Nearly 65,000 badgers face being killed this autumn as the controversial cull is extended, the Government announced today.
The annual countryside massacre is being widened to 11 more areas of England, meaning shooting of the creatures will take place in 44 areas across 17 counties.
Publishing its plans for this year’s programme, Natural England, part of the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, set a maximum target of slaughtering 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 carrying the disease around the countryside, infecting cattle.
But opponents believe the shooting programme is ineffective.
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.”
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.
The Government has claimed the cull will begin to be phased out in the next few 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.
Labour has pledged an immediate end to the “cruel and unnecessary” badger cull.
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% in Gloucestershire and 37% in Somerset, delivering clear results.”