By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News website
The British public is opposed to culling badgers as a means of restricting bovine TB, according to responses to a government consultation.
Responses showed concerns over the humaneness of killing methods
The government received more than 47,000 responses from the public, with 96% saying "no" to a cull.
The National Farmers' Union (NFU) which favours culling said many of the responses stemmed from campaigns run by wildlife and conservation groups.
The government says a final decision will be based on sound science.
"This is clearly an emotive subject that strongly divides opinion," said animal health and welfare minister Ben Bradshaw.
"But what is clear is that respondents broadly agree that any decision on culling must be based on a sound scientific and practical foundation."
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) launched its consultation in December 2005.
It followed publication of results from a vast scientific study, the Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT), which produced mixed evidence on the likely impact of culling.
Responses included 47,472 letters and e-mails, 10,000 text messages and three petitions against a cull containing 12,100 signatures.
"We welcome the revelation that 96% of people who responded to the consultation opposed a cull," said Trevor Lawson, a spokesman for the Badger Trust.
"But most importantly, 83% of respondents feel that more effort should be put into controlling the disease through cattle-oriented methods," he told the BBC News website.
"Simple measures such as skin-testing regimes and use of the gamma interferon TB test are almost certainly having an effect on bovine TB, because we've seen figures fall since those measures were introduced."
The NFU agrees that bovine tuberculosis incidence has fallen in recent months, but suggests this is a blip on a generally upward trend.
An analysis commissioned by Defra reports that 68% of the responses to its consultation were based on standardised letters distributed by campaign groups.
"Many of these respondents will have little or no knowledge or experience of the distress that this fearful disease can bring to farmers," said Alex Dinsdale, a TB advisor to the NFU.
"Looking at the documents, some of the reasons given for opposition to the cull appear to be based on inaccurate information that's been put forward by some opposition groups," he told the BBC News website.
The Badger Trust retorted that the NFU too had stimulated letters from its supporters.
But the NFU remains firm in its support for culling.
"It is still something we would like to see introduced in certain areas, in the hotspot areas where this disease is endemic in wildlife," said Mr Dinsdale.
"We want to see healthy cattle and healthy badgers - we certainly don't want an all-out attack on badgers - but the government cannot afford to procrastinate."
The Badger Trust too wants action sooner rather than later, though emphasising measures based around farming rather than wildlife.
"It's clear from the consultation that nobody thinks farmer-organised badger culling would work," said Mr Lawson, "and any other alternative is not cost-effective; so culling is off the agenda.
"[Mr Bradshaw] keeps using this phrase 'sound science' as though the work that's been done so far is not sound.
"The opposite is true; [the RBCT] has been published in Nature, one of the world's most respected scientific journals, and we resent the government's constant attempts to undermine the work of these scientists."
Defra says that for the moment it is "not ruling anything in or out", and is "continuing to consider the organisation and practicability of a potential badger cull".