Intensive badger culling to tackle tuberculosis in cattle will no longer get the go-ahead in new areas after 2022, under plans set out by the Government.
The controversial badger cull has expanded to cover dozens of areas of England and kill tens of thousands of the protected mammals a year since it began in 2013 to curb bovine tuberculosis (bTB) in livestock.
But last year the Government signalled its intention to gradually phase out culling of the wild animals, which can spread the disease to livestock, amid efforts to deploy a bTB vaccine for cattle within five years.
New proposals have now been put out to consultation which include plans to stop issuing four-year licences to intensively cull badgers in new areas of England after 2022.
Under the plans, new licences issued before then could be cut short after two or three years based on the latest scientific evidence.
Licences to carry out supplementary culling in an area, which are granted after the four-year intensive cull has taken place, would be restricted to two years and would not be reissued afterwards.
The Government said it also planned to support badger vaccination in areas that have completed culls, as an alternative to supplementary culling, and accelerate the deployment of a cattle vaccine.
It spells the beginning of the end of the controversial policy of culling, which farmers have said is necessary to control the disease that devastates the beef and dairy industries but which has been criticised as inhumane and ineffective by wildlife and animal welfare groups.
Environment Secretary George Eustice said: “Bovine TB is a slow-moving and insidious disease that causes devastation for farmers as they suffer the loss of highly prized animals and valued herds.
“Our badger control policy has helped to turn the tide on this disease but no wants to continue the cull of badgers for a moment longer than necessary.
“We are working to accelerate other elements of our strategy to improve diagnostics and develop a deployable cattle vaccine so that we can phase out the culling of badgers.”
Field trials for cattle vaccinations will get under way in the coming months, and Mr Eustice said work on developing a deployable cattle bTB vaccine was on track to be completed in the next five years.
The Government said it was also calling for views on other possible measures to speed up the eradication of the disease.
These could include further improvements to testing, supporting responsible cattle movements and encouraging increased uptake of farm biosecurity measures.
Responding to the consultation, National Farmers’ Union deputy president Stuart Roberts said: “Farmers would like to use all effective measures to control this disease but as we know, there is not one single solution and our sole aim is to eradicate TB.
“But if the Government wants to phase out one successful measure, it must be 100% satisfied that any changes to replace it with an alternative must be proven to be equally effective.
“Make no mistake, this disease continues to devastate farming businesses and their families. More than 27,000 cattle were slaughtered last year as a result of this disease.
“I am certain that the consequences of these proposals will have severe impacts on the lives of farming families all across the country.”
Tim Birch, director of nature’s recovery at Derbyshire Wildlife Trust, said: “Vaccinating badgers is a better alternative to shooting and Wildlife Trusts lead the way with badger vaccinations across England.
“We call on Government not to issue any new cull licences and to focus efforts on developing and rolling out a comprehensive badger vaccination programme across the country which is fully supported and funded. We will be ready to help the Government achieve this.”