Badger culling has begun in 21 areas across England with Cheshire and North Wales set to become key battlegrounds between opposing campaigners.

Licences for 11 new schemes in Devon, Wiltshire, Somerset, Dorset and Cheshire were announced last week, as part of an expanded cull programme which could see as many as 33,000 badgers killed as part of efforts to tackle tuberculosis in cattle.

Culling is under way in the new schemes and in eight operations in Dorset, Cornwall, Devon, Gloucestershire and Herefordshire which first began in 2015 or 2016.

Supplementary culling is also being carried out in two areas in Somerset and Gloucestershire which have already completed a four-year pilot cull.

The Government has committed to rolling out culling to more areas, saying it is necessary to curb TB in cattle as badgers can transmit the disease to livestock, but opponents have reacted angrily to the latest moves.

Animal welfare groups say culling is inhumane and ineffective and vaccinating badgers should be pursued instead with leading scientists also questioning the expansion, saying culling had not shown benefits.

In Wales, rural affairs secretary Lesley Griffiths, who is also Wrexham AM, has continued to rule out large-scale culling of badgers like those in England with figures suggesting the number of new incidents has fallen by over 40 per cent since its peak in 2009 with 95 per cent of herds in Wales thought to be TB free.

Wales was split from October into areas of low, intermediate and high risk, based on levels of TB with Flintshire and Wrexham said to be at ‘intermediate’ risk.

But worries remain among farmers across the region that TB could return and if it does North Wales Hunt Saboteurs have vowed to do all they can to disrupt any attempted cull.

“Our aim is to disrupt the cull as much as possible,” a spokesman for North Wales Hunt Saboteurs (NWHS) said.

“We are out both night and day, searching for bait points and cage traps and moving shooters on if and when we come across them. The badger culls over the last four years have been a complete failing for the government and the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) and we plan to keep it that way.”

With two such opposed views, the badger cull row shows no sign of dissipating. While ministers and the NFU argue that a cull is necessary to curb the spread of tuberculosis in cattle; critics argue that the cull is unethical or scientifically and economically flawed.

“The badger cull goes against all scientific evidence and is just a carrot waved in front of farmers by the government,” continued the NWHS spokesman.

“The only way the government and NFU will successfully reduce TB in cattle is to focus on cattle vaccinations.

“The vaccination is there, it’s ready to use but this isn’t about tackling TB in cattle – it’s about killing badgers.”

NWHS’s pleas, if not their methods are backed up by the North Wales Wildlife Trust who agree a long-term solution is needed.

A spokesman for the North Wales Wildlife Trust said: “We are very conscious of the hardship that bovine TB (bTB) causes in the farming community and the need to find the right mechanisms to control the disease.

“However, we believe a badger cull is not the answer. The scientific evidence demonstrates that culling is likely to be ineffective in fighting the disease and, worse still, risks making the problem even worse.

“We believe the emphasis of all our efforts should be to find a long-term solution and we are calling for the Government to end its policy of culling badgers.”

Despite the situation in Wales differing from that over the border, the NWHS maintain badgers are equally at risk from harm and cruelty.

“We are urging people to contact Welsh Labour leader Carwyn Jones and ask him to put a stop to this barbaric and unnecessary slaughter before it even starts,” said the spokesman.

“While the targeted cull is different to the full out culls in England, areas with high btb outbreaks will be targeted. Badgers will be trapped then tested if they are carrying the btb virus. Any which even possibly are carrying it will then be killed.

“Just because a badger is capable of carrying the virus does not mean the badger has the virus and also any badgers which have been vaccinated in Wales already will test positive and be killed.

“The stress caused to the badgers in the first place just by trapping them is an animal welfare issue in itself.

“It really is now time to focus on the genuine cause of TB and move forward with cattle vaccination. The NFU will tell you the vaccine is not ready, but that’s just another lie.

“Not all farmers want to cull badgers, but the smaller farms are bullied into it by the NFU and larger farms. If they don’t sign up for the cull then the larger farms won’t support them.

“We urge all farmers not to sign up to badger culling because it’s not going to solve any btb problems and in fact can make it worse by dispersing badgers to other areas.”

Earlier this year the Farmers’ Union of Wales (FUW) firmly rejected proposals to split Wales into five bovine TB regions in its response to a Welsh Government consultation, highlighting the need to tackle the disease in badger populations.

Following a consultation with its 12 county branches, the majority of FUW members rejected the proposals, highlighting the need for meaningful controls which address transmission of the disease from badgers to cattle.

In 2012, the Bovine Tuberculosis subgroup of the EU Task Force for Monitoring Animal Disease Eradication criticised Welsh Government politicians for replacing a previously planned badger cull with a badger vaccination programme, stating: “There is no scientific evidence to demonstrate that badger vaccination will reduce the incidence of TB in cattle. However there is considerable evidence to support the removal of badgers in order to improve the TB status of both badgers and cattle.”

Among the proposals consulted upon by the Welsh Government was the adoption of a New Zealand type ‘informed purchasing’ approach to cattle trading, but at a Welsh Assembly Climate Change Committee hearing Dr Paul Livingstone, who previously led New Zealand’s successful eradication programme, said nothing was being done in Wales about the disease in badgers, describing the issue as ‘the elephant in the room’.

“A New Zealand type approach is one the Welsh farming industry would fully support, because it is a genuine partnership between government and farmers in which politicians recognise the need to cull wildlife to control TB,” an FUW spokesman said.

“Without that commitment by Welsh politicians we will never achieve the success seen in New Zealand, Australia and other countries which have implemented successful eradication programmes by tackling the disease in both cattle and wildlife.

“With the latest cost benefit analysis suggesting savings of
£1 million in each English culling area, it remains extremely frustrating that Wales is now so far behind in terms of controlling the wildlife TB reservoir, having previously led the way in terms of planned policies.

“Compared with what’s happening in England, the steps to address TB in badgers in Wales seem microscopic and mainly on paper. Meanwhile, we are on the verge of seeing highly controversial and divisive cattle zones introduced across Wales.”

Whatever the outcome, the hunt saboteurs remain uncompromising when it comes to the cull.

“The first thing is to try stop any Welsh cull before it starts by contacting your Assembly Member and contacting the First Minister Carwyn Jones with your concerns,” added the spokesman for the NWHS. “If the cull is to go ahead in Wales we’ll be ready to stop the cull with direct action.”