A controversial cull of badgers at two locations in the South West is likely to begin within the next few weeks.
The go-ahead for the six-week cull, as part of the Government strategy to stamp out bovine tuberculosis, was given after the Court of Appeal dismissed a challenge by the Badger Trust to an earlier High Court ruling over the plans.
Environmental groups have said they will monitor the culls closely – and could even use citizen's arrest to prevent marksmen from shooting free-running badgers if they consider the rules are being broken.
Exactly when the culls will begin has yet to be decided. "We are still processing applications at present," said a spokesman for Natural England, the Government agency responsible for issuing licences to farmer groups carrying out the culls.
"We hope to issue licences as soon as we can – but I cannot say any more at the moment."
The two areas for the pilot culls are in West Somerset – west of Taunton and stretching up to Exmoor – and around Tewkesbury in north-west Gloucestershire, both known hotspot areas for bovine TB.
The disease has been causing havoc among cattle herds in the South West. Last year more than 26,000 cattle were culled having tested positive to TB, causing anguish to the farming community and costing tens of millions of pounds in compensation.
The National Farmers' Union (NFU) welcomed the Court of Appeal ruling. "It takes us further down the route to the right result," said Ian Johnson, NFU spokesman in the South West. "We are not over-duly triumphant about this, because it's not the route anyone wants to take, but it's the best one we have available. We now have to focus on delivering it."
Meanwhile, the National Beef Association (NBA) has appealed to farmers to support the pilot culls.
Bill Harper, the NBA's South West TB representative, said: "It's vitally important farmers support this course of action as the only legal method available to the industry to break the chain of this disease."
He said the "final hurdle" towards legalised control of badgers to prevent TB had now been cleared.
"The timing of this ruling was important if we are to get the pilot areas active this autumn. We are fully committed to proving that organised legal control by qualified marksmen is the best way to control this terrible disease."
A high-profile campaign has been waged against the cull by the Badger Trust and other animal organisations, including the RSPCA, joined by scientists and celebrities.
There was consternation when the names and contact details of people involved in organising the cull were published on a website – and the Coalition of Badger Action Groups has promised to monitor culls closely, taking direct though non-aggressive action when members deem it necessary.