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Police: We won't be able to cope with badger cull protests

Cash-strapped forces fear for public safety if farmers and activists clash over shootings

Ministers have been warned that police forces will struggle to cope if plans to shoot badgers trigger a dangerous stand-off between armed farm workers and animal rights protesters.

In a memo obtained by The Independent on Sunday, the head of the police unit dealing with domestic extremism warns of the "clear potential for harm to public safety" if protesters clash with farmers carrying out a cull. Caroline Spelman, the Environment Secretary, is expected to make an announcement within weeks on a cull of badgers, which are blamed for spreading TB to cattle. In July, she said she was "strongly minded" to go ahead, in a move that could see tens of thousands of badgers killed. Two trials could begin next year.

But in an email to the Government, Detective Chief Superintendent Adrian Tudway, the national co-ordinator for domestic extremism, warned that forces could be overwhelmed by protests. Officers already face budget cuts, he said, and several major sporting and political events over the next three years, including the 2012 London Olympics, the G8 summit in 2013 and the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.

"Given the difficult nature of policing this initiative, the steps forces are taking to respond to new financial pressures and the proximity of this initiative to other competing priorities... forces will find themselves under huge pressures to manage even small but sustained campaign activity, particularly where that includes unlawful direct action and subsequent criminal investigations."

The most likely action, he claimed, includes arson to destroy or damage property and "psychological harm" against supporters f a cull. Writing on behalf of the Association of Chief Police Officers, Det Ch Supt Tudway warns against "pitting farmers against activists", which "has the potential to create divisions and therefore conflict within rural communities".

Police in Devon and Cornwall, one of the areas worst affected by bovine TB, have written to MPs to assure them the force has "plans in place to respond to protests". Forces are able to claim for a special or extraordinary grant from the Home Office if costs to police protests exceed 1 per cent of their annual budget.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs stresses that it has worked closely with the Home Office and other ministries in drawing up the cull plans. Marksmen will be licensed by Natural England, with officials expecting most to be gamekeepers and others already involved in annual deer culls.

Compensation to farmers whose herds are depleted by TB costs the taxpayer up to £100m a year. Each cull is expected to cost farmers £1.4m. Labour's Mary Creagh has condemned the plans as " bad for farmers, bad for badgers and bad for the taxpayer".

The campaign group 38 Degrees, which mobilised opposition to the Government's NHS reforms and forests sell-off, has vowed to campaign against the cull. The Badger Trust also has the support of the Queen guitarist Brian May, and the RSPCA has claimed the move marks a "black day" for badgers.

"Any option that includes farmers and landowners culling badgers with firearms has potential to place armed farm workers in the near vicinity of protesters and activists, typically during the night-time," Det Ch Supt Tudway warned. "We regard this as a scenario with clear potential for harm to public safety. We see particular challenges where farm workers with little or no experience of trapping badgers in order to shoot them (while still caged) are attempting to do so under the gaze of activists."

A Defra source insisted that no final cull decision has been taken, adding: "We have taken on board all interested parties' concerns and will make sure that the granting of licences will be based on the advice that we have received."