Thousands more badgers face being shot this autumn after a dozen new applications were made for cull licences.
Natural England said it received “12 licence applications /expressions of interest in respect to 2021 badger control licensing”.
Answering a request for information from a member of the public, it also revealed the controversial scheme could take place in 14 counties this year: Berkshire, Cornwall, Devon, Gloucestershire, Hampshire, Herefordshire, Northamptonshire, Oxfordshire, Shropshire, Staffordshire, Warwickshire, the West Midlands, Wiltshire and Worcestershire.
If the licences are granted, it would be the first time culling had been authorised in Hampshire and Northamptonshire.
More than 40 existing, four-year licences will continue in 2021 alongside the new licences, if they are granted.
The revelation about new applications dashes the hopes of campaigners who hoped the announcement earlier this year(2021) of a Government plan to phase out culling could curb the annual countryside killings.
Some 140,830 badgers have been culled since 2013 in a bid to curb the spread of tuberculosis in cows.
A total of 38,642 badgers were killed last autumn in the programme.
Born Free Foundation policy adviser Dominic Dyer said: “Despite putting forward proposals for phasing out badger culling in January, the Government is planning a major expansion of badger killing in 2021, including into new counties in Hampshire and Northamptonshire.
“This could result in over 200,000 badgers being killed by the end of 2021 – the largest mass destruction of a protected species on record.
“Killing badgers on this scale could push this vulnerable species to the verge of local extinction in areas of England which it has inhabited since the Ice Age.”
Supporters of the policy believe killing badgers helps stop the spread of bovine TB in cattle, with badgers blamed for carrying the disease around the countryside, infecting cattle.
But opponents believe the shooting programme is ineffective.
In January, the Government signalled the scheme would start to be wound down from 2022.
Unveiling a consultation on its strategy for tackling bovine TB, Environment Secretary George Eustice said: “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.”