Farmers will be allowed to kill badgers across England after an expansion of the culling program, which previously only allowed the animals to be killed in areas deemed to be at high risk of bovine TB.
Shooters are rewarded with a payment of up to £50 for each kill as part of the scheme, which has seen new guidance published that permits the killing of badgers in areas where cows are believed to be at a low risk of contracting bovine TB.
Bovine TB is thought to be spread by badgers and culling trials were introduced in the UK as a way of controlling the disease in 2013.
The trials were expanded to a larger area in 2016 and 2017.
Currently, badger culling is permitted in 21 areas of England where the disease is common.
The expansion means that culling will be permitted across most of the country, wherever there is an outbreak of bovine TB.
Implementation of the expansion could take place this autumn if applications for badger control licenses are approved by the Defra executive agency and culling licensee Natural England.
Decisions to allow badger culling in areas that are deemed low risk will be taken by ministers under a case-by-case basis, according to the plan.
Last year more than 19,200 badgers were killed through the badger culling scheme, down from the 39,364 that were killed in 2016.
Expansion of the culling programme has been opposed by animal rights organisations.
The RSPCA has urged a vaccination scheme and increased testing of cattle as an alternative to the cull, which it says is inhumane.
Natural England is facing two legal challenges in July connected to the badger cull programme.
The legal action is being led by Tom Langton, an ecology consultant, and is being funded by several animal rights groups including the Badger Trust and the Born Free Foundation.
The first legal challenge relates to a consultation that was carried out in 2016 and 2017 in relation to culling policy.
The second challenge relates to badger culling licenses for 2017 and argues that the ecological impact assessments “were not done correctly”.
Mr Langton told Farmers Weekly: “There are a lot of animals in decline or rare species in the countryside and it doesn’t take much to change their habitats before their fate is changed.”
Both challenges will be heard in a are due to be heard at the High Court in London from 9 to 11 of July.
Most of the farming community support extending the badger cull into low-risk areas of England to tackle bovine TB, according to the results of a government consultation that ran from 16 February to 15 April.
Groups that support the expansion of the cull include the National Farmers Union, the British Cattle Veterinary Association, and the British Veterinary Association.
They say it will help stop the spread of TB in low-risk counties.
The number of cows that have succumbed to the disease has risen significantly over the last four years.
More than 42,000 cows were slaughtered prematurely in 2017 because they tested positively from bovine TB, up from 27,474 in 2014.