London, UK - It is a character beloved by writers and immortalised in classic tales, but the distinctive badger is about to be slaughtered in a cull that is dividing the British countryside.
In an effort to halt the spread of bovine tuberculosis, ministers have ordered marksmen to shoot badgers in southwest England to control what they claim is a serious threat to the UK’s £2.8bn cattle industry - and if the cull is extended nationally, up to 130,000 badgers will die.
The controversial decision - the badger is a species protected by law - has exposed serious rifts over how humane and effective the cull will be, and is fuelling fears of angry confrontations in rural areas.
Critics say the government’s move is unscientific and responds solely to political lobbying by farmers, while hardliner animal rights activists have pledged to disrupt the shooting.
"We will use direct action to disrupt the slaughter of badgers, which is cruel and unnecessary," said Jay Tiernan of the Bristol-based activist group Stop the Cull. "We will patrol the countryside and undertake citizens arrests of anyone we see trying to shoot badgers."
With its striking facial markings and mysterious nocturnal behaviour, the badger has long been a symbol of British rural life and has featured in memorable works from The Wind in the Willows and the Chronicles of Narnia to Watership Down and Fantastic Mr Fox.
There are about 400,000 badgers in the UK and the species - once widely hunted in a blood sport known as "badger baiting" whereby dogs were used to test the otherwise docile creature’s ferocious bite and claws - has been protected since the 19th century.
But badgers are known to carry bovine TB, which has been on the rise in Britain since the 1980s, and which the government says has cost more than £500m in compensation and research in England alone in the last 10 years.
It is a government cull - farmers will be entering into it with regret because they have no alternative.
Between 2008-13, 186,664 cattle were slaughtered in Great Britain because of TB - 3,215 this January alone, an increase of 24 percent from the same period last year.
Farmers are adamant that the badger is mainly responsible for significant losses among cattle, making a cull essential.
Ministers have now licensed landowners to allow 5,000 badgers - 70 percent of the local population - to be shot in two zones in southwest England where TB in cattle is high.
If experts working for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) decide the culls have been humane and effective, they will extend them across the country.
Farmers’ leaders point to the experience of neighbouring Ireland, where badgers have been culled for a decade and bovine TB has been falling. However, the Irish use snares and British farmers will employ "free shooting", by which marksmen target running badgers.
The powerful National Farmers’ Union (NFU) has led calls for the cull, although spokesmen stress this point has been reached only after years of political inertia.
"The problem has now become acute. I would say, more in sorrow than jubilation, that farmers regrettably have no option but to go down this route. It is a government cull - farmers will be entering into it with regret because they have no alternative," said Ian Johnson, spokesman for the NFU in the southwest.
Other countryside bodies such as the farmers’ organisation DairyCo and the Country Land and Business Association also back the cull, as do the government’s chief veterinary officer and the British Veterinary Association (BVA).
But a broad coalition of opposition to the cull has brought together wildlife experts, animal rights campaigners and politicians outraged at what they say is an unprecedented act of cruelty that is neither necessary - nor likely to work.
"Team Badger" comprises the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the Humane Society International and the League Against Cruel Sports among other organisations.
The activist group Stop the Cull - whose supporters include veteran "hunt saboteurs" who regularly disrupt fox-hunting on Britain's wealthy rural estates - has pledged direct action.
"Shooting badgers is illegal and it is our intention to go round the countryside with torches, megaphones and vuvuzelas and, when we see someone shooting, assume they are acting illegally and conduct citizens arrests on them until the police come," said Tiernan.
Earlier in June hundreds of campaigners gathered in London to rally against the cull, including the rock band Queen's guitarist Brian May.
Opponents say the cull defies scientific research undertaken for the government itself and represents a political sop by the Conservative Party within the ruling coalition to its supporters in the powerful farming lobby.
|Plan to cull thousands of wild badgers is divisive [Reuters]
A huge, £50m government-funded study leading to a report published in 2007 by Professor John Bourne concluded that killing badgers would be a waste of time and money.
Mark Jones, director of the Humane Society International/UK, said: "The scientists who oversaw that trial continue to overwhelmingly oppose the government’s plans today and warn that the science has been ‘cherry-picked’ and their conclusions manipulated in order to try and justify a policy that simply doesn’t hold water."
Veterinarians are deeply divided, with some launching attacks on their own professional body, the BVA, for supporting the cull.
Jack Reedy, a spokesman for the Badger Trust, a welfare organisation that has explored legal ways of stopping the cull, said of the 11,000 badgers killed as part of trials leading up to the Bourne report, just one in 10 had TB.
"They have distorted science to fit a political agenda - which is to have the badgers killed," said Reedy.
Johnson of the NFU admits the science is disputed but says culling, nonetheless, clearly lowers TB rates because badgers spread the disease in a way particularly threatening to cattle.
"That is why a cull is necessary - because this has been left so long, there has been political inertia for 20 years, it has not been a nettle that politicians have been prepared to grasp."
Opponents, however, insist that allowing marksmen to shoot badgers freely without trapping them first could spread the disease even more as creatures abandon established habitats.
They are particularly concerned about the impact of a cull on the badger population and the method chosen to kill them, which they say is cheap - and cruel.
"Inaccuracies and uncertainties about the ways badger populations are estimated mean there’s real fear among scientists that the policy could actually result in the complete eradication of badgers in some areas, simply because they get the numbers wrong," said Mark Jones.
Opponents also draw attention to the role in spreading TB played by intensive farming practices fuelled by the demand for cheap food.
This is all about politics and not about science. They are looking to give something to the farmers’ unions that are crying out for action - and badger culling is what they have to give them.
The Humane Society International points out that Defra figures indicate that in 2010 about 13.7 million individual cattle movements took place in the UK - four times the number of a decade before.
The NFU rejects this argument, saying farmers are already under tight restrictions on moving herds.
"Farmers are doing their bit in terms of biosecurity," Johnson said.
Environmental commentators have argued the row has wider importance for the UK, demonstrating the disproportionate grip over rural policy held by farmers, who represent a small minority in the countryside.
"This is all about politics and not about science. They are looking to give something to the farmers’ unions that are crying out for action - and badger culling is what they have to give them," said Jones.
One potential solution to bovine TB would be vaccinating badgers - but they will need to be caught first.
Trials are under way in Wales, but cull supporters such as Conservative MP Geoffrey Clifton-Brown say trying to vaccinate large numbers of badgers is impractical and costly.
"The idea of vaccinating large areas in the hotspots throughout the country with an injectable vaccine is simply not a starter," he told parliament.
Moreover, efforts to develop a potentially effective form of oral vaccine, delivered in edible badger bait, remain in their infancy.
Meanwhile, the battle lines continue to be drawn in the countryside.
"If they go ahead there will be a lot of public disquiet - and whether they will be able to follow through these trial culls to their completion remains to be seen," said Jones.
According to Stop the Cull, there are signs that preparations are being made to trap badgers in cages - a potential victory for activists poised to disrupt shooting.
Reedy, however, said he believes scientific good sense will win the day. "Once everyone asserted that the Earth was flat and the Sun revolved around it - well things are a bit different today."