Licences have been granted for badger culling in 11 new areas of England as part of efforts to control tuberculosis in cattle, the government has announced.
Government agency Natural England has issued licences for 11 additional areas, alongside re-authorising licences for 33 areas of the country where culling has already taken place in previous years.
The latest expansion of the cull comes despite the government signalling its intention to gradually phase out badger culling to tackle TB in livestock.
Earlier this year, it was announced that the next phase of the government's strategy to tackle bovine tuberculosis in cattle will involve field trials of a cattle vaccine, with work accelerated to deploy it within the next five years.
The new culls will take place in parts of Avon, Derbyshire, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Leicestershire, Oxfordshire, Shropshire, Somerset, Warwickshire, Wiltshire and Lincolnshire.
In addition to the new areas, 33 areas are continuing their four-year culls, while supplementary culling licences cover 10 areas which have concluded the intensive culling period, to help sustain disease reductions.
The licences mean up to 70,000 badgers could be killed this year across much of England as part of efforts to control TB in livestock, which can catch the disease from the wild animals.
Environment secretary George Eustice said: "Bovine TB is one of the most difficult and intractable animal health challenges that the UK faces today, causing considerable trauma for farmers and costing taxpayers over £100 million every year.
"No-one wants to continue the cull of a protected species indefinitely.
"That is why we are accelerating other elements of our strategy, including vaccination and improved testing, so that we can eradicate this insidious disease and start to phase out badger culling in England."
The government has been pushing ahead with efforts to roll out an effective vaccine against the disease for cattle.
In March, it also said there were plans to vaccinate more badgers and for a "gradual phasing out of intensive culling" of the wild animals beginning in the next few years.
Animal welfare and wildlife groups reacted angrily to the expansion of the cull that has now been announced.
Dr Jo Smith, chief executive of Derbyshire Wildlife Trust, which is running a badger vaccination scheme, labelled it as a "staggering government U-turn".
She said the government had promised to move away from lethal control of badgers, in the wake of an independent review led by Sir Charles Godfrey on the strategy for eradicating bovine TB.
"However, after seven years of badger culling, the government has failed to act on its own advice and is expanding its culling programme into new regions including Derbyshire, Oxfordshire, Leicestershire and Lincolnshire into what will be the biggest cull yet.
"We are at a critical turning point for our natural world and this latest U-turn should set alarm bells ringing - culling is an outdated policy that seeks to eradicate protected wildlife rather than addressing the real problem which is the main cause of bovine tuberculosis: cattle-to-cattle infection," she said.
Dominic Dyer, of the Badger Trust, said the culling policy could push the species to the verge of local extinction in areas it has inhabited since the Ice Age.
"This is no longer a badger control policy, it's a badger eradication exercise," he said.
He said the "vast majority" of badgers being killed were TB-free, with no impact from their deaths on reducing the disease in cattle.
Wildlife enthusiast and RSPCA vice president Chris Packham said: "The badger cull is not the answer to stopping the spread of bovine TB amongst cattle."
He said culling could result in badgers suffering unnecessarily.
"Not only that, but we owe it to cattle to get this sorted, as the longer it takes for the cattle vaccination to be developed, more cows will be removed from herds around the country due to bovine TB. The welfare of cattle is just as much a concern as badger welfare in this sorry state of affairs," he said.
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies