COALEY PEAK (Reuters) - Senseless massacre to some, a necessary evil to others, a plan to cull thousands of wild badgers to stem the spread of tuberculosis in cattle is sharply dividing rural England.
Marksmen could start the cull any day but details are being kept secret for fear of clashes between farmers determined to protect their livestock and livelihoods and activists who have pledged to foil the plan by scaring away the badgers.
Passions are running so high that police leave has been cancelled until the New Year in Gloucestershire, one of two areas in southwestern England where the cull is being piloted, in case violence breaks out.
At issue is how to stem the spread of bovine tuberculosis, which many farmers blame on roaming badgers, while saving a creature that holds a special place in English hearts.
The disease in England has cost the taxpayer some 500 million pounds over the past decade, as farmers were forced to destroy herds made unfit for human consumption.
The debate is a sensitive one in Britain, where the mass slaughter of cattle to control disease in livestock has left deep scars in the farming community and government following "mad cow" and foot-and-mouth outbreaks in the past two decades.
Scientists have found that badgers help spread the disease.
Cull supporters say vaccinating the nocturnal creatures is difficult and costly, although some trials are underway. They argue that shooting badgers is the most efficient way to slow the spread of the disease, which is so acute some farmers have given up rearing cattle altogether.
Critics, however, argue the science is far from conclusive. Some of the more militant animal rights activists say they will vandalize supermarkets selling products from farms involved in the cull, and the National Farmers' Union says some of its members have received threatening letters and phone calls.
Retired policeman Tony Dean, who has been watching badgers for 30 years, is among those appalled by the prospect of the killing.
"They call it a cull. I call it a slaughter," said the 79-year-old, pointing towards one area where the animals will be lured from underground after dark and shot.
"For every badger they kill, I'm absolutely certain there's going to be nine or 10 badly injured that will die a long, lingering death," he said.
Under the plan, badgers will be shot for six consecutive weeks in each of the next four years in parts of Gloucestershire and the neighboring county of Somerset. The aim is to reduce the badger population by 70 percent.
"Of course nobody wants to be going out there and killing badgers," said Tom Rabbetts, a policy adviser for the National Farmers' Union. "Unfortunately it is the lesser of two evils."
Lengthy government trials have suggested culling could lead to a net reduction in TB in cattle, with a decrease within the cull area only partly offset by a rise outside, as badgers that survived ranged more widely.
The trials also found that, if less than 70 percent of the badgers in the area were killed, the wider spread might outweigh any benefit. The pilot areas for the current cull have been designed to limit the potential for spreading by using boundaries like rivers and motorways.
Animal rights activists say the same trials showed badgers had a marginal role at most. They point to a 2007 study at the end of the trials that said culling made no meaningful contribution to eradicating cattle TB.
Celebrities have joined the debate on saving the badger in Britain, where the popular image of the wise if curmudgeonly Mr Badger from the classic children's book "The Wind in the Willows" by Kenneth Grahame, lives on.
Brian May, guitarist of the rock band Queen, has started an anti-cull petition that has gathered about 150,000 signatures. He said he was sure there would be clashes but urged parties to refrain from any intimidating behavior.
"There are a lot of people in Gloucestershire and Somerset who have this on their doorsteps and they don't want it, so they have every right to protest in a lawful way," May said, speaking at an event at the European Parliament in Brussels.
The culling debate is also being driven by memories of the thick smoke billowing from the pyres used to burn infected herds during outbreaks of disease in the last 20 years.
"Mad cow" disease in the mid-1990s led to the slaughter of millions of animals and prompted foreign bans on British beef, devastating the farming sector. In 2001, foot-and-mouth cost agriculture and tourism an estimated 8.5 billion pounds ($13.6 billion), with more than 6 million animals slaughtered.
Rabbetts, the farmers' union adviser, argued that farmers are unfairly tagged as heartless because they produce animals for meat. "But actually you don't want to kill an animal early," he said. "It can be really heartbreaking."
Culling the badgers can eventually reduce TB by 16 percent, he says.
In 2010, one quarter of cattle farms in southwestern England recorded cases of TB, prompting the slaughter a year later of about 26,000 of the animals, according to the government's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
If no further action is taken now, the department says, 1 billion pounds will be needed over the next decade to control the disease.
Gavin Grant, head of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said culls are ineffective.
"There is no good reason why this cull is taking place and there is every good reason to oppose it. At best, it's a distraction; at worst, it's a disaster," he said.
Grant said the cull diverted attention from the need to press the European Union to approve a vaccine for cattle, and in the meantime vaccinate badgers and introduce better measures to prevent cow-to-cow transmission.
He has urged supermarkets to adopt badger-friendly labels so customers know which products come from farms that have culled badgers.
In the market town of Stroud, in Gloucestershire, graffiti sprayed beside a canal feature the black-and-white face of a badger and, in blood-red paint, its plea: "Don't Kill Me".
But at the weekly farmers' market, packed with stalls selling fresh farmhouse cheeses and locally raised meat, Stan Jones of Hinton Marsh Farm said bovine TB had forced him to slaughter about 10 cows in recent years.
"They've got to do something about it because there's so many cows being killed," said Jones, 69.
Farms minister David Heath defended the cull and rejected accusations that his Conservative-led government had backed the move to curry favor with the farming community.
"If I wanted to be popular I would not be talking about killing little black-and-white creatures that everybody loves," he said. ($1 = 0.6240 British pounds)
Additional reporting by Alessandra Prentice in London; Charlie Dunmore in Brussels; Editing by Anthony Barker and Jon Boyle