Attempts by the National Farmers Union (NFU) to ban protests against the controversial badger cull within the trial culling zones were condemned as undemocratic by opponents of the scheme today.
The badger cull is set to begin in Gloucestershire or Somerset on Monday night and the NFU has applied for an injunction that will be heard in the High Court tomorrow and would ban protests in the area.
The injunction also reveals which counties could be next if the trial is deemed successful and expanded, because it also seeks to prevent protest in parts of Herefordshire, Somerset and Dorset, which are not yet part of the official cull zone.
If granted, the injunction would prevent any protest against the pilot scheme within 100 metres of the culling zones, which presently cover 300 square kilometres in west Gloucestershire and west Somerset.
Mary Creagh, the shadow environment secretary, said: “The right to lawful peaceful protest is an important part of our British democratic tradition. This injunction could have a chilling effect on the large numbers of people who wish to exercise that right and express their opposition to the badger cull.”
Molly Scot Cato, of a Green Party councillor on the Stroud District Council near the culling zone in Gloucestershire, added: “If granted, the injunction could impinge on the right to peaceful protest. The attempt to suppress peaceful opposition is a sign of weakness and it shows that the NFU knows the public is against the cull.”
“This injunction is a huge attack on democracy - the right to peaceful protest. If the NFU are allowed to get this injunction through, then it's not just a dark day for badgers, but a very dark day for the civil liberties of people in this country,” said Dominic Dyer, Policy Advisor for Care for the Wild, the wildlife protection charity.
The NFU's attempts to secure an injection comes against a backdrop of intimidation by some opponents of the cull towards those people connected to the cull. As such, the timing and location of any cull is a closely guarded secret as participants fear reprisals for their involvement.
NFU president Peter Kendall said: “We have applied for the injunction in response to various incidents of harassment and intimidation carried out against farmers and landowners by activists opposed to the badger cull.”
“The application was made against a number of applicants and landowners by activists opposed to the badger cull,” he added.
But opponents to the injunction point out that while the court application names several activists, it also seeks to bar “persons unknown” from the culling zones. 'Persons unknown' refers to “any person protesting against the cull”.
The NFU's attempt to win an injunction is the latest in a series of controversies in the government's extremely contentious plan to trial a cull of badgers that aims to kill 5,000 of the animals.
The cull aims to reduce the incidence of tuberculosis in cattle that badgers help spread and that resulted in the slaughter of 38,000 cattle in Britain last year -at a cost of more than £100m to the taxpayer.
But, in addition to the moral objections, many oppose the cull on scientific grounds. Those against the scheme argue that the cull will exacerbate the problem as fleeing badgers that the marksmen fail to kill carry their disease to new areas, while the vacuum left by the cull encourages new, potentially infected, badgers into the zone.
Although the badger cull formally began on June 1, it is understood that the culling companies held off from starting until next week, when the nights begin to lengthen, giving the marksmen more time to kill the nocturnal creatures.