Farm minister George Eustice has defended the government’s decision to authorise badger culling for a second year in the face of criticism from opposition leaders and animal welfare groups.

Natural England announced on Tuesday (26 August) that the pilot culls would go ahead this autumn in Somerset and Gloucestershire , as part of government plans to tackle bovine TB.

Marksmen in both counties will be required to remove at least 70% of the estimated badger population during a six-week period, which has not been revealed publicly.

See also: Wildlife Trusts call for national badger vaccination scheme

Mr Eustice, MP for Camborne and Redruth in Cornwall, said the culls were a “vital element” in the UK government’s approach to beating bovine TB, a disease that was having a “devastating effect on cattle and dairy farmers and local communities across the region”.

He described bovine TB as the “biggest animal health problem facing the UK”. And it was “plain to see” the impact of the disease in counties with a proud history of beef and dairy farming, such as Gloucestershire and Somerset.

“Last year, 400 farms in Somerset and 257 farms in Gloucestershire were under the grip of this terrible disease and 2,629 cattle in Somerset and 1,630 in Gloucestershire had to be slaughtered,” said Mr Eustice.

“Sitting back and letting this situation continue is simply not an option. That is why the government is pursuing a comprehensive strategy to rid England of bovine TB.

“To achieve this, we have been tightening cattle movement controls to stop the spread from herd to herd, helping farmers stop disease spreading on their farm, and spending millions of pounds developing a vaccine for cattle.

“Through these measures we are beginning to slow the spread of TB, but we know that if we are to beat the disease in hot spot areas such as Somerset we also need to deal with infection in badgers.

“Bovine TB can infect wildlife as well as cattle, and in this part of the country studies have shown that up to half of all new cases are due to badgers.”

Mr Eustice added that he recognised that many people were advocating the use of vaccination to deal with this problem . He acknowledged that vaccinating healthy badgers “could play an important role in preventing the spread of disease to new areas of the country”.

To this end, Defra will soon be announcing details of a new vaccination scheme to help create a “buffer zone” to stop bovine TB spreading further.

But Mr Eustice insisted that vaccination could not cure sick badgers, which will continue to spread disease, which is why it could not replace culling in areas such as Somerset where TB is rife.

“Targeted culling has to be part of our approach if we want to control this disease,” he said.

“This view is shared by the nation’s leading vets, and supported by a wealth of experience from overseas.

“Many other countries such as New Zealand, Australia and Ireland have been successful in dramatically reducing the impact of bovine TB by culling wildlife that carries the disease.”

He stressed that the government had learned from the first year of the pilots and made improvements to the culls this year, adding that it was “vital we get this right”.

He said: “The operators have undergone increased training to improve the humaneness and effectiveness of the cull, and there will be monitoring in place to assess progress.

“The timing for the start of the six-week culls will now be decided by the two licensed companies.

“By combining all of the tools we have available to tackle bovine TB, we should see the same success as other countries and we can finally rid our prized farms, countryside and wildlife of this dreadful disease.”

But wildlife groups and opposition leaders have strongly criticised the government’s decision to cull badgers for a second year.

Shadow Defra secretary Maria Eagle said she was “appalled” that the culls were going ahead for a second year after Natural England’s chief scientific adviser described them as an “epic failure”.

Ms Eagle, Labour MP for Garston and Halewood, added: “Bovine TB is a serious problem that needs addressing but these culls have been shown to be ineffective, inhumane, and they may have made the problem worse.

“Elizabeth Truss missed a clear opportunity when she became secretary of state to leave prejudice-based policy in the past and place science firmly at the centre of her department’s policy.

“To add insult to injury these culls are proceeding without any independent scientific oversight. The government must explain why it is refusing to work with scientists, wildlife groups and farmers to develop an alternative strategy to get the problem of bovine TB under control.”

The Humane Society International (HSI) UK said it was “deeply saddened” by the decision.

Mark Jones, veterinarian and HSI UK executive director, said: “It is shocking that science and ethics are being swept aside to assuage farmers over a bovine TB problem that will not be helped by the indiscriminate slaughter of hundreds more innocent badgers.”