The Government has confirmed it will not issue new licences for culling badgers to tackle tuberculosis in cattle after 2022.
But wildlife campaigners warn tens of thousands of badgers will be killed over the next four years before the programme is halted in 2026, and accused ministers of ignoring calls from the public to end the culls immediately.
The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) reacted angrily to the change in policy, warning it would jeopardise the ability to control the disease, which led to 27,000 cattle being slaughtered in England in the last year.
Controversial culling of badgers, which can spread bovine tuberculosis to cattle, was introduced in 2013 to curb the disease, and nearly a decade later the Government has signalled a move away from the policy.
In response to a public consultation, it has confirmed plans to end the issuing of new four-year licences to cull badgers after next year, and that those issued in 2021 and 2022 could be revoked after two years after a progress evaluation by the chief veterinary officer.
Supplementary licences, which allow for further culling in areas which have already undergone an intensive cull, will be limited to a maximum of two years and no such licences will be allowed for areas where intensive culls started after 2020.
Environment Secretary George Eustice said: “Bovine TB is one of the most difficult and intractable animal health challenges that the UK faces today, causing considerable trauma for farmers and costing taxpayers over £100 million every year.
“The badger cull has led to a significant reduction in the disease but no one wants to continue the cull of a protected species indefinitely.
“That is why we are now building on this progress by accelerating other elements of our strategy, including cattle vaccination and improved testing so that we can eradicate this insidious disease and start to phase out badger culling as soon as possible.”
But Dr Jo Smith, chief executive of Derbyshire Wildlife Trust, said tens of thousands of people had responded to the badger cull consultation and written to their MP calling for an immediate end to the cull – and the Government had failed to listen to them.
“If a further 130,000 animals are killed within the next five years, we could lose 60% of England’s badgers.
“This is desperately sad and will also have repercussions on the health of natural habitats because badgers are a keystone species, vital to a thriving ecosystem.
She said that last week Mr Eustice announced measures to protect and restore nature and warned: “Killing such a major part of the badger population in this country cannot be compatible with that ambition.”
And she said evidence showed culling was likely to be ineffective in fighting the disease and called for greater resources to be put into developing cattle vaccines and vaccinating badgers in England.
But NFU deputy president Stuart Roberts said: “It is incredibly disappointing and frustrating that the Government is pressing ahead with its proposals to abandon badger culling, a hugely successful element of the strategy.
“The Government should be making decisions based on the science and evidence, which clearly shows that badger culling is effective in controlling the spread of this disease.”
He warned: “This decision will potentially have far-reaching and severe impacts for cattle farmers across the country.”