The Government has launched a scheme to vaccinate badgers in Cheshire against bovine tuberculosis as part of efforts to tackle the disease in livestock.

The scheme will vaccinate badgers in areas next to regions that are at high risk of bovine TB, in a bid to create a "buffer zone" to prevent the spread of the disease in new areas of the country where incidence is currently low.

Under the scheme, which will target counties in a strip down the middle of England such as Cheshire, Oxfordshire and Hampshire, a package of support will be available, including funding of up to 50% of the long-term costs for vaccinating.

Vaccination projects could also receive advice from experts, free loans of equipment such as traps and free supplies of vaccines, Environment Secretary Elizabeth Truss said.

In a written ministerial statement she said: "I hope that wildlife and farming groups, many of whom have been closely involved in the development of this initiative, will seize this opportunity.

"I want to use annual badger vaccination, over wider areas than is currently carried out, to show that vaccination has a role to play in combating this disease."

But she added: "This vaccination scheme is just one element of our strategy to eradicate bovine TB. This includes strict cattle movement controls and also culling in the high risk area, which overseas experience shows is vital to beating the disease."

The Government and farmers insist that culling is necessary to tackle TB in livestock, which saw more than 26,000 cattle slaughtered in England last year and multimillion-pound losses.

But opponents say culling is inhumane and ineffective and alternatives such as vaccination should be pursued.

Mark Jones, veterinarian and executive director of Humane Society International UK, said: "We're pleased that Defra (Environment Department) has finally admitted that badger vaccination is a useful tool, but it will be too little too late unless ministers pull out all the stops to promote it to the very farmers they and the National Farmers Union have spent years trying to convince that badger vaccination is a waste of time.

"Ministers have downplayed the value of badger vaccination in recent years, in an attempt to boost support for a cull, and that negative messaging risks undermining the scheme even before it has begun.

"If Defra now wants to get buy-in from those same farmers for vaccination of badgers on their land, it needs to seriously change its rhetoric."

Shadow environment secretary Maria Eagle said: "Labour has consistently said that to get bovine TB under control we need to bring in stricter cattle measures and prioritise badger and cattle vaccinations.

"The Tories have failed to explain why they're pressing ahead with culls which have been shown to be ineffective, inhumane and risk making the problem worse.

"The badger culls have already been described as an 'epic failure' by the chief scientific adviser to Natural England. To add insult to injury these culls are proceeding without any independent scientific oversight."