This year could see a significant increase in the area of England where badgers are being culled to combat bovine TB, according to NFU president Meurig Raymond.
Up to seven new areas could be licensed to cull badgers this year, bringing the total number of cull areas in England to 10, according to NFU president Meurig Raymond.
Defra was expected to reveal the areas that have successfully applied for badger control licences soon, possibly before Parliament breaks for recess next Thursday (July 21), although it is unclear whether the arrival of a new Prime Minister will affect the timing.
These included 25 wholly or partly from Cornwall, Devon, Somerset and Dorset, plus interest from Cheshire, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Wiltshire and Worcestershire.
Mr Raymond is confident a number of new areas, of varying size, had met all the criteria necessary to be given the green light this year.
He said: “There are seven areas I believe have reached the finishing line and I am hoping they will all be licensed.
“They have all met the criteria and have worked extremely hard and there is a determination to get on and try to eradicate this disease. If they do all get the licences that would cover a fair part of the country.”
He said a decision to grant the licences would ‘prove the Government was determined to follow through with its TB strategy and send the right signals to the farming industry, with many more areas drawing up plans for 2017’.
Mr Raymond said the NFU was continuing to support potential new areas financially, although not to the level it had supported the original three areas.
The NFU president said, despite the difficult market conditions in the livestock sector, farmers were willing to invest in badger culls as they saw it as ’a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity’ to protect their herds from bTB and the ’cost and misery it brings’.
A Defra spokesman said culling would continue in 2016 for a fourth year in West Gloucestershire and West Somerset and for a second year in Dorset.
He said: “Natural England is currently considering applications for further badger control licences as part of the usual licencing process. There is no set date for when the outcome of these applications will be announced."
"England has the highest incidence of TB in Europe and that is why we are taking strong action to deliver our 25-year strategy to eradicate the disease and protect the future of our dairy and beef industries.
"The Government is implementing an adaptive strategy involving various different interventions available to tackle the spread of TB, for example cattle measures, biosecurity and badger control in areas where the disease is rife.
"Our strategy is delivering results and we are on track to achieve disease free status for more than half of England within this Parliament.
Defra Secretary Liz Truss confirmed in December the Government’s intention to extend badger culling this year, alongside additional cattle controls.
Rock star and wildlife campaigner Brian May launched the latest celebrity-backed campaign against the cull in Westminster on Tuesday.
Under the banner ’shoot selfies, not badgers’, he unveiled a badger mosaic made up of tiny selfies of celebrities and members of the public opposed to the cull.
Mr May insisted the Government could not justify rolling out a cull when ’the existing cull hasn’t worked’ and said he was hoping for a change of heart under new Prime Minister Theresa May.
Mrs May has been warned by scientists involved in previous research on badger culling extending the policy would 'fly in the face of scientific evidence.
In a letter to the Prime Minister former ISG members Professors John Bourne and Rosie Woodroffe and Ranald Munro, who led the group that scrutinised the first year of the Gloucestershire and Somerset culls, wrote:
“We urge you to review the considerable evidence that culling badgers is a risky, costly, and inhumane tool in the fight against bovine TB.
"We submit to you that expanding this unpromising programme would fly in the face of scientific evidence. We publicly call on you at this time to halt – not expand – the failed badger cull.”