Badger culling could be extended to at least 12 new areas of England over the next two years, after Defra Secretary Liz Truss gave the green light to extend the policy last week.
Some areas are already well prepared to go in 2016, including two of about 300-400sq.km in North Devon and North Cornwall, both of which had licence applications rejected in 2015.
An area in Herefordshire, also rejected in 2015, is likely to be in the frame while others are at various stages of preparation across the South West, including in Gloucestershire, Somerset and Wiltshire, as well as further north in the Midlands in areas where bTB is rife. .
NFU president Meurig Raymond said he believed six new areas would be ‘feasible’ next year, with more to follow in 2017.
Mrs Truss announced last week Defra would allow badger culling to ‘take place over a wide number of areas next year’, alongside a tightening up of cattle controls.
She gave the green light after the culls in Somerset, Gloucestershire and Dorset all met their targets in 2015. Defra’s Chief Veterinary Officer Nigel Gibbens had advised this confirmed badger control could be an effective way of controlling bTB.
Mr Raymond said: “Farmers are absolutely ready to go in lots of areas for next year and the year after that.
"I believe the Secretary of State’s announcement and the determination she has shown will increase the impetus and enthusiasm of the people involved.
“Farmers are also picking up anecdotal evidence in Somerset and Gloucestershire of herds going clear and are even more convinced culling has to be part of the strategy if they are going to eradicate TB in the next five to 10 years.”
He said farmers in the north of England, in particular, would welcome the introduction of post-movement testing from April as a means of protecting their herds from bTB.
National Beef Association TB spokesman Bill Harper was even more upbeat, predicting ‘eight to 10 new areas in 2016 and the same in 2017’.
He said the North Cornwall and North Devon areas, which he was involved with, were both ‘doing well’. “I am totally confident both of those areas will be ready next year,” he said.
But he urged caution, noting that while some areas were at an advanced stage of readiness, others just starting up would need a lot of time to prepare.
“We feel it is important areas are mature. We are finding it is a very long process,” he said.
"Everybody has to be trained, organised and motivated. It has to be done whole-heartedly and with full commitment. It is an agri-military operation.”
He was full of praise for Mrs Truss’ ‘thoughtful and measured approach’ to roll out, which she had announced without ‘overly-antagonising’ opponents of the policy.
"The level of effort the existing companies have put in is absolutely phenomenal and the model has improved over time, as is evidenced by the success of Dorset, which came through brilliantly this year."
“I am expecting to see another eight to 10 areas in 2016 and something similar in 2017. Then you will start to see the sort of block coverage you need to achieve TB eradication. The more areas can be joined up, the more benefit there will be.”
Shadow Defra Secretary Kerry McCarthy echoed the chorus of criticism from animal welfare campaigners, accusing Mrs Truss of ‘stubbornly persisting with a costly policy scientific experts have warned is both ‘ineffective’ and ‘inhumane’.
Farming industry leaders have welcomed changes to Natural England’s guidance for companies applying for four-year badger cull licences, but veterinary representatives have criticised the move.
Following a consultation, the following changes were made to badger cull licence conditions:
NFU president Meurig Raymond said there needed to be ‘flexibility’ on guidelines and called for further change, including removal of the requirement for farmers to deposit funds for four-year culls upfront.
National Beef Association TB spokesman Bill Harper said the change in the area coverage requirement would make it much easier to meet licence conditions, for example, where there was an inaccessible coastal strip of National Trust land within 200m of land signed up to the cull.
But British Veterinary Association (BVA) president Sean Wensley criticised the decisions to remove cull time limits and continue allowing culling to be performed by both controlled shooting and caged trapping and shooting.
He said the BVA continued to ‘support targeted, effective and humane badger culling’.
But he said the first two years of culling in pilot areas ‘failed to demonstrate conclusively controlled shooting could be carried out effectively or humanely based on criteria which were set’.
“Again, we urge the Government to reconsider this policy and extend badger culling using cage trapping and shooting only.”