Defra has confirmed badger culling is underway in Somerset, Gloucestershire and Dorset.
Natural England confirmed last Friday it had authorised a four-year licence for badger control in Dorset, alongside licences permitting the continuation of culling for a third year in the Somerset and Gloucestershire pilot cull areas.
On Thursday, Defra confirmed was underway in all three areas.
The licences permit up to around 1,800 badgers to be culled across the three areas over six weeks, using a combination of controlled shooting and caged trapping and shooting. The experience from the first two years of the pilots suggests the final number is likely to much lower.
Contractors in Dorset have been set a target of culling between 615 and 835 badgers this year.
Following the difficulties encountered in making accurate estimates of badger populations during the first year of the pilots in 2013, significant latitude will again be permitted in meeting these targets.
Dorset had been prepared as a reserve area in 2013. The farmers involved were bitterly disappointed not to be given the green light last year, after a combination of coalition politics and the Independent Expert Panel’s findings on the first year of the pilots scuppered then Defra Secretary Owen Paterson’s intentions.
Andy Foot, a Dorset beef and arable farmer and the South West NFU livestock chairman, said the farmers were ‘raring to go and are fully behind it’, although he expressed frustration at rate of progress on of roll out.
“I am very pleased the Government has decided on further roll out but I am concerned it is not on a sufficient scale to get on top of the disease within their 25-year strategy.
"The momentum has to pick up considerably to get anywhere near their 25-year target and it needs to be grossly simplified. At this rate of progress it will take 100 years."
He urged farmers in areas that had got the green light this year to ’stay positive’ and, as the Dorset area did following its disappointment last year, ensure they are in a position to meet the criteria for licences next year.
Mr Foot’s comments reflect the fact that while the extension of culling to Dorset represents a step in the right direction, for many farmers progress is painfully slow.
Dorset was understood to be one of four areas that applied for new licences this year, with the others in Devon, Cornwall and Herefordshire not making the grade.
When the Somerset and Gloucestershire pilots were given the green light in 2012, the intention was to have up to 30 more areas up and running by 2015.
National Beef Association TB spokesman Bill Harper, a leading figure in the proposed Cornwall area, expressed the frustration being felt by farmers in those areas that are still waiting.
He criticised Defra over the way it handled the licence application process and for its lack of political leadership on the subject. Ministers have been virtually silent on the subject since the election.
“We are pretty fed up with the lack of communication and the lack of a vehicle to run this system through," Mr Harper said.
“Some areas nearly got there and were told ‘no’. It was just a shambles. A lot if it was down to the fact that Defra gave no political steer at any time. Farmers were not convinced they were committed as they did not say anything.
“There was tremendous frustration as they asked farmers to do all the work, take all the risk and pay all the expense – people have put thousands of pounds into this - and they couldn’t even give us clear guidelines and there was no communication.
He said the proposed tweaks to the licensing rules would help areas become licensed in future.
“I hope there will be enough people prepared to run with it next year. But I just wish they would speak to us," Mr Harper said.
In a move that could go a long way to paving the way for new areas in future Defra is also consulting on proposed changes to the licence conditions.
NFU President Meurig Raymond said while he was pleased culling had been extended, he was ‘very disappointed’ more areas had not been accepted this year.
“This is much slower progress than we wanted to see,” he said.
He also welcomed the launch of a consultation on proposed changes to the licensing criteria, which he said should help ensure the policy is ‘as simple and effective as possible and less vulnerable to disruption’ in future.
Activists have already descended on the three areas, while Stop the Cull this week claimed a ‘wealthy benefactor’ was offering farmers £5,000 to pull out in Gloucestershire.
Animal welfare campaigner Brian May’s Save Me Trust has said it would seek to challenge the decision to issue the licences in the High Court.