Government ministers are said to be furious after the locations of two badger culls were leaked ahead of an official announcement.

Locations for pilot culls due to take place this autumn have been named as Exmoor and the area around Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire.

A further location of North Devon has been highlighted as one of two reserve locations should culls in those areas not go ahead.

Ministers and civil servants have spent weeks examining which two locations should be chosen from a shortlist of eight areas.

DEFRA officials have discussed zone boundaries with representatives from Natural England, which will issue the badger culling licences.

Local consultations will take place in each area before culling commences. But the government had not announced which areas it had chosen before details were leaked on Wednesday (18 February).

Members of the government’s Bovine TB Eradication Group for England, which met in London hours after the leak emerged, said farm minister Jim Paice was furious.

“The leak was not 100% accurate, but it was close enough to be damaging,” said Cornwall beef producer Bill Harper.

“It’s a shame, because they wanted to announce it all properly.”

Regarding the Exmoor location, for example, Farmers Weekly has been told that a description of West Somerset would be more accurate.

But DEFRA has refused to confirm or deny the accuracy of the information, saying it doesn’t comment on leaks.

DEFRA also refused to comment on suggestions that an official announcement – originally expected on Friday (20 January) – would now be made 24 hours earlier on Thursday (19 January).

“It’s all just speculation at the moment,” said a DEFRA spokesman. There were no definite timings, he added.

Farmers had hoped locations would be kept under wraps, for fear of being targeted by animal welfare campaigners.

The NFU said it was dismayed by the leak, which was attributed to “industry sources” by the Western Morning News.

Culling would be properly licensed and farmers were entitled to undertake legal activities without fear of being targeted by anti-cull protestors, said the union.

Acknowledging that locations were always likely to be uncovered, an NFU spokesman said it was disappointing that an industry source had let slip where those areas might be.

“We have always said we wanted to protect those involved,” he told Farmers Weekly.

Earlier this month, farm minister Jim Paice warned farmers that the consultation process made it impossible to keep cull areas secret.

NFU president Peter Kendall said the security and safety of those involved in the cull – including farmers and union officials – was paramount.

“There are a lot of people who work for the NFU and I worry about mindless protestors,” he said.

“The industry must stand together on this.” The size and location of cull areas should only be “generally indicated” rather than outlined in full detail, added Mr Kendall.

More than 100 animal rights activists are expected to join a protest against the cull at next month’s NFU annual conference in Birmingham.

The Nottingham-based Animal Rights UK group has invited more than 1800 supporters to attend the protest, timed for Tuesday, 21 February.