Environment secretary Owen Paterson has given Defra's proposed badger cull the go ahead after postponing the move last year.

Thousands of badgers face being slaughtered from next summer when the cull begins. BBC presenter and naturalist Chris Packham called the decision a "dark day for British wildlife".

Paterson said authorisation letters have been issued by Natural England confirming the cull can go ahead in West Gloucestershire and West Somerset.

The badgers are being slaughtered to help stop the spread of bovine TB. However, many experts say a cull will have little effect on the spread of the disease in cows and could even make matters worse.

The environment secretary also said a reserve pilot cull is being prepared for Dorset, just in case unforeseen circumstances prevent badgers from being killed in the areas put forward.

He said: "Bovine TB is spreading at an alarming rate and causing real devastation to our beef and dairy industry. The authorisation letters issued today, confirming that culling can proceed this summer in West Gloucestershire and West Somerset, is an important step towards taking the action we need to tackle the spread of this disease in wildlife.

Badgers to be shot

"I am determined that there are no further delays this year. That is why we have taken the sensible step, with the farming industry, to elect a reserve area that can be called upon should anything happen to prevent culling in Somerset or Gloucester.

"These pilot culls are just one part of our approach to control and eradicate this dreadful disease. We are using everything at our disposal to get to grips with TB including new, tougher controls on moving cattle, increased herd testing and working to get effective vaccines ready as soon as possible."

The cull will begin on 1 June and will last for six weeks. This will be repeated every year for four years.

These pilot tests are being carried out to test the efficacy of shooting, the authorities' preferred method of culling.

Opponents to the cull have expressed their dismay at Paterson's decision. Packham said: "The monkeys have been given the keys to the banana cage - Badger cull licenses have been granted . Another dark day for British wildlife."

Over 169,000 people signed a petition launched by Queen singer Brian May to stop the badger cull going ahead last year.