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.
Although activists said their intention was not to "harass", farmers say they have been "intimidated and frightened". One of the addresses belonged to a B&B managed by the wife of a farmer involved. Her mobile phone number was also published.
The action, 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 at the Olympics closing ceremony. Fringe groups have promised direct action to disrupt culls.
The trial could see 70 per cent of badgers killed across two areas measuring more than 600 square kilometres, according to the Badger Trust, which has launched a last-ditch High Court appeal 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 for six weeks.
However, an activist told i that, 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 experienced activists are planning to travel to the West Country from throughout the UK to help disrupt the trial cull.
The protesters claim to have mapped the exact location of the pilot cull area, which had been a closely-guarded secret. Natural England 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. Jay said. "We're not die-hard, crazed nutters. 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."
However, one of the farmers targeted by the group told i that he had received threatening emails. "All they are interested in doing is frightening and intimidating people. It's the disease we're fighting."
Joe Duckworth, chief executive of the League Against Cruel Sports, said: "We urge individuals opposed to the badger cull to voice their support peacefully."