THE Government has defended its decision to award a new supplementary licence to cull up to 2,632 badgers in Wiltshire.

A spokesperson for the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 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.”

Protest groups against the badger cull in Wiltshire warned that in the next six and a half months contract marksmen will try to kill as many of the animals as they can under the latest Government bovine TB regulations.

Natural England issued the licence to cull badgers in areas 19-21, covering north, south and central Wiltshire, up to January 31 by shooting, trapping and poisoning them.

Wiltshire Against the Badger Cull says the minimum number the marksmen have been licensed to kill is 568 and the maximum 2,632 under the new 12-month licence.

It added: “Unlike previous licences, this licence does away with the safety requirement of cull operatives (paid contractors with rifles) to be assisted by a buddy who acts as a spotter.

“As well as increasing the risk for injured badgers, this is also public safety issue and the public are not told when or where these operatives will be live firing.

"People should also be aware this firing also occurs across public footpaths without any warning.”

The Defra spokesperson said: "The licences we grant set out strict conditions under which all licensed contractors must operate.

"They must take all reasonable precautions to ensure that badgers are dispatched in a swift and humane manner."

A spokesperson for Wiltshire Badger Group also “deplored this unnecessary slaughter” of badgers and urged the Government to carry out its testing using badgers killed on the roads and not add to this carnage.

The group said: “The huge amounts of money being spent killing badgers would be much better spent helping farmers by developing a vaccination for cattle and preventing the spread of TB through cattle movements.”

“Since the cull began, around 140,000 badgers have been slaughtered under licence in this senseless and unscientific cull.

“The government have made repeated promises to move away from culling as a means to control Bovine TB, which is very much a dairy industry problem in which wildlife are being scapegoated.”

The cull across the South West could see more than 14,000 badgers being trapped, shot or poisoned in parts of Wiltshire, Dorset, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Avon and Somerset. In last year’s cull, 29,884 out of a maximum 38,642 badgers were reported to have been killed.

Dawn Varley, acting chief executive officer of The Badger Trust, also warned that contractors and marksmen armed with guns would be roaming huge areas of the countryside at night during the cull period.

“Besides the public safety risk, we believe the public would be appalled at the level of suffering inflicted on badgers, many of whom will not be shot and killed outright.”

She estimates that a further 70,000 badgers are likely to be killed in September and October when the intensive cull season begins.