Speculation is growing that Natural England could give permission for culling could start in Dorset as soon as the end of the summer or start of autumn, though it says it will not “give a running commentary” on culling licence applications.
However, David Cameron made it clear only last month that the Government regards culling as “absolutely the right thing to do” and the new cull is expected to be given the go-ahead.
Trevor Cligg, the chairman of the National Farmers Union in Dorset, said: “Without expanding the cull into Dorset and all the other areas where bTB is endemic we are not going to beat this disease. We can take all the cattle control - and we should - and vaccination has a part to play but in itself it won’t be enough.”
The 59-year-old lifelong farmer has received threats for his support for the cull and his name and address, along with that of other farmers, has been published on militant animal rights websites. But he said: “Wherever the cull is rolled out there will be opposition - some well-meaning but misguided, some downright malicious - but we’ve just got to live with that and get on with it, otherwise we just give up and succumb to the disease, and the repercussions of that would be felt far beyond the farm gate.”
Mr Cligg, who runs a 700-head dairy herd in west Dorset, said the spread of bTB, the need for regular testing of cows, and the restrictions placed on the sale of cattle from infected herds, was placing a huge financial strain on farmers at a time when they were struggling with low milk prices.
Owen Paterson, the former Defra minister who oversaw the introduction of culling, has claimed the cull has been “an astonishing success” so far.
Mr Paterson said: “It has really worked in Somerset. It has been an astonishing success in disease control already. Not even I thought the reduction in disease would come this quickly. There was this extraordinary hostility to a very simple policy that is used by every other sensible country that has a problem with bTB in wildlife.”
Meurig Raymond, president of the NFU, said farmers were adamant culling was necessary for the future of the industry, adding: “It is vital that the entire strategy is rolled out in full as quickly as possible if we are to stand any chance of controlling and eradicating this disease.”
But animal rights activists – who have attempted to disrupt operations in existing cull zones - are now planning further confrontations with farmers, saying that extending it to Dorset would place it within easy reach of urban centres where anti-cull feeling is strongest.
Jay Tiernan, a leading animal rights militant and spokesman for Stop the Cull, told The Telegraph: “There will be many more people out trying to oppose the cull than we’ve seen so far. Dorset is closer to the heart of the animal rights movement in the south-east and it’s going to be a lot easier for those people to jump into a car and go down there for the night in order to try and stop the cull. It takes more effort to get to Somerset and Gloucestershire from somewhere like Brighton, where there’s a lot of support.”
He added: “I suspect the Government has been wary of rolling the cull out to Dorset up until now because of the strength of opposition it anticipates.”
Mr Tiernan, a former soldier and hunt saboteur with a long history of militant activity, has been accused of backing the use of “military-style tactics” to disrupt culls and frighten farmers and contractors carrying them out.
He was sentenced to six months in prison, suspended for two years, in January for his part in attempts to sabotage the Government’s culling trials after he breached an injunction designed to protect farmers and landowners from harassment and intimidation.
Mr Tiernan had been found guilty of harassing farmers and contractors carrying out the cull. He was also found guilty of attempting to disrupt a cull, harassing officials from the National Farmers Union (NFU) and of failing to inform his supporters about the terms of the injunction and was ordered to pay the NFU £25,000 in legal costs.
Stop the Cull claims the cull in Somerset and Gloucestershire- where the culling of badgers is set to enter its third year - has been a “complete failure” and has caused suffering and pain to the creature while doing little to prevent the spread of TB.
It points to initial figures showing that there had been a 50 percent increase in bTB outbreaks in the areas immediately surrounding the West Somerset cull zone last year, as surviving badgers fled their sets for new homes.
In August 2013, there were 17 ongoing bTB outbreaks inside the Somerset cull zone, with a further 12 outbreaks outside it. By June this year, there were 14 ongoing bTB outbreaks inside the zone, but the number of outbreaks outside it had risen to 18.
In Gloucestershire, there were 14 ongoing bTB outbreaks in the cull zone by June this year, down just one on September 2013. The number of outbreaks outside the cull zone remained similarly static, with 33 in September 2013, rising to 34 in June this year.
Campaigners pointed out that outbreaks in Dorset had in fact fallen from 36 to 20 between August 2013 and June this year, thanks to what they said were cattle control measures rather than culling.
Some experts believe culling can only work effectively in reducing bTB outbreaks if far larger numbers of badgers are killed than has been managed so far in either of the existing cull zones, and that even then this would come at the risk of spreading bTB to neighbouring land.
In Somerset, 341 badgers were culled last year, just over the minimum number of 316 said by Government advisers to be required for the cull to succeed. In Gloucestershire however only 274 badgers were culled out of the minimum 615 recommended in order to stem the continued spread of the disease.
Professor Rosie Woodroffe, of the Zoological Society of London, who previously worked on the largest ever study of badger culling, carried out over a ten year period, said: “The pilot culls conducted to date in Somerset and Gloucestershire have failed by a wide margin to meet the requirement of reducing badger numbers by at least 70%. While the 2014 Somerset cull achieved the target set for it, this target was set far lower than would be required to meet the stated aim of reducing badger numbers by at least 70 per cent.
“For this reason it is hard to be confident that these culls will yield the reductions in cattle TB that everyone hopes to see. Indeed, the risk remains that overall they could make the problem worse. While there have been anecdotes of farms testing clear inside the cull zones, TB is a dynamic disease and it's important to wait for the full analysis to draw conclusions.”