Badger culling is set to end from 2022, the Government signalled today in a victory for campaigners.
Some 102,188 of the creatures have been culled since 2013, and up to 64,657 more were due to be slaughtered last autumn.
Insiders believe figures outlining how many were culled in 2020 could be published in the coming days – and expect them to show a toll of at least 40,000.
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.
In a written parliamentary statement, Environment Secretary George Eustice today fuelled hopes the end of the cull was near.
He said: “Badger culling is one of the most contentious and divisive policies within our bTB eradication strategy.
“Our current policy enables four-year intensive cull licences in defined areas with scope for a further five years of supplementary culling.
“The consultation sets out proposals for Natural England to stop issuing the current intensive cull licences for new areas post-2022 and enable new licences issued to be cut short if the Chief Veterinary Officer considers this acceptable.
“Furthermore, I am proposing to restrict any new supplementary cull licences to two years and cease re-issuing such licences in any areas in which supplementary culling has previously been licensed.”
Born Free Foundation policy adviser Dominic Dyer, who was formerly chief executive at the Badger Trust, said the statement “confirms that from 2022 onwards we should now see a significant reduction and phasing out of badger culling in favour of badger and cattle TB vaccination and cattle based disease control measures”.
Mr Dyer said the cull had “increasingly become political poison for the Government”.
In July last year, ministers announced trials for bTB vaccination for cows would get underway amid moves for a jab by 2025 as part of its “long-term objective of eradicating it in England by 2038”.
But animal welfare campaigners reacted with fury when, days later, the Mirror exclusively revealed tens of thousands of badgers were doomed to die in that autumn’s cull.
Mr Dyer said today: “In some areas of England the badger population has been so depleted by culling that the species is in danger of becoming locally extinct from areas which it has inhabited since the Ice Age.
“Despite the huge cost and cruelty of badger culling, the Government has provided no reliable scientific evidence to prove this policy alone is having any significant impact on lowering bovine TB in cattle in or around the cull zones.”