The government has U-turned on its plans to phase out the badger cull, with proposals to exterminate the vast majority of some local populations across much of south-west and central England.

Ministers plan to introduce controversial targeted culling, also known as 'epidemiological culling' or 'epi-culling', whereby populations of badgers can be reduced to almost zero in some areas where cattle are deemed to be at high risk of contracting bovine TB (bTB).

Tom Langton, an ecological consultant and badger expert, said: “Sunak now wants all the badgers dead.”

He said the consultation launched by the government on Thursday included 'chilling plans to kill 100% of badgers in bovine TB affected areas, an increase on the limit previously imposed since culling started in 2013'.

READ MORE | NatureScot identified foxes as a bigger threat to new lambs

The cull, which has failed to get support of eminent scientists over more than a decade and has caused some badger populations to go locally extinct, was initially going to be phased out under plans announced by the then environment secretary, George Eustice, in 2021. After campaigning from farming unions, the government has announced it will continue to issue licences to shoot badgers.

Langton criticised the proposed introduction of epi-culling, saying it 'is based on a single ‘model’ trial in Cumbria where over 1100 badgers were shot dead between 2018 and 2022, but where a published report states no demonstrable benefit was achieved in terms of reduced TB breakdowns in cattle herds. It is also based on incompetent misunderstandings by government scientists of their own findings and the misbriefing of their minister'.

It is believed ministers wish to create a point of difference with the Labour party, which has said it would stop the cull, in an attempt to retain seats in rural areas. Recent polling by the Country Land and Business Association shows the majority of Conservative MPs in the most rural areas are at risk of losing their seats to Labour and the Liberal Democrats in the upcoming general election.

Langton said: “This looks like a last-chance grab at getting widespread culling back in place so it is difficult for Labour to scrap it.”

Ministers say that they do plan to end culling eventually, but have not given an end date. They said problem areas included “much of south-west and central England, where there are high levels of infection in cattle and where evidence suggests badgers are part of the problem in the spread of disease to these herds” and that culling will continue in these targeted areas until the disease situation has been deemed to have improved, after an annual review by the UK’s chief veterinary officer. When this happens, culling will stop and badgers will be vaccinated to end the disease.

The government cites peer-reviewed evidence from the first 52 areas where badger culling was conducted, which shows a reduction in rates of bTB breakdowns in cattle by 56% on average after four years of culling. But independent scientists have challenged this analysis, highlighting the presence of so many different variables and the absence of any scientific control.

Executive director of the Badger Trust, Peter Hambly, said: “The UK government needs to protect our native wildlife while focusing on dealing with the scourge of bTB where it matters: within the cattle herd. This approach is best for cattle, farmers, taxpayers, wildlife and the wider community.

“We urge individuals, communities, and stakeholders to work together to tackle this disease, which importantly can only be done by demanding its accurate management. The UK government appears only to listen to stakeholders with vested interests and is fixated on a badger-focused policy that affects all of us and our right to nature. We must speak up to protect it.”

Environment secretary, Steve Barclay, said: “Bovine TB has taken a terrible toll on farmers, leading to the loss of highly prized animals and, in the worst cases, valued herds.

“There are no easy answers in the battle against TB, but badger culling has proved highly effective and needs to remain a key part of our approach. Our strategy has led to a significant reduction in this insidious disease, which we will continue to cull in areas where the evidence confirms it is required, as well as making use of vaccinations.”