Operations under way after Government approves new badger cull schemes
Badger culling has been rolled out to more parts of England in a bid to tackle tuberculosis in cattle, the Government has confirmed.
Seven additional licences have been granted for culls in parts of Herefordshire, Gloucestershire, Cornwall, Devon and Dorset, with operations now under way, the Environment Department (Defra) said.
The move, which comes following cull schemes in three areas of Gloucestershire, Somerset and Dorset, is part of the Government's 25 year strategy to tackle TB in cattle, which can catch the disease from badgers.
The new culls are set to continue the controversy over the policy, which animal welfare campaigners criticise as inhumane and ineffective for combating TB.
But the Government insists "proactive" culling, which aims to remove 70% of the badgers in a given area, is necessary to tackle the disease which it says costs the taxpayer more £100 million every year.
Last year, more than 28,000 cattle were slaughtered in England to control the disease, with the West Country and counties bordering Wales at the highest risk of TB infections in livestock.
West Gloucestershire and West Somerset are entering the fourth year of their licences for culling, and Dorset is entering its second year.
Farming Minister George Eustice said: "Our comprehensive strategy to eradicate bovine TB in England is delivering results, with more than half the country on track to be free of the disease by the end of this Parliament.
"Bovine TB has a devastating impact on farms, which is why we are taking strong action to eradicate the disease, including tighter cattle controls, improved biosecurity and badger control measures in areas where the disease is rife.
"The veterinary advice and the experience of other countries is clear - we will not be able to eradicate this disease unless we also tackle the reservoir of the disease in the badger population as well as cattle."
Chief vet Nigel Gibbens said: "Action to prevent infection of cattle from significant reservoirs of TB infection in local badger populations is an essential part of the Government's 25-year strategy to eradicate bovine TB in England.
"Proactive badger control is currently the best available option and the licensing of further areas is necessary to realise disease control benefits at regional rather than at local levels."
Other measures announced in a package for tackling bovine TB (bTB) include more sensitive tests for affected herds in the high risk area and more surveillance testing for cattle in the "edge area" which is next to the high risk zone.
An updated online tool mapping outbreaks over the last five years is being published to help farmers buying cattle and a new farm advice pack to help farmers improve their "biosecurity measures" on farms to protect livestock from infection.
Recent research suggests that despite strong evidence badgers transmit bTB to cattle, the disease is not passed directly between them - but instead is finding its way between wild animals and herds through the environment.
National Farmers' Union president Meurig Raymond said bovine TB remained a huge threat to beef and dairy farmers in large parts of the country.
"Farmers facing a daily battle against bTB in those areas that have been granted licences for badger control operations this year will welcome the news that finally action is being taken to tackle the reservoir of disease in wildlife in these areas.
"Today's announcement means that badger control will now be taking place in 10% of the area where cattle are at the highest risk of contracting bTB.
"There is still a huge amount of work ahead to ensure the eradication of bTB from this country and I would like to take this opportunity to thank farmers for their continued support in working towards this goal."
Chris Pitt, deputy director of campaigns at the League Against Cruel Sports, said: "Killing badgers is not only disastrous for badgers, but it's also calamitous for cattle and a dead end for farmers, because all the unbiased scientific opinion suggests that we'll never get rid of bovine TB this way.
"Instead of shooting badgers, we need to be looking to Wales as an example, where no culling takes place, but instead rigorous TB testing, strict cattle movement control and tight biosecurity has been more successful in preventing the spread of TB in cattle."
Figures released by the Government reveal the costs of the cull to the taxpayer fell from £6.29 million in the first year, 2013, when culling was tried out in two areas, to £1.78 million in 2015, when three areas were licensed.
The reduction was the result of a fall in spending on monitoring the humaneness of the cull, including carrying out post-mortem examinations on badgers which had been shot, from £2.6 million in 2013 to £154,000 in 2015.
Spending on monitoring the efficacy of the cull was also reduced from £2.3 million in 2013 to zero in 2015.
An independent report by an expert panel in the first year found "controlled shooting" - of free-running badgers - could not deliver the level of culling needed to be effective and was not humane, but mon itoring by the panel did not resume in 2014.
Government figures also reveal that the policing costs of the culls went down from £3.5 million for the first two pilot schemes in 2013 to £1.8 million for the three culling operations carried out last year.
Shadow environment secretary Rachael Maskell said: "The decision to extend the badger cull flies in the face of the Government's own evidence that shows the killing of thousands of badgers has not reduced the number of cattle contracting bovine TB.
"The Government promised when they embarked on the cull that it would be an evidence-based approach, yet they are failing to take any notice of the facts."
She urged ministers to prioritise creating a vaccine for cattle which worked and would not affect the valuable export market for UK beef, and added that farmers could play their part by taking better preventative measures to stop the disease spreading.