Controversial culling of badgers to tackle tuberculosis in cattle has finally got under way in the face of angry opposition.
National Farmers' Union president Peter Kendall said the first pilot badger control operations had begun, in a move he described as "very important" for beef and dairy farmers.
No information was given on where shooting of badgers had begun, but licences have been given for two pilot culls in west Gloucestershire and west Somerset, with around 5,000 badgers set to be killed in a six-week period across the two areas.
If the culls - delayed last year by bad weather, the need for police to focus on the Olympics and new information on badger numbers - are judged to be effective and humane, culling could be rolled out across TB "hotspot" areas.
Farmers and the Government insist culling of badgers, which can spread TB to cattle, is needed to stop spiralling rates of the disease in herds.
But opponents say culling the protected animal will have only a small effect on infection rates in cattle and will lead to badgers suffering. They want the emphasis to be on vaccines and tighter on-farm and cattle movement measures. Demonstrators turned out in large numbers at the two pilot sites on Monday night to protest against the cull and animal welfare campaigners reacted angrily to news the shooting of badgers had begun.
Mr Kendall said farmers understood the move was divisive and controversial but urged anyone who saw the necessity to protest to do so peacefully. "We understand passions run high, but we'd ask them to remember not just the 5,000 badgers we're talking about culling in these two pilot areas, but the 38,000 cattle slaughtered, and the emotional damage this disease does to farmers and their families who see not just a lifetime's work being destroyed but often many generations' work being destroyed. This is very important for cattle farmers, beef and dairy farmers, to try and start winding back the spread of this ghastly disease."
Environment Secretary Owen Paterson said bovine TB was spreading across the country and "devastating" the cattle and dairy industries. He said the UK would not get on top of the disease until infection in badgers as well as cattle is tackled, and pointed to Australia, New Zealand and Ireland where TB has been successfully addressed with culling as part of the measures used. Mr Paterson said the Government was aiming to eradicate TB from England in 25 years, with culling playing an important part in the strategy to tackle the disease. Culling could be rolled out more widely next year if the pilots are a success, he said. He added: "We have to use every tool in the box because TB is so difficult to eradicate and it is spreading rapidly. If we had a workable vaccine, we would use it. A badger vaccine would have no effect on the high proportion of sick badgers in TB hotspots who would continue to spread the disease. We are working on new badger and cattle vaccines but they are years away from being ready and we cannot afford to wait while TB gets worse."
But animal welfare charity the RSPCA labelled the cull as "misguided", saying it would not tackle the problem of TB in cattle. It also warned the methods of shooting free-running badgers was not humane. RSPCA chief executive Gavin Grant said: "It is with a heavy heart that we today hear the news that the first shots have been fired at badgers in the pilot cull zones. It is now that the realities of the cull may become clear. As we speak, thousands of innocent animals are being culled in our countryside - and we do not know the extent of their suffering or how humane the methods being used to kill them are. It is very likely that many of them are lying injured, suffering a painful death. We fear we could well receive an influx of calls to come to their rescue. The most tragic thing is that this suffering is so needless. Science has shown that this cull is not the answer to bovine TB in cattle. In fact, it could make things a lot worse. Vaccination and better bio-security are the only sustainable and true ways forward."
Labour claimed the coalition had cut spending and research on vaccines for badgers and cattle, and said the Environment Department's official assessment of the pilot culls had revealed it would cost £4 million to police the two schemes. Shadow environment secretary Mary Creagh said: "The Government's divisive badger cull will cost more than it saves and will spread bovine TB in the short term as badgers are disturbed by shooting. We need a science-led policy to manage cattle movements better and a vaccine to tackle TB in cattle. Ministers should listen to the scientists and drop this cull which is bad for farmers, bad for taxpayers and bad for wildlife."