Celebrities and animal lovers have rounded on the Government over sanctioning a cull of badgers to tackle the spread of tuberculosis in cattle that is rife in the far South West.
Government agency Natural England announced on Monday it has awarded a licence to kill badgers in Gloucestershire that could last for four years. A second cull is likely to be given the go-ahead in Somerset within days, with both poised to start in a matter of weeks.
But the decision has been condemned by wildlife expert Bill Oddie, Queen guitarist Brian May, and broadcaster Chris Packham. A Government e-petition, which could trigger a debate in the House of Commons, has attracted almost 44,000 signatures as it receives endorsements from high-profile names on social media website Twitter.
If the night-time culls prove to be safe, efficient and humane after a six-week "pilot" period they will be extended to four years, and pave the way for up to ten more licences a year to be issued in other livestock tuberculosis hotspots from June 2013.
Mr Oddie, who used to front BBC Springwatch, said the cull flew in the face of scientific evidence, and criticised Environment Secretary Owen Paterson for pushing ahead with the cull, which will be carried out by trained marksmen.
As a child, Mr Paterson kept two pet badgers, Bessie and Baz. He first mentioned them in Parliament when in Opposition seven years ago, saying: "It grieves me to think that the descendants of my badgers could be suffering a hideous death due to Government neglect on TB."
Mr Oddie said: "The decision is not only appalling for the badgers, it is also arrogant, ignorant and insulting to the researchers and scientists that are advising against it. But then judging from his scepticism on climate change, Owen Patterson clearly has little respect for science. Or compassion.
"Apparently when he was a little boy he had two badgers as pets. Perhaps they got more attention than he did? Maybe the cull is some kind of vendetta. Beware budgies, white mice, hamsters, dogs and pussy cats. You're next."
Mr May re-iterated his long-standing opposition and Mr Packham said: "I feel sick that the science has been forsaken and that badgers will be sacrificed for our stupidity and selfishness."
Animal welfare groups are also against culling. RSPB conservation director Martin Harper said: "The dairy industry has endured terrible times while trying to cope with this devastating disease.
"However, we have never been convinced that the best way to help farmers is to force them to foot the bill for a contentious cull that is only expected to reduce outbreaks by about 16%. This is a lot of effort for a small gain."
The Department for Environment points to the ten-year Randomised Badger Culling Trial as its scientific justification for the 16% reduction, which ministers say is significant.
Thousands of badgers, which carry the disease, will be killed. Some 26,000 cattle were slaughtered last year to control TB, which could eventually cost the taxpayer £1 billion, the Government says. Vaccination is unproven and costly, it says.