Two pilot culls to kill up to 5,000 badgers in Gloucestershire and Somerset have begun.
The cull, which the Guardian revealed last week would start on Monday night and the National Farmers Union has confirmed is under way, is designed to test whether badgers can be killed in a safe, humane and effective way. Farmers and the government say the cull is necessary to combat bovine tuberculosis, which led to 37,000 cattle being slaughtered in 2012, at a cost of £100m in compensation from the taxpayer.
Free-running badgers will be shot by licensed marksmen, rather than being trapped and killed, which is a more expensive option.
The environment secretary, Owen Paterson, said on Tuesday that a cull was necessary because a badger vaccine – advocated by opponents of the cull – would not treat badgers that already carried the disease.
“We know that despite the strict controls we already have in place, we won’t get on top of this terrible disease until we start dealing with the infection in badgers as well as in cattle. That’s the clear lesson from Australia, New Zealand, the Republic of Ireland and the USA.
“That is why these pilot culls are so important. We have to use every tool in the box because TB is so difficult to eradicate and it is spreading rapidly.”
He continued: “If we had a workable vaccine we would use it. A badger vaccine would have no effect on the high proportion of sick badgers in TB hotspots who would continue to spread the disease. We are working on new badger and cattle vaccines but they are years away from being ready and we cannot afford to wait while TB gets worse.”
Anti-cull protesters attend a vigil in Minehead, Somerset. Photograph: REX/Simon Chapman/LNP/Rex Features
Campaigners said the start of the cull marked a “dark day” for the UK. Mark Jones, veterinarian and executive director for the Humane Society International/UK, said: “We are appalled to learn that the mass shooting of badgers has begun in our countryside. This is a dark day for Britain as science and ethics have been sacrificed at the altar of political expediency. Thousands of innocent badgers will now suffer and die in a completely unjustified slaughter that will at best have a marginal impact on TB in cattle and could very well make the problem worse.”
By Tuesday morning, over a quarter of a million people had signed a petition calling on the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to cancel the cull and focus on vaccination and better biosecurity. Jay Tiernan, the man behind the Stop the Cull campaign, was arrested on Monday for trespassing at a Defra site in Gloucestershire. Protesters have said they will do their best to disrupt the cull, which will see a police operation dubbed Operation Themisworking to ensure public safety.
Many local residents in the cull-zone oppose the action and are doing all they can to help the animals survive. Yet most farmers believe a cull is the only way to safeguard their livelihoods. Patrick Barkham reports Link to video: Badger cull divides communities in west Somerset
Scientists including Lord Krebs, the head of the landmark 10-year culling trials that ended in 2007, have called the cull “mindless” and said: “The scientific case is as clear as it can be: this cull is not the answer to TB in cattle. The government is cherry-picking bits of data to support its case.”
But in a letter to his members, the NFU president, Peter Kendall, wrote on Tuesday: “We cannot go on culling tens of thousands of cattle every year because of TB while knowing the disease exists in wildlifeuncontrolled. It is why the NFU will be working with the pilot companies to ensure the successful delivery of these pilot culls over the coming weeks.
“Badger control remains a controversial subject and we understand that some people will never agree with controlling badgers in this way.
“I am confident however that through the combined efforts of farmers, the NFU and government over the last year to illustrate the impact TB has on farms, and the scientific basis for badger control, more people than ever recognise the need to address the disease in badgers.”
The pilot culls were originally intended to begin last autumn but were postponed in October on the grounds that there had not been enough time to prepare for it because of a rainy summer, policing and the Olympics, and legal challenges to the cull.