A pilot cull of badgers is likely to take place soon, following the issuing of a licence to a farmers’ group in West Somerset.
The controversial cull, part of the Government’s programme to eliminate the spread of bovine tuberculosis, is likely to begin within a matter of weeks.
It will take place over a six-week period, which will have to be completed before the New Year, when the badger breeding season begins.
Last month a licence was issued for the other pilot cull in the test scheme, around Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire, another TB hotspot.
The culls have sparked massive opposition from animal rights activists, who are threatening to disrupt them, and from welfare organisations including the RSPCA and the League Against Cruel Sports. The names and details of people organising the culls have been published on animal rights websites, sparking security concerns among farmers.
And a high-profile petition against the culls has attracted over 100,000 signatures.
The Government agency Natural England issued the licence for the cull, which will be carried out by marksmen over 70% of the 250 square kilometre pilot area, west of Taunton and stretching north to Exmoor. It said it was satisfied the application met the “strict criteria” set out in the Government’s TB policy guidance.
The licence has a four-year term and authorises control operations to be conducted within the West Somerset pilot area over a continuous six-week period each year over the next four years. But no control operations may be carried out during specified close seasons.
But the shooting can only start once Natural England has formally confirmed the specific dates when operations will take place, the people authorised to carry them out, confirmation that the necessary funds are in place, and the permitted number of badgers that will be subject to control operations. These formal confirmations are expected to be completed within the next few weeks.
The National Farmers’ Union has urged its members to stand up to “intimidation and harassment” from animal rights extremists.
Last year bovine TB caused the deaths of 34,000 cattle, causing chaos in beef and dairy herds.