A government plan to slaughter thousands of the country's best-loved wild animals was always going to be controversial. But the long-awaited badger cull, aimed at stopping the spread of tuberculosis in cattle, now looks set to provoke a campaign of direct action by animal rights activists not seen since the heyday of the fox hunt saboteurs.
Yesterday it emerged that activists working for an organisation called the Coalition of Badger Action Groups (CBAG), have publicised the names, addresses and telephone numbers of farmers involved in organising a trial of the cull due to begin in the West Country this autumn. Followers of the group were urged to contact the farmers to "let them know" their views on the cull.
Although activists said their intention was not to "harass" the people targeted, farmers say they have been "intimidated and frightened" by the move. One of the addresses belonged to a Bed and Breakfast managed by the wife of a farmer involved. Her mobile phone number was also published.
The action, which has been condemned by the National Farmers Union, raises the stakes in a debate that has already pitched the Government and farmers against animal welfare campaigners. Mainstream bodies such as the RSPCA have opposed the cull – as have celebrities including Brian May, who wore a badger badge while performing at the Olympics closing ceremony – while fringe groups have voiced their intention to take direct action to disrupt shooting parties.
The trial cull could see 70 per cent of badgers killed across two areas measuring a total of more than 600 sq km, according to the Badger Trust, which has launched a last-ditch High Court appeal against the plan, which will be heard next month. If it fails, farmers and landowners, who have been invited to apply for licences to shoot badgers from Natural England, the government body responsible for the cull, will be able to shoot the normally-protected species with impunity for six weeks.
However, an activist from the group responsible for the "name and shame" action told The Independent if the trial cull went ahead, a co-ordinated animal rights campaign would seek to disrupt as many shooting parties as possible.
The campaigner, who gave his name as Jay, said his organisation had "the support of the entire grassroots animal rights movement in the UK". The Hunt Saboteurs Association said that experienced activists are planning to travel to the West Country from throughout the UK to help disrupt the trial cull. Last week 40 saboteurs successfully disrupted a grouse shoot in West Yorkshire, costing shooters thousands of pounds.
The protesters claim to have mapped the exact location of the pilot cull area, which had been a closely-guarded secret. Natural England, the government body responsible for licensing the cull, says the areas, within the districts of Forest of Dean, Tewkesbury, Wychavon, Malvern Hills, south-east Herefordshire and west Somerset, were not being specified for security reasons.
CBAG will invite volunteers to join "night patrols", carrying high-powered torches and megaphones to disturb shooting parties, which are expected to target the nocturnal creatures by laying bait near their setts.
"Saboteurs usually stand between the guns and the target, but this will not need to happen with badgers," Jay said. "We don't want people to get hurt. Because badgers are naturally timid we're hoping that disturbance will be enough to make them run away."
"We're not die-hard, crazed nutters," he added. "Anyone who is concerned about the cull can come along." However, one of the farmers targeted by the group told The Independent that he had received threatening emails from activists and was worried for his family's safety.
"I am concerned for our safety: my family, my grandchildren," he said. "All they are interested in doing is frightening and intimidating people. It's the disease we're fighting. We've slaughtered 500,000 cattle in the past eight years and have got nowhere in eradicating it."
The farmer, who is associated with a company that is co-ordinating license applications for farmers and landowners intending to carry out the cull on their land, said that he suspected the activists responsible for the leak were "a fringe minority" loosely associated with major campaign groups.
Although more established animal protection groups have stopped short of backing "name and shame" action, they remain vehemently opposed to the cull, claiming vaccination would be a more effective and humane solution. They believe culling could spread bovine tuberculosis by driving badgers out of an infected zone into surrounding areas. "Our argument's with the Government," said Joe Duckworth, chief executive of the League Against Cruel Sports. "They have ignored the scientific evidence; the welfare concerns; the fact there is a humane alternative in vaccination. We…urge individuals opposed to the badger cull to voice their support peacefully."
Licence to cull guidelines
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has issued guidelines for "best practice" in the licensed shooting of badgers, which stipulates that marksmen must be "competent in the use and safe handling of firearms".
Both rifles and shotguns are permitted but semi-automatic weapons are prohibited. Two main methods will be used: searching and shooting with aid of a spotlight and shooting over a fixed bait point.
Shooters must aim for the "heart/lung area" of the badger to ensure an instant kill, which is likely to prove extremely difficult as the badgers will usually be moving and "the forelimb can obscure a large part of the target area". Defra's advice includes diagrams pointing out the target area for the aid of shooters.