Around 3,000 badgers are to be shot in the South West in the first wave of a long-awaited cull to curb tuberculosis in cattle.
Government agency Natural England yesterday announced it had provisionally licensed trained marksmen to carry out “controlled shooting” in Gloucestershire.
The move marks an historic step forward in moves to tackle the disease crippling farmers across the region and responsible for around 26,000 sick cattle being slaughtered each year.
The quango also revealed a second cull would be sanctioned in West Somerset within days. Both have been dubbed “pilots” to test the methodology of shooting free-running badgers.
But if proved to be safe, humane and efficient over six weeks, the “pilots” will become full-blown culls and run for four years.
Pilot success would also pave the way for ten further culls a year in bovine tuberculosis (TB) hotspots, with others likely to be further down the South West peninsula.
The second wave will begin in June next year at the earliest.
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.”
The first cull, announced after campaigners lost a fight in the High Court last week, is likely to start in around four weeks, once outstanding provisions have been satisfied.
The cull zone covers around 116sq miles (300 sq km) of West Gloucestershire countryside and could see at least 3,000 badgers killed.
The proportion of animals in the area put down is yet to be determined, but must be more than 70% to be effective, officials said. Though the figure has to be less than 100% for risk of breaching the Bern Convention, which outlaws the destruction of the protected species.
In backing the cull, called for by farmers after the first case of bovine TB in badgers was identified in the 1970s, the Government is pitting itself against animal welfare groups and critics who argue that the science does not stack up.
But ministers have used the same evidence that Labour deployed to dismiss calls for a cull, to argue that a 16% reduction in bovine TB incidents could result after nine years.
The Government says the figure is significant and stems knock-on effects. However, they admit a cull would spread the disease further if not carried out to the letter.
An outbreak on a farm costs a farmer around £12,000 and the taxpayer £22,000, Defra estimates, with the total state bill set to reach £1 billion by the end of the decade.
The South West has the highest disease rates in its livestock, with 23.6% of herds under restrictions at some point during 2010 – more than double the national average.
The Government is investing in cattle and oral badger vaccines, but are wary of their effectiveness. An injectable badger vaccine is now available but costly.
Against fears of vandalism and direct action against farmers and landowners involved in the culls, scant information of the locations has been published.
West Gloucestershire’s pilot includes parts of the Forest Of Dean district and Tewkesbury. The West Somerset cull lies predominantly within the council district of West Somerset and partly in Taunton Deane.
Camborne and Redruth Tory George Eustice, who hails from a West Cornwall farming family, said: “TB is causing heartache for many farmers who are losing cattle from their herds and they will welcome this announcement because there is no example in the world of a successful attempt to tackle TB without also dealing with the problem in the wildlife population.
“While I want to see a TB vaccine introduced as quickly as possible to help control the spread of the disease, this will not cure those badgers already infected and will only protect healthy badgers.”
But Adrian Sanders, Liberal Democrat MP for Torbay, said: “Nobody should be under any doubt about how appalling this disease is, and the suffering caused to cattle and farmers.
“But until we have new evidence that is irrefutable we are destroying a species of animal for little or no improvement over a long period of time.”
Mary Creagh, Labour’s Shadow Environment Secretary, 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.”