A long-awaited badger cull to combat bovine tuberculosis in cattle could begin any time after the open season starts on 1 June.

Pilot culls are due to take place on farms across two areas of west Gloucestershire and west Somerset. A reserve area covering part of Dorset has been designated should a cull not go ahead in either of the preferred counties.

The cull was postponed last autumn after it emerged there were more badgers than expected. But there are said to be no surprises this time around. At least 70% of the badgers – about 5,000 animals in total across both pilot zones – must be killed over a six-week period for the cull to be deemed effective.

One school of thought is that the cull will take place sooner rather than later. But some argue it would make more sense to wait until September after silaging and harvest, which would give marksmen a clearer line of sight and make it easier to carry out the cull without damaging crops.

The NFU said it was directing all media enquiries regarding the cull to DEFRA and Natural England. The exact start date would be determined by the two farmer-owned companies carrying out the culls, it said.

The policy will be rolled out to other areas if the cull shows that shooting can be carried out safely, effectively and humanely.

As many as 40 so-called TB “hotspot areas” – most in the South West and Midlands – could be involved over the next four years.

A spokesman for Gloscon, the company organising the Gloucestershire cull, said: “The culling licences become valid from 1 June, but that does not necessarily mean the cull is starting then.

“It’s unlikely to start on Saturday. We will make a decision as and when the best time to start suits us.”

DEFRA secretary Owen Paterson said: “We will roll out 10 new cull zones next year, and 10 more in each of the three years after that.”

The aim was to reduce the incidence of bovine TB to less than 0.2% of herds per year over the next quarter century.

Animal welfare campaigners remain fiercely opposed to the policy. But shoppers think low milk prices and the plight of dairy farmers are more serious issues for the industry, according to a survey carried out by The Grocer magazine.

Asked about the most controversial issues in dairy, 17% of shoppers mentioned low milk prices and farmers not being paid enough. Just 4.5% mentioned the badger cull.

The majority were unable to name any controversial issue at all without prompting.

But animal welfare activists vowed to step up opposition to the cull. Protesters in badger masks and black-and-white clothes will march through London against what they claim is a “deeply flawed policy” on Saturday (1 June).

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