According to Whitehall sources, the first of two licences is expected to be issued as soon as Monday for a large pilot cull area in Gloucestershire, which is a hotspot for bovine TB.
Previously, there have been localised trials to test the science behind such killings. Yet despite the mixed results of the tests, ministers have decided to push ahead with the national scheme after winning an appeal-court battle brought by campaigners last week.
A decade-long scientific trial of badger killing concluded that it could make "no meaningful contribution", and was "not an effective way" to control the disease. But the government is going forward with the plan under intense pressure from British farmers.
A Defra spokesman said: "We will continue to work with the farming industry so badger control in two pilot areas can start as soon as is practical."
As yet, no badgers have been killed as part of the cull, but with only straightforward administrative steps required after the granting of the licence, killing could begin within days.
Owen Paterson, Environment Secretary, is a fervent supporter of the killing, having tabled a record 600 parliamentary questions on the issue while serving as environment spokesman in opposition.
In an interview with the Farmers Guardian on Friday, Patterson appeared to cast the proposed cull as being of benefit to badgers: "I find the attitude of those who want these wonderful animals to die of this disgusting disease [bovine TB] completely incomprehensible."
But Mary Creagh, Shadow Environment Secretary, said: "The cull will cost more than it saves, put a huge strain on the police, and will spread bovine TB in the short term as badgers are disturbed by the shooting. Ministers should listen to the scientists and can this cull – which is bad for farmers, bad for taxpayers and bad for wildlife."
The government has refused to release numerous documents under freedom of information rules, including advice from the government's chief scientific adviser, Sir John Beddington, and communication with the National Farmers Union. The latter was blocked on the grounds that it was "internal communication".
Natural England, the licensing body, said: "We are working flat out with licence applicants on processing their applications."
The licence will be issued to a group of farmers and landowners who will commit to killing at least 70% of the badgers on their land for at least four years in a row.
The government's own impact assessment concluded that it would cost farmers more to carry out the killing than to do nothing and suffer any losses from bovine TB.
The government pointed to the 16% cut in bovine TB found at the end of the 10-year trial but the new culls will use a different killing method. Instead of trapping then shooting – considered expensive – the badgers will be "free shot" by marksmen. The deaths have to occur before 1 February, when the close season for badger shooting begins and runs till 31 May.
But the start of the cull could be halted by a legal challenge to the licence. The Badger Trust, which unsuccessfully challenged the government's cull policy in the appeal court last week, stated: "We will continue to pursue all legal means to stop culling. We will closely study any licences issued by Natural England."
The trust was successful in a previous legal action against badger killing in Wales. Campaigners are also pursuing a complaint against the government in Europe under the Bern convention.
Animal rights campaigners are determined to halt the trials through protests at the cull sites, whose location is not being made public. Volunteers plan to patrol the zones and stop the badgers coming into the open.
The Gloucestershire and Somerset killings are trials meant to test whether free shooting is as effective as trapping and shooting.
Critics say the short time of the trials will be insufficient for comparison with the decade-long trial, but if the government calls the trials a success, killing will happen across affected areas in England and is expected to end the lives of 70,000 to 105,000 badgers – from an entire UK population estimated at 300,000.
A badger vaccination plan is replacing the Welsh killing. Vaccination is also being tested in Devon by the National Trust, and by the Wildlife Trust in Gloucestershire.