooting" of free-running badgers in the first year of the cull was not effective or humane, and wildlife campaigners have raised concerns that monitoring by the panel did not resume this year.
The leaked minutes of the ethics and welfare group (EWG) meeting show concerns that the Environment Department (Defra) had not supplied an update about implementing the independent panel's recommendations or made information from the second year of culling available for independent analysis.
There were also concerns from some members of the group that their views had not been represented in public, and that the "fragile consensus" over the issue within the BVA no longer existed.
They suggested that " many members of EWG simply no longer agreed that BVA should be continuing to support the culls in the absence of independent analysis of results", according to the documents.
Responding to the revelations, the Humane Society International UK's Professor Alastair MacMillan said: "Humane Society International UK has long been warning that the BVA's public endorsement of the badger cull fails to reflect the misgivings of many veterinarians, and in fact a significant number of vets do not share the BVA's support for the cull at all.
"The BVA's call for independent analysis of the cull has been ignored by Defra and it's clear that many vets within the BVA believe that the organisation was wrong to support the second year of culling under those circumstances."
He added: "We already know from last year's data that the badger cull causes significant and prolonged animal suffering, and that many vets agree with the majority of other scientists that shooting badgers is ineffective in controlling cattle TB in the first place.
"The public and politicians can now see quite clearly the strength of veterinary opposition to the Government's badger cull and Defra can no longer sustain the pretence that it has the full backing of vets."
BVA president John Blackwell said the association supported targeted and humane badger culling as part of efforts to tackle TB, but had made it clear they could not support controlled shooting unless it was shown to be humanely, effectively and safely done.
The BVA had called on Defra to implement the expert panel's recommendations in full and to make provision for independent analysis of the results of the second year of the pilot culls, he said.
"It is no secret that some of our members are frustrated by the lack of independent analysis this year and we are disappointed that it has not been put in place to give confidence to our members and the wider public."
And he said: "Our council decided to continue to support year two of the pilot culls, though we have always recognised that this was a fragile consensus.
"However, we have made it very clear to Defra that our ongoing support should not be taken for granted and that we will make our own assessment of the data when it is published.
"We would encourage Defra to make the data available as soon as possible so that we can analyse in detail whether the use of controlled shooting in the second year of the pilots has been both humane and effective."