Thousands of badgers face being killed this autumn as the controversial cull is extended, despite wide-ranging objections to the policy.
The countryside massacre is being widened to take place in 44 areas across 17 counties.
This year’s cull will take place in Cheshire, Devon, Dorset, Somerset, Wiltshire, Cornwall, Gloucestershire, Staffordshire, Cumbria, Avon, Herefordshire, Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Oxfordshire, Shropshire, Warwickshire and Lincolnshire.
A total of 35,034 badgers were killed in last year’s scheme, which operated in 40 areas of England, reports MirrorOnline.
Natural England, part of the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, has set targeted the slaughter of 64,657 of the animals.
Badger Trust chief executive Dominic Dyer said: “The decision to expand the badger cull is a huge betrayal of public trust by the Government.
“Rather than phasing out the shooting of badgers in favour of vaccination, the Government is now embarking on a mass destruction of the species, which is little more than ecological vandalism on an unprecedented scale.”
Some 102,188 badgers have been killed in the scheme since 2013.
Cull supporters believe killing badgers helps curb bovine tuberculosis in cows, with badgers blamed for infecting cattle. But opponents suggest the shooting plan does not help.
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Mr Dyer added: “In the next three months, the badger cull could kill up to 64,000 badgers across a geographical area larger than Wales. This could result in population collapse with badgers pushed to the verge of local extinction. This is no longer a badger control policy, it’s a badger eradication exercise.
“In reality, the only long term solution to reducing bTB is to implement effective cattle bTB testing, movement and biosecurity controls. Whilst the focus remains on badgers, progress will be painfully slow and we could lose this beautiful animal in large areas across the country.
“If the Government and farmers can’t change their tunnel vision then the best approach for all must be vaccination of cattle and badgers. This offers a better future for farmers, taxpayers and the protection of badgers.”
The annual cull will begin to be phased out in the coming years, with vaccination of badgers being increased instead.
In July, it announced trials for an inoculation for cows will get under way amid moves for a vaccine by 2025.
National Farmers’ Union Deputy President Stuart Roberts said: “The impact of bovine TB continues to devastate farming families up and down the country, causing huge strain mentally, emotionally and financially for farmers.
“Thousands of farms have seen generations of cattle compulsorily slaughtered because of this disease and their herds put under restriction, crippling their livelihoods instantly.
“The NFU has always supported the Government’s 25-year eradication strategy, which provides farmers with a lifeline for tackling bovine TB, and using all available measures to tackle this horrendous disease, including strengthening cattle movements, enhanced biosecurity and controlling the disease in wildlife.
“The Chief Vet has said that proactive badger culling is currently the best available option to tackle this disease and there is clear evidence that badger culling is working.
“Peer-reviewed research into the effectiveness of the badger cull showed reductions in new cattle TB breakdowns of 66 per cent in Gloucestershire and 37 per cent in Somerset, delivering clear results.”