English farmers will be allowed to cull badgers to control tuberculosis in cattle under plans unveiled by the government.

Livestock producers and landowners could be issued with licences to cull or vaccinate badgers as soon as next May.

DEFRA farm minister Jim Paice outlined the plan in a government consultation published on Wednesday (15 September).

Strict criteria would ensure culling was carried out effectively, humanely and with high regard for animal welfare, he said.

Some 25,000 cattle were slaughtered due to bovine TB last year at a cost to taxpayers of £63m in England alone.

“We can’t go on like this,” said Mr Paice.

“It’s clear that the current approach has failed to stop the spread of this terrible disease. We need to take urgent action to halt its spread. “

No single measure will be enough to tackle the disease on its own, said Mr Paice, but the science supported a cull.

“There is no doubt that badgers are a significant reservoir for the disease and, without taking action to control the disease in them, it will continue to spread.

“No country in the world has eradicated bovine TB without dealing with the reservoir in wildlife. That’s why I’m today launching a consultation on how we can tackle the disease in badgers.”

The consultation proposes issuing licences under the Protection of Badgers Act 1992 to enable farmers to cull badgers at their own expense.

But the proposals are likely to be vehemently opposed by animal welfare groups.

Culling will only be allowed where there is a high incidence of bovine TB in cattle – although what constitutes a high incidence has not yet been defined.

Subject to the consultation, farmers will also be able to use vaccination either on its own or in combination with culling.

Licences will only permit culling by cage-trapping and shooting, and by shooting free-running badgers.

Shooting will only be permitted by trained, competent operators who possess the appropriate firearms licences.

DEFRA has ruled out gassing and snaring, saying it has insufficient evidence to prove they are humane and effective culling methods.

A further requirement is that culling must take place over a minimum area of 150km2 and be supported by 70% of the farmers in that area.

Mr Paice said this meant he would expect licence applications to come from groups of famers and landowners rather than individuals.

Applicants would also need to show they have considered taking further steps to minimise the potential detrimental effect at the edge of a culling area.

Mr Paice said he had looked carefully at the potential for badger vaccination.

The government’s assessment was that vaccination on its own would not reduce disease as quickly as culling.

But by using it in combination with culling, it was possible to maximise the effectiveness of badger control in reducing bovine TB in cattle.

The consultation closes on 8 December 2010. The government will then publish a bovine TB eradication programme in early 2011.