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Badgers have been blamed for spreading disease among cattle in Britain. But a campaign to cull the badgers has been met with opposition from prominent figures like Queen guitarist Brian May, who joined this rally in Bristol earlier this month.
Matt Cardy/Getty Images
The badger, a stalwart of BBC nature programs, is one of Britain's most beloved animals and is a protected species.
To many English dairy farmers, though, this timid omnivore with the black and white stripes is a mobile biological weapon, exposing their cows to bovine tuberculosis through its urine and saliva.
And they've persuaded the British government to sanction extreme measures.
This month, the government issued licenses allowing trained marksmen to wipe out 70 percent of the badger populations in two pilot areas.
Emotions are running so high that when the BBC's Countryfile program interviewed one marksman, his face wasn't shown and an actor re-voiced his words.
British badgers have been exposing cows to bovine tuberculosis, scientists say.
"The quality of the training was, I thought, very good. It was a mixture of theory and practical sessions, and I had to complete an exam at the end of it," said the actor-marksman.
The marksman's desire for anonymity may not be misplaced. Last month, a website posted the names, addresses and telephone numbers of some of the farmers involved in the cull.
British police fear animal rights extremists with a history of bombings and sabotage may be trying to hijack the movement.
Prominent Opponents Of The Cull
Nonviolent badger lovers, though, continue to wage their campaign of persuasion.
TV naturalist David Attenborough is among those lending his voice to the cause, citing past recommendations of the government's own scientists.
British rock star and animal welfare campaigner Brian May argues that vaccination — not eradication — is the answer.
"Farmers have been killing badgers for many, many years now. And effectively, we're in a cull situation already — and TB is rampant," May says.
But conservative British lawmaker Simon Hart says thousands of badgers must die to save thousands of cows and the farms that depend on them.
"Nobody wants to do this. There's no sense of glee here. We've explored every option, taken veterinary advice, and reluctantly come to the view that this, with other things, is the only way we can nail this disease once and for all," Hart says.
Permits have been granted in the counties of Somerset and Gloucestershire. But the government will not reveal more precisely where the killings will begin or when: just sometime this fall — and after dark, of course, because badgers are nocturnal.
That has already affected country life in those areas, says Gordon McGlone, who runs the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust.
"We have staff who are very devoted and work very hard on our nature reserves. And they do lots of things that perhaps one wouldn't expect — bat walks, walks in dusk and dawn. We've stopped that, because we don't want to put them at risk," McGlone says.
With their legal bid to stop the cull defeated, some animal welfare groups are now considering protests and consumer boycotts.
Britain's RSPCA is urging shoppers to refuse to buy, in its words, "Milk from farms soaked in badgers' blood."