The arguments, in Parliament and in court, are over. The badger cull is beginning. But, asks Philip Bowern, could we be looking at the start of a new battle in the countryside?
Not so long ago it was scenes of red-coated huntsmen and placard-waving demonstrators which symbolised deep-seated division in the countryside.
In the next few weeks, in Gloucestershire and Somerset, it could well be rifle-carrying marksmen facing hunt saboteurs trying to frustrate their efforts to reduce the badger population.
It is the last thing the police need right now, with resources already stretched by Government-imposed spending cuts. But the possibility of disruption is not a good reason to prevaricate further on the cull, which has been demanded for years by farmers who are collectively losing millions of pounds and valuable breeding stock to bovine TB every year.
Standing in front of a horse in an effort to disrupt the hunt, as saboteurs did before the hunt ban, is clearly not without risk. Attempting to get between a rifleman and his quarry at night and in deep and remote woodland, however, is far more dangerous.
The practicalities of the badger cull demand very specific tactics, both because of the secrecy of the mammal in question and the need to make every kill humane. That ought to help reduce the likelihood of any clash with protesters, since locations will be remote, on private land and difficult to access, especially in darkness.
Yet the more extreme end of the badger protection lobby has already found – and published online – the names of the individuals who are applying for the first cull licences. The internet has made it very much easier to research locations, identify cull areas and alert supporters to where direct action is proposed. The results could be catastrophic.
The rules, laid down by Defra and Natural England, say that badgers will be shot, with rifles and shotguns, in an effort to reduce their populations in the cull areas by up to 70%.
The animal welfare lobby initially suggested country walkers could be at risk from stray bullets and the tourist industry would be devastated as campers and other outdoor lovers shunned the pilot cull areas. The National Farmers' Union dismiss those fears as preposterous. The marksmen will be familiar with the terrain over which they will be carrying out the cull and will have taken a written examination and a practical shooting test. The regulations also specify the calibre of the rifle that must be used – at least a .22 centre fire – and the ammunition, which must be of 50 grain weight. That is powerful enough to kill a badger. But also powerful to maim – or even kill – a man.
The NFU said just a few weeks ago that no-one in the cull areas would notice anything untoward going on in the countryside as a result of the badger cull. "Fox shooting, deer culling and the control of vermin already go on across the Westcountry. Exactly the same weapons already in use will be used for the pilot badger cull. No-one will notice anything different at all," a spokesman confidently predicted.
That is all true. Guns are safely used across the Westcountry for lawful purposes day and night through much of the year. But they are generally used in sparsely populated areas without the attention of animal rights protesters.
If the anti-cull groups do act on their pledge to engage in "direct action," normally deserted areas of countryside could be populated by those intent on protecting badgers – at potential risk to themselves.
There is little doubt the cull will take place. Dealing with bovine TB is costing the nation around £100 million at the moment. Some £30 million goes on compensating farmers for cattle culled, with the rest spent on efforts to contain the disease. Although there is deep disagreement surrounding the science, one key fact stands out: no country in the world has successfully tackled bovine TB without dealing with the disease among wild animals. In Britain, virtually everyone agrees badgers – a protected species – are the main carrier in the wild.
Farmers argue the badger lobby groups – now receiving support from many celebrities opposed to the cull – are hypocrites. One farmer told the WMN: "There are rare breeds of cattle down to just a few hundred left, yet the animal welfare lobby is happy to see them culled when they contract TB. Badgers, on the other hand, which at the last count numbered between 350,000 and 400,000 in this country, must not be culled. It doesn't make sense."
For the marksmen the job will be difficult enough. Many will have agreed to take part in the cull – at some personal risk – because they believe reducing badger numbers is the best way to tackle bovine TB in the wild as well as in domestic cattle. Knowing that they might come up against demonstrators is only going to make that job more difficult and more dangerous. This long-running and highly controversial saga is entering a new and riskier phase.