Experts from several leading universities and zoological institutions have urged the Government to reconsider highly controversial badger culling plans.
The scheme, which aims to tackle bovine TB, has outraged animal rights activists. They now appear to have high profile support, however, with over 30 of the UK's leading animal disease experts writing an open letter to the Observer which claims the cull could in fact increase the TB problem.
Among the signatories are the president of the Zoological Society of London, Professor Sir Patrick Bateson, Professor Lord Krebs, a world expert in zoology who commissioned research into whether culling badgers will stop the animals spreading cattle disease. Professors from Oxbridge and Imperial College London have also signed.
The letter states: "The Government's TB-control policy for England includes licensing farmers to cull badgers. As scientists with expertise in managing wildlife and wildlife diseases, we believe the complexities of TB transmission mean that licensed culling risks increasing cattle TB rather than reducing it.
"Even if such increases do not materialise, the Government predicts only limited benefits, insufficient to offset the costs for either farmers or taxpayers."
The letter continues: "Unfortunately, the imminent pilot culls are too small and too short term to measure the impacts of licensed culling on cattle TB before a wider roll-out of the approach.
"The necessarily stringent licensing conditions mean that many TB-affected areas of England will remain ineligible for such culling. We are concerned that badger culling risks becoming a costly distraction from nationwide TB control."
The letter follows comments on Friday by David Heath, minister of state for agriculture and food, who said the cull would be a "contribution towards bearing down on the disease".
"The evidence that we have, the scientific support we have, suggests that a cull of the sort that we are proposing would be a contribution towards bearing down on the disease," he said.
"It's not the answer in itself, there are lots of other things that we have to do - we have to continually improve bio-security, we have to continually make sure that we reduce cattle-to-cattle infection - but as part of a tool box of things that we can do, this is certainly an effective part."
Some 26,000 cattle were slaughtered as a result of the disease last year, the pilot culls in the chosen areas of west Somerset and Gloucestershire would potentially see 500 to 800 badgers killed each year in each of those areas.