Campaigners have branded the UK badger cull an “unacceptable burden” on the taxpayer after new figures released by Defra revealed nearly £16.8 million of public money has been spent on the cull so far.

According to a Freedom of Information request from the Badger Trust, the total costs of the cull, including policing and postponement costs, amount to £16,777,000 – the equivalent of £6,775 per badger killed.

But the National Farmers Union has defended the cull, pointing out the cost of bovine tuberculosis could hit £1 billion over the next decade if no action is taken.

Badger Trust CEO Dominic Dyer said it was unacceptable the taxpayer was footing the bill for the cull, which he described as a “disastrous failure on scientific and animal welfare grounds”.

“When the policy was developed in 2011 the government claimed it would be a farmer-led initiative, paid for by farmers. In reality it’s the taxpayer who is footing the bill and these costs will continue to rise rapidly as the policy is extended into Dorset, and possibly other counties in the future.”

He warned if the badger cull were rolled out to over 40 areas in England as originally planned, the costs could “easily exceed half a billion pounds”.

Badger Trust chairman Peter Martin claimed Defra’s own data had demonstrated that even in TB hotspot areas, 85% of badgers will not have the disease and 98% pose no risk to cattle.

“Killing badgers that don’t have TB cannot possibly help the situation for farmers or for cows,” he said. “This indiscriminate slaughter is not only irrational but hugely wasteful of public money at a time when key services are being axed, including 40% cuts at Defra.”

The Badger Trust has called for the cull to be scrapped in favour of improved testing and movement controls in cattle, which has been successful in Wales, and vaccination of badgers.

However, an NFU spokesman defended the culls, pointing out bovine TB will cost the taxpayer £1 billion over the next decade if nothing is done to tackle it.

“We believe the current comprehensive 25-year TB eradication strategy should be implemented in full as quickly as possible because it offers the best chance of wiping this disease out by dealing with it on all fronts, including the reservoir of disease in badgers which must be tackled if we are ever going to stop reinfection occurring,” he said.

He stressed that the cull operations were funded by farmers and landowners, and pointed out that a “significant” proportion of the costs to the taxpayer was the cost of policing, which was only necessary because of “unlawful acts” committed by campaigners attempting to stop the cull.