Licences have been granted for badger culling in 11 new areas as part of efforts to control tuberculosis in cattle, the Government has announced.
Culls will go ahead in new areas in Avon, Cheshire, Cornwall, Staffordshire, Devon, Dorset, Herefordshire and Wiltshire, under licences published by government agency Natural England.
The move, alongside the reauthorisation of licences in 29 existing areas, means the controversial cull of the wild animals will take place in 40 areas across England this year.
Expansion of the cull, aimed at preventing transmission of the disease to livestock, was met with anger by wildlife campaigners, who said it would mean tens of thousands more badgers being killed from Cornwall to Cumbria.
But farming minister George Eustice said: “Bovine TB remains the greatest animal health threat to the UK, costing taxpayers over £100 million every year as well as causing devastation and distress for hard-working farmers and rural communities.
“There is no single measure that will provide an answer to beating this disease.
“That is why we have always been committed to a multi-pronged approach including proactive badger control as well as other tools such as tighter cattle controls, improved biosecurity and badger vaccination.”
It comes after an independent review commissioned by the Government of its strategy for tackling TB in livestock amid ongoing controversy about badger culling warned against an “over-emphasis” on the role of wildlife.
Professor Sir Charles Godfray, who led the review, said spread of the disease between cattle was a bigger part of the problem than badgers and farmers must do more to tackle the spread of tuberculosis between livestock.
Experts involved in the review last year suggested the totality of the evidence on badger culling showed a real but modest effect in curbing TB.
Mr Eustice said the Government would be responding to the review in the near future.
Ellie Brodie, senior policy manager at The Wildlife Trusts, said: “Evidence shows that badgers are not the primary cause of the spread of TB in cattle and that the primary route of infection is from cow-to-cow contact – so a vaccine for cattle should be a government priority.”
She said Wildlife Trusts had been and would continue to vaccinate badgers on their reserves and in partnership with vets, farmers and landowners.
In Derbyshire, an application to cull was refused at the last minute last week amid a Government review of the role of culling in an area where a vaccination scheme was already under way.
Quizzed by MPs on the move to block the Derbyshire cull, Environment Secretary Theresa Villiers said the Government’s overall policy was “unchanged” and the decision related to local circumstances.
Dominic Dyer, of the Badger Trust, criticised the Government signing off on “the largest destruction of protected species in living memory”.
He said as a result of the new licences more than 60,000 badgers were likely to be killed in areas from Cornwall to Cumbria, bringing the total to some 130,000 since the policy was introduced in 2013.
And he said: “For the Government to carry out such a huge slaughter of a protected species at a time when no parliamentary scrutiny can take place is an unforgivable act of ecological vandalism and a national disgrace.”
Earlier this week experts warned thousands of badgers were experiencing “extended suffering” in the cull, taking more than five minutes to die after being shot, and questioned how effective the policy was.
Shadow environment secretary Sue Hayman said the new licences would push the species to the verge of extinction in many areas.
She said: “Labour is calling for an immediate halt to this inhumane and ineffective destruction of wildlife and for the Government to produce an alternative strategy to tackle bovine TB.
“This should focus on badger vaccinations, improved cattle testing, restricting herd movement and taking measures to tackle the spread of the disease through farm slurry.”