New Environment Secretary Owen Paterson is backing a controversial badger cull trial in England despite having owned two of the creatures as pets when he was growing up.
The North Shropshire MP, whose badgers were called Bessie and Baz, says sentiment should not get in the way of addressing the spread of TB in cattle – which he said has cost the UK £1 billion in the last 10 years.
He said until scientists can develop a vaccine, a cull could be the only way of addressing the issue.
Mr Paterson said last year alone 26,000 cattle succumbed to bovine TB, which is believed to be spread from one species to another by badgers.
Most of those were prematurely sent for slaughter to control the spread of the disease.
Farmers say bovine TB is the biggest threat to the beef and dairy industries and they blame badgers for spreading the disease.
The most recent figures available show that in 2010, some 2,165 Shropshire cattle were slaughtered to control the spread of the disease, compared to 473 in 2003.
Mr Paterson said: “When I was a child I had two pet badgers, so I’m the last person that wants to see any badgers killed unnecessarily.
“Nobody takes pleasure in the idea of a cull, and it’s not something we can take lightly. Badgers are wonderful animals, but last year the spread of bovine TB caused the loss of 26,000 cattle, and the disease has cost Britain £1 billion over the last 10 years, including compensation payments.
“I cannot understand people who want badgers to die of TB - we don’t want to see badgers dying of this horrible disease. We want to see healthy wildlife living alongside healthy cattle.”
Sarah Gibson, Shropshire Wildlife Trust spokeswoman, said the group believes alternatives to a cull should be explored.
She added: “We are exploring ways of controlling bovine TB and will be starting a five-year badger vaccination programme on one of our nature reserves in the north of the county this autumn. We hope to make a real contribution to solving the problem.”
A trial cull of thousands of badgers will go ahead later this year after the Court of Appeal this week rejected a legal challenge from wildlife supporters.