The agency has confirmed that all the criteria have been met to allow the second of four years of badger culling to start in the pilot areas defined as west Gloucestershire and west Somerset.
Operations in these areas will be carried out under the existing four-year licences which allow six weeks of culling to take place every year between June 1 and January 31.
Licensees have formally advised Natural England:
Start dates for culling activity, decided by the licensed companies operating the culls in the two areas, have not been confirmed, however. In the Somerset and Gloucestershire authorisation letters published by Natural England, the dates have been redacted.
Under the terms of the authorisation letters, licensees have been set a minimum and maximum number of badgers to be removed.
After the controversy over badger numbers and targets that dogged the pilots in 2013, the agency has stresed that these numbers are not set in stone.
The minimum and maximum numbers, which are significantly lower than the 2013 targets, are based on the estimates of the badger populations in 2013 set out in the Independent Expert Panel’s report on last year’s culls, and new evidence the agency has of badger activity on the ground in 2014.
In light of the advice provided by the IEP regarding the significant difficulties in achieving accurate estimates of badger populations, Natural England said it would keep the minimum number under review.
If appropriate, it will provide further advice on the level of culling effort and badger removal required to achieve an effective cull.
One of the big controversies over the cull this year has been the decision by Defra not to deploy independent monitors, the role filled by the IEP last year. This was the subject of a High Court judicial review hearing last Thursday.
Natural England said it has worked closely together with Defra and the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency (AHVLA) to develop a ‘robust monitoring regime’ for this year’s culls.
A series of measures have been put in place to implement the recommendations made by the IEP following last year’s pilots.
A Government-approved training programme has been put in place to improve shooting accuracy.
Natural England will monitor controlled shooting through field observations to record accuracy in 60 cases.
Vets from AHVLA will carry out post-mortem examinations on at least 60 randomly-selected badgers from each cull area to assess accuracy of controlled shooting.
Farming Minister George Eustice said: “Culling has worked in many other countries and leading vets agree that it needs to be part of our approach. We need to get this right which is why we have made improvements to the culls this year.
“The targets for removing badgers this year have been set using the best available evidence, including information gathered on the ground by local experts, and signed-off by Defra’s Chief Scientist.
“We know we can never be precise in estimating a wildlife population, which is why it’s important that the programme is flexible and the targets can be adjusted as necessary.”
In response to criticism about how the pilots would be monitored this year, Mr Eustice insisted earlier this year that monitoring by Natural England and AHVLA would be ‘independent’.
Speaking at the Livestock Event in July, Mr Eustice also hinted strongly that the culls were likely to commence ‘towards the end of August, similar to last year.
In April, former Defra Secretary Owen Paterson announced there woud be no further roll out of the badger cull to nnew areas in 2014.
He said it would be necessary to gauge the impact of changes to the 2014 pilots recommended by the IEP before making a decision on roll out next year.
This was after the IEP concluded tha the 2013 pilots failed to meet their criteria on both effectiveness and humaneness.
Mr Paterson’s successor Liz Truss has made it clear she is keen to continue Mr Paterson’s policy on bovine TB, combining badger and cattle controls, laid out in Defra’s 25-year TB eradiation policy.
For information on best practice guidance, monitoring and numbers see www.gov.uk/defra