The Government body in charge of the controversial badger cull has announced the next stage in the process to roll out the cull to a much wider area, even though it admits 'no decision' has been taken by ministers on whether there will be any more culls.
Natural England has told culling operators and landowners to prepare to submit "expressions of interest" for licences for a 2014 cull of badgers.
The quango is also inviting anyone to submit potential new areas for a badger cull, both this year and in 2015.
The trial cull in west Gloucestershire and west Somerset in the second half of last year failed to meet its target of killing enough badgers, even though the cull period was extended, partly due to disruption caused by animal rights activists.
Natural England said the results of those culls were currently being evaluated by an independent expert panel. It said the culls' aims were to see if a wider cull could be safe, effective and humane.
"The panel's report, due to be published soon, will inform a Government decision on the wider roll-out of badger control," said a Natural England spokesman. "If the roll-out is confirmed, the first stage of the licensing process would require potential new application areas to submit an "expression of interest" form. Submissions for 2014 would then be screened by Natural England to determine which candidates should be invited to apply for a licence to control badgers to prevent the spread of bovine TB.
"No decision has yet been taken by Government about further licences for badger culls. However, gathering important details, such as the land and landowners who would be involved in the cull zone, will help put applicants in a good position to seek a licence later this year in the event that a decision is made by the Government to extend the granting of badger culling licences to other parts of England most severely affected by bovine TB," he added.
The cull in Somerset and Gloucestershire was widely supported – although not unanimously – by farmers and local politicians.
Natural England explained that it had to start preparing for a second cull before any decision was taken. "Gathering the necessary information to satisfy the criteria for the policy and to submit a licence application can take applicants a significant amount of time," a spokesman said.
"If this process were to begin after confirmation of the roll-out there is a serious risk that licences could not be obtained in time for culling to take place this year. That is why Natural England is encouraging potential applicants now to begin gathering the information."