A badger sits in grass© Terry Whittaker/FLPA/imageBROKER/REX/Shutterstock

Badgers could soon be culled in counties where cattle are at “low risk” of detecting bovine TB, as part of government efforts to tackle the disease.

More than 42,000 cattle were slaughtered in the UK in the 12 months up to December last year after they tested positive for TB. More than 30,000 of these animals were from herds in England.

Defra has announced plans to review its 25-year TB eradication programme for England to ensure progress continues towards the goal of being free of the disease by 2038.

See also: Farm minister explains purpose of bovine TB review

Animal rights groups initially hailed the announcement on Friday (16 February) as a signal from Defra that its controversial badger culling policy may be abandoned.

But Defra has also launched a three-month consultation on proposals to cull badgers in low-risk areas in the north and east of England, including Yorkshire, Cumbria and Northumberland, Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex and Kent.

The TB strategy consultation states: “If approved, a licence in the ‘low-risk area’ of England would allow farmers or government officials to trap badgers in cages and shoot them.”

Relicensing consultation

The department has launched a second consultation on a proposal to remove the cap on relicensing badger culling activity. This change would allow Natural England to issue culling licences to more than 10 areas each year.

Rosie Woodroffe, senior research fellow at the Institute of Zoology, said: “Defra is considering licensing more than 10 new areas a year, so the total cull zone would start to engulf entire counties, and the numbers of badgers killed each year would climb into the many tens of thousands. 

“Unfortunately, there is not yet robust evidence that the current badger culling policy is helping to control cattle TB.” 

The Badger Trust went further, accusing Defra secretary Michael Gove of a betrayal over his decision not to review the science behind the culls and “giving in to pressure from the farming lobby”.

Culling still ‘best option’

But NFU deputy president Minette Batters said proactive badger culling is currently “the best evidenced available option” to prevent TB infecting cattle.

Farm minister George Eustice said early analysis of the first two cull zones suggests the incidence of the disease is down by 21% in Somerset and 58% in Gloucestershire.

He said: “While the badger culls are a necessary part of the strategy, no one wants to be culling badgers forever.”

Cattle vaccination, improved diagnostics and better genetic resistance (in cattle) have a role to play in the latter stages of Defra’s 25-year TB strategy, he added.