A rollout of the badger cull in the fight against bovine TB could begin in up to three new counties as early as this summer.
Three applications to cull badgers in new areas have been submitted by groups of farmers and landowners to Natural England, Farmers Weekly can exclusively reveal.
Licences have already been granted by Natural England to cull badgers in pilot culls in Somerset and Gloucestershire, as part of efforts to control TB.
The third year of the four-year pilots is set to continue in the late summer.
But if Natural England approves the new applications, badgers could be culled in up to three new areas in the late summer or early autumn.
It is believed that the applications to cull badgers, supported by the NFU, have been submitted from groups of farmers and landowners in three counties in the South West.
The Conservative government has pledged to expand the badger cull in TB “hotspots”, as part of its 25-year TB eradication strategy in England.
But it has been accused by farming groups of dragging its heels over a national rollout.
Opponents insist, however, that the culling method of shooting “free-roaming” badgers and cage trapping and shooting badgers is “inhumane and ineffective”.
NFU president Meurig Raymond said he understood new applications had been submitted in areas where TB is rife.
“There are several areas where farmers are progressing, where they are extremely determined [to get culling licences],” said Mr Raymond.
“When you think of the costs involved, they 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.
“It is important that government allows culling to be rolled out to give these farming families hope for the future.”
Considering the difficult financial state of the farming industry and the pressures on cashflow, Mr Raymond said he was “absolutely amazed” at the determination of farmers to sign up to the cull and the amount of money coming in.
“I’m extremely confident the culls will be rolled out,” he added. “The pressure is on government to issue licences where people are determined to go ahead.
“There is no reason why we couldn’t get the licences.”
Mr Raymond said he still believed there was a determination in government to follow through with its 25-year TB strategy, which includes the culling of badgers in areas where the disease is rife.
“It is not just about the badger cull, it’s about the strategy in general,” he added.
“We do need to rid our livestock herds of this awful disease and that means ending up with healthy cattle, healthy badgers and taking up this disease in all sort of species. That’s the challenge for all of us.”
Earlier this month, Northern Ireland started a limited cull of badgers as part of a national TB eradication programme.