The controversial badger cull in England could be rolled out to three new regions within weeks, with Natural England currently considering new applications from farmers.
The culls, intended to curb tuberculosis in cattle, have been piloted for the last two years in Gloucestershire and Somerset. The pilots have repeatedly missed their targets for badgers shot, been judged inhumane and have been dismissed by scientists as a failure.
But farmers insist that the cull must be rolled out further to halt the spread of bovine TB. Conservative environment secretary Liz Truss said after May’s general election that the government was “absolutely” pushing ahead with plans to extend the badger cull.
Three applications to cull badgers in new areas have been submitted by groups of farmers and landowners, a report in Farmers Weekly revealed on Thursday. All three are thought to be in the south-west of England, a TB hotspot. An application for culling in Dorset was previously prepared in case the Gloucestershire and Somerset pilots were not approved.
“There are several areas where farmers are progressing, where they are extremely determined [to get culling licences],” Meurig Raymond, president of the National Farmers Union, told Farmers Weekly.
Raymond said: “When you think of the costs involved, [farmers] are prepared to go ahead because they believe it is the only future they have to try and eradicate this dreadful disease from their farms in these particular areas. The pressure is on government to issue licences.” Natural England was unable to comment on ongoing license applications.
Professor Rosie Woodroffe, a badger expert at the Zoological Society of London who worked on a landmark 10-year study of badger culling, said: “Culling only reduces cattle TB if badger numbers are greatly reduced over very large areas – and even then any benefits come at a cost of increased cattle TB on neighbouring land.”
“The 2013 and 2014 pilot culls highlighted the difficulties of killing enough badgers to be confident of benefits – none of the culls is likely to have achieved the government’s stated aim of reducing badger numbers by at least 70%,” Woodroffe said. “So the possibility remains that such culling could actually worsen the desperate situation faced by TB-affected farmers.”
In April, the current badger cull lost the support of the British Veterinary Association. It said the shooting of free-running badgers at night had not proven effective or humane. The BVA said some badgers should still be culled, but using the “tried and tested” – but much more expensive – method of trapping the badgers before despatching them.
The 2014 Gloucestershire pilot failed dramatically, killing fewer than half the minimum number required. In Somerset, the minimum target was met, but the target was criticised as “rubbish” and “unbelievably easy” by Woodroffe.
Failing to meet the minimum number of badgers shot risks increasing TB infections in cattle, as disrupted badgers roam more widely. Badger culling was rejected in Wales, where a badger vaccination programme is underway.
Woodroffe is now running a vaccination trial in Cornwall. “Vaccination has reduced infection levels of many other diseases, and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t do the same for bovine TB,” she said. “We’re also tracking both badgers and cattle to understand how the two species interact. We’re trying to understand how, where and when the contact happens, and investigating which farm management practices might reduce the risks.”