Nick Clegg has defended the Government's decision to press ahead with badger culling and urged animal welfare lobbyists and celebrities against inciting anger against farmers.
Speaking to the Western Morning News, the Liberal Democrat leader and Deputy Prime Minister said critics would need "a heart of stone" not to attempt to combat TB in cattle, which is spread by badgers and is causing "huge distress and pain" to animals and farmers.
His remarks in support of two pilot culls came ahead of his keynote address at the Lib Dem conference in Brighton today and were made despite disquiet at the policy from some within his own party.
Queen guitarist Brian May has led opposition to thousands of badgers being killed in bovine TB hotspots, predominantly in the South West, while the RSPCA has called for consumers to boycott milk produced in the region and even holidaying in the peninsula.
Mr Clegg told the WMN: "The idea of culling a single badger is of course distressing, but I really do think it needs to be balanced against the huge distress and pain which cattle experience themselves, and the massive psychological, emotional and financial distress caused to farmers and their family.
"So it's not as simple as only focusing on the suffering on one side of the equation because there is suffering on both sides of the equation. It's one of those very delicate moral dilemmas you face in life."
He went on to urge opponents to avoid becoming abusive: "I think almost any choice you make in this area is going to inflame anger and objections one way or another.
"I would ask people who feel strongly about this just to respect there is a totally legitimate other side of the story in this debate.
"And it is not sensible for people to start staking out ever more vituperative positions."
Last week, Natural England licensed a badger cull in west Gloucestershire, with a start date expected within four weeks, with a second in west Somerset likely to be sanctioned shortly.
After six weeks, officials will assess whether trained marksmen shooting free-running badgers is safe and humane, and the pilots could be extended to last four years. If deemed safe, 10 cull zones could be given the go-ahead each year for four years, with some likely to be further down the Westcountry peninsula. A 16% reduction in the disease if hoped for, but opponents say this is insignificant and there is a risk of the virus spreading further.
Last week, the RSPCA called on consumers to boycott milk from cull areas saying the products would be "soaked in badgers' blood". Queen's Mr May said he would not drink milk from "the moment that the first badger is shot". Some farmers in the region fear they will be subject to intimidation and even violence for even supporting a cull, much less being involved in a cull.
The National Farmers' Union (NFU) has condemned anyone calling for boycotts as "playing fast and loose with an extremely serious animal welfare issue". Some Lib Dem MPs are against the plan while others – particularly in the rural South West – say it is the right thing to do as 25,000 sick cattle are being slaughtered a year.
Mr Clegg said badger culling was an "incredibly difficult issue" and the Government was "proceeding on a step by step basis".
He said: "It divides opinion. It provokes a great deal of emotion and passion. I can understand that. I'm a great animal lover myself.
"You don't want to cull badgers but if you don't cull badgers at least on a pilot basis, which is what we are doing, there's very little evidence anywhere around the world that you can really bear down on bovine TB without bearing down on the animal population that carries the disease in the first place. So what we are doing I think is sensible, which is being guided by science, guided by evidence."
He added: "I would ask people – I totally respect and admire their commitment to avoid animal suffering – just to reflect on the fact that, yes, we do not want to see badgers culled, but nor do we want to see cattle suffer a terrible disease.
"I visited farms in the South West myself, and it made quite an impression on me to see the animal and human effects of bovine TB. You would have to have a heart of stone not to try and find some way of trying to deal with this."
Of calls for boycotts, NFU director of corporate affairs Tom Hind said: "Anyone calling for people to boycott milk and avoid holidaying in areas where the trial badger controls are taking place is playing fast and loose with an extremely serious animal welfare issue. This simply deflects attentions from where they should be focused; eradicating this terrible disease of TB from both our beef and dairy herds – and from badgers."
A Department for Environment spokesman said: "The public showed this summer how much they value dairy farmers – people want them to remain in business and for their milk, cheese and yoghurt to come from Britain.
"Farmers play an important role in the rural economies and communities who also feel the impact of this devastating disease. They need to be allowed to get on top of it instead of their businesses being threatened."