The first licence for a pilot cull of badgers has been issued, in a step the Government hopes will pave the way for more widespread culling to tackle tuberculosis (TB) in cattle.
Government agency Natural England issued the licence to allow farmers in west Gloucestershire to kill badgers, a protected species, on around 300 farms covering some 300 square kilometres over the next four years.
As many as 3,000 badgers could be killed during the cull, which farmers say is necessary to tackle TB in cattle because the wild animal spreads the disease to livestock, costing livestock owners and the taxpayer millions of pounds a year.
The granting of the licence comes as the RSPB becomes the latest conservation organisation to announce a vaccination programme for badgers, which involves trapping and injecting them with vaccine, on its land at Highnam Woods in Gloucestershire, just outside the pilot cull area.
There is currently no oral vaccine available for badgers, and no vaccine for cattle.
Asked if he thought the first pilot culling licence was a positive first step towards a more widespread cull in England, new Environment Secretary Owen Paterson said: "I very much hope so."
He said TB was a disease that had to be taken very seriously.
"Until we get a vaccine, and we would all love to have a vaccine but we haven't got one, so for the time being we should use the measures used in other countries very effectively to bear down on the disease in wildlife and in cattle," he said.
Mr Paterson, who used to have two pet badgers, said he wanted to see a healthy badger population alongside a healthy cattle population generating money for farmers.
But according to the Environment Department (Defra) around 26,000 cattle were slaughtered in 2011 as part of TB controls, with almost a quarter of farms under movement restrictions last year in the South West, a hotspot for the disease.
Controlling TB in cattle has cost the taxpayer £500 million in the past decade, and costs could spiral to £1 billion over the next 10 years without action, Defra said.
An outbreak on a farm costs a farmer around £12,000 and the taxpayer £22,000, according to official estimates.
Farmers will foot the bill for free-running badgers to be shot in the cull, which Defra says will cost £300 per square kilometre a year. For the Gloucestershire cull this would be an estimated £360,000 over the four-year period.
The cull in Gloucestershire cannot start immediately as details need to be finalised, including the specific dates, who is authorised to shoot badgers, the number of animals that can be killed and confirmation that the funds are in place.
Farmers will be licensed to kill at least 70% of badgers in the cull area, with a maximum number set to prevent local extinction, Natural England said.
The agency is continuing to assess a separate application relating to a pilot cull area in west Somerset, and hopes to issue that licence as soon as possible.
A long-term study found that culling over a number of years on a large scale could reduce the incidence of TB in cattle herds by 16%.
But opponents of the cull say it will not have a significant effect on tackling the disease in livestock and are calling for other options, such as developing vaccines.
Animal welfare and wildlife campaigners lost their fight against the cull in the High Court.
Shadow environment secretary Mary Creagh said: "The Government is pressing ahead with a badger cull despite their own official advice that it will cost more than it saves, put a huge strain on the police, and will spread bovine TB in the short term as badgers are disturbed by the shooting.
"Ministers should listen to the scientists and can this cull which is bad for farmers, bad for taxpayers and bad for wildlife."
RSPB conservation director Martin Harper said: "The dairy industry has endured terrible times while trying to cope with this devastating disease.
"However, we have never been convinced that the best way to help farmers is to force them to foot the bill for a contentious cull that is only expected to reduce outbreaks by about 16%.
"This is a lot of effort for a small gain. Bovine TB needs tackling properly and we believe vaccination offers the best hope for cattle, badgers and the industry."
The National Trust and Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust have also embarked on vaccination schemes on their land, while the National Farmers' Union, which backs a cull, is working with the Badger Trust to run a trial to see if injecting vaccine in badgers is cost effective and practical.