The issue of bovine TB in cattle and whether badgers should be culled to stop the spread of the disease was once more top of the agenda for farmers at the annual National Farmers’ Union conference in Birmingham.

NFU president Peter Kendall warned politicians from the major parties that increasing levels of TB in livestock would be a major factor in how rural communities cast their vote in the general election, with spiralling costs of the disease threatening to destroy the livelihoods of livestock and dairy farmers.

Environment Secretary Hilary Benn, who has received an angry reception from farmers at the conference in the past because of bovine TB, was heckled by delegates at the meeting as he said he stood by the decision not to allow a cull of badgers.

Many farmers want a cull of the wild animals, which carry and spread TB in the countryside, to tackle the growing problem of the disease in their herds.

But Mr Benn said he made the call not to allow the cull on the basis of a scientific study on the efficacy of culling, the practicality of delivering the policy and because he did not want to do something which might make a “terrible disease” even worse than it already was.

He said he believed vaccination was “the way out of this nightmare”, adding that an injectable vaccine for badgers would be available in the summer and an oral vaccination was being developed.

And he promised he would listen to farmers on the issue of tackling animal disease and how to pay for it, in the wake of Government proposals for a “livestock tax” which has been heavily criticised by producers.

Shadow environment secretary Nick Herbert was applauded as he told the conference that a Conservative government would introduce “carefully-managed control of badgers in high TB areas”, because the country could not wait to see if the vaccine worked.

“We can no longer stand by while bovine TB claims 40,000 cattle a year, costs £80 million a year, and destroys livelihoods every year,” he said.