The government is set to double the number of badgers killed in England as it grants new licences to cull the native mammals in 10 areas.
Since the badger cull started in 2013, in an attempt to control bovine tuberculosis (bTB), more than 140,000 badgers have been shot.
And experts predict another 140,000 or even more will be killed in the next five years, after government officials gave the go-ahead to expand operations in 10 counties from Devon to Cheshire.
The new five-year licences, which take effect as soon as next week, mean the culling is still only halfway through, according to the Badger Trust.
The trust says the 280,000 total – due to be reached by 2026 – will represent nearly 60 per cent of England’s total estimated badger population of 485,000.
Natural England, an arm of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), issued the new permissions on the same day as Defra chiefs confirmed plans, outlined earlier this year, to stop issuing new licences after next year.
Defra also said existing cull licences could be cut short after two years instead of running for five, “where supported by sufficient scientific evidence”.
And it gave £2.27m to a five-year trial of badger vaccination in East Sussex, and announced an increase in cattle testing for bTB.
The Badger Trust accused the government of slipping out the issuing of new cull licences under cover of the other announcements.
Dawn Varley, its acting chief executive, said: “We’re underwhelmed at this announcement, as in reality it does little to change the immediate future for badgers.
“While the government wants the headline to be that cull licences cease from 2022, in reality those mass culling licences will run to 2026, and combined with those already in play, we estimate will lead to another 140,000 badgers still to be killed, in addition to the 140,000 we have already lost.
“We’re also sceptical of the ‘investment’ in badger vaccinations, as in reality this is a five-year pilot, in one area only, that just delays more extensive roll-out.”
She said until the government switches its focus to the cattle-to-cattle transmission of bTB, there was “little to celebrate”.
“Once again the government attempts to use ‘good news’ to cover bad. Sadly, badgers continue to be the scapegoat for a failed approach to controlling bTB, and the senseless slaughter continues next week when the cull starts once more.”
Badgers carry bTB, which leads to farmers having to cull infected dairy herds, although the extent to which badgers infect cattle is disputed.
In the past year, at least 27,000 cattle in England were slaughtered to tackle the disease, according to the government.
The cull has been controversial from the start. Opponents argue that when a badger population is disrupted by a cull, survivors move out of the area, potentially spreading the disease to previously unaffected places. Meanwhile, farmers argue dairy cattle should be protected.
The National Farmers’ Union warned that to stop issuing cull licences after next year would jeopardise attempts to control bTB.
George Eustice, the environment secretary, said: “The badger cull has led to a significant reduction in the disease, but no one wants to continue the cull of a protected species indefinitely.”
Richard Benwell, head of the Wildlife and Countryside Link, called for a pause to culling this year, saying: “Delivering a cattle vaccine roll-out by 2025 is vital, as cow-to-cow transmission is still by far the biggest spreader of this horrible disease.
“But a shift to badger vaccinating is long overdue, and yet government is planning a five-year local trial before any wider action, with thousands of badgers dying painful and prolonged deaths in the meantime. We need a much faster timeline from government on rolling out a nationwide badger vaccination plan.
“Up to 300,000 badgers could be killed in total by the end of this scheme, pushing them to local extinction in some areas.”
A vaccine for cattle would be a breakthrough in tackling bTB. Scientists at the Animal and Plant Health Agency developed a vaccine last year.
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