A second wave of badger culling has started in the pilot counties of Somerset and Gloucestershire, Defra has confirmed.

Marksmen began culling badgers overnight Monday (8 September) in the counties as part of a comprehensive bovine TB eradication strategy.

Over the next six weeks, they will have to cull at least 316 badgers in Somerset and 615 in Gloucestershire to meet the target of removing an estimated 70% of the badger population.

The maximum number of badgers that can be culled is 1,091 in Gloucestershire and 785 in Somerset.

Last year marksmen removed about 1,800 badgers across both counties and they failed to meet targets even after a three-week extension.

But ministers insist that shooters are better prepared for this year’s operation, having received more training, and they will be better equipped to fulfil the licensing criteria set by Natural England.

Speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme, Defra secretary Liz Truss confirmed that culling had restarted in the pilot counties.

She said the controversial policy was supported by leading vets. And it was justified because other countries that had carried out culling, such as Australia and Ireland, had seen significant falls in TB cases in cattle and dairy.

“The countries that have successfully got TB-free, such as Australia, have done it through a comprehensive strategy, which also includes culling,” she said.

NFU president Meurig Raymond has written to farmers in the South West explaining why culling was necessary to eradicate TB.

He told farmers: “While culling has to be an essential part of any strategy to control and eradicate bTB in areas where it is endemic, it is only one part of a much wider strategy to get rid of this terrible disease.

“And that is the ultimate goal – the eradication of a disease that resulted in more than 32,000 cattle being needlessly slaughtered in Great Britain last year and for which there is no cure.

“No one has ever said culling alone will wipe out bTB. Only by doing everything we can will we achieve what everybody wants – a TB-free England.

Mr Raymond concluded: “Bovine TB continues to devastate farming family businesses in large parts of the country.

“I can assure you the NFU remains totally committed, first to stop the spread and ultimately to eradicate this disease, and recognises that this will only be achieved by using every available option.”

On Monday (8 September), it emerged that one farmer in the cull zone, identified only as James, said his herd had gone TB-free for the first time in a decade after 92 badgers were removed in his area last year.

However, animal rights activists are angry that the government has decided to press on with the culls after an independent panel of experts concluded last year’s pilots were ineffective and inhumane.

They have accused the government of ignoring the chief scientific adviser to Natural England, who branded last autumn’s culls an “epic failure”.

Furthermore, they are furious that the government has dropped any independent scientific analysis of the culls this year.

A judicial review challenge by the Badger Trust on the need for independent monitoring of the cull operators failed and is now likely to go before the Court of Appeal.

Dominic Dyer, of the Badger Trust and Care for the Wild, said the culls were “ill-conceived and incompetently managed” and would “contribute nothing to reducing bTB in cattle”.

“Here we have a government and the National Farmers’ Union pushing ahead with a policy simply because they don’t have the guts to admit that it is wrong, and a complete and utter disaster for the farming industry, taxpayer and the protection of our native wildlife,” he added.

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