A controversial cull of about 5,000 badgers is to go ahead this summer after the Environment Minister yesterday announced that two pilot schemes had been given the green light.
Pilot culls in west Somerset and west Gloucestershire, which will see the killing of 70% of badgers in each area, have been authorised by Government agency Natural England after final licence conditions were met, with a third scheme in Dorset being prepared as a reserve to prevent any further delays.
The move is expected to see some 5,000 badgers killed across the two regions over the four-year period of the cull.
The pilot culls were delayed last year in the face of bad weather and a discovery that there were more badgers in the areas than previously estimated.
Environment Secretary Owen Paterson yesterday told farmers at the NFU conference in Birmingham that he was committed to making sure the pilots went ahead.
He said tackling bovine TB cost the taxpayer £500 million in the past 10 years, and costs could reach £1 billion over the next decade if the disease was left unchecked.
He said that research in the UK had shown that culling badgers, which can transmit TB to cattle, could reduce the levels of the disease in herds, and that Britain had to learn from experience elsewhere that the tuberculosis could not effectively be curbed without tackling the problem in wildlife. He said he wanted to see effective and affordable vaccines deployed for both cattle and badgers as quickly as possible but it was likely to take another decade before the deployment of a cattle vaccine which is validated and legal under EU regulations could take place.
Mr Paterson said: “Bovine TB is spreading at an alarming rate and causing real devastation to our beef and dairy industry. ‘’
He said Natural England issued authorisation letters which confirmed culling could proceed this summer, as an important step towards taking the action needed to tackle the spread of TB in wildlife.
“I am determined that there are no further delays this year. That is why we have taken the sensible step with the farming industry to elect a reserve area that can be called upon should anything happen to prevent culling in Somerset or Gloucester.
“These pilot culls are just one part of our approach to control and eradicate this dreadful disease.”
The move was welcomed by NFU president Peter Kendall who said it would have been easy for the Environment Secretary to let TB slip down the list of priorities after last year’s delay. He backed Mr Paterson for working to ensure the pilots were up and running this summer and that there would be a full roll-out of the cull next year.
He said the move mattered because of the damage TB did to the country’s food production base, and described the 35,000 cattle which had to be slaughtered because of the disease in 2012 as a “scandalous waste”.
The move was criticised by Labour, which has consistently opposed a badger cull.