She said there was “no satisfactory alternative” to the culls, which will initially take place in two trial areas before potentially expanding to 10 cull areas a year.
Although the exact locations of the two pilot areas have not been revealed, it is known that one is in west Gloucestershire and the other in west Somerset.
Though the national badger population is not known, recent estimates put it at 250,000-300,000. Since badger populations in cull areas should drop by at least 70 per cent, an estimated 40,000-60,000 badgers will be culled by 2016.
In 2010, 25,000 cattle were slaughtered as a result of bovine tuberculosis, which cost taxpayers £90 million in compensation payments. Ms Spelman said compensation costs would run up to £1 billion in the next 10 years if the cull was not approved.
Andrew Prail, president of the British Cattle Veterinary Association, said: “Any intervention in bovine TB takes time to show an effect due to the chronic nature of the disease and we need all the tools in the toolbox at our disposal.
“That is why we are giving our full support to the pilots. Bovine TB is resulting in the premature culling of thousands of cattle every year. Doing nothing is not an option.”
Should the pilot be judged a success and the cull be rolled out more widely, farmers will be able to apply to Natural England for a four-year cull licence covering at least 150 square kilometres.