A defiant Government wants South West farms free of tuberculosis in cattle within 25 years after a long-awaited badger cull got under way.
The first animals were shot by trained marksmen on Monday night into yesterday morning as the Government's controversial policy to eradicate bovine tuberculosis (TB) – causing misery among farmers in the region – started amid protests.
But Environment Secretary Owen Paterson once again rejected calls for a focus on vaccinations, arguing a badger cull was the best option to reverse the spread of the disease that is "devastating" cattle and dairy industries.
"My target is that the UK should be TB free in 25 years," the minister said, as two six-week "pilot" culls in west Somerset and west Gloucestershire got under way. Around 5,000 badgers could be killed.
Wildlife and animal welfare groups reacted angrily, accusing the Government of going against the scientific evidence and public opinion, as opponents gathered at "Camp Badger" sites to protest against an "inhumane" measure.
Simon Nash, chief executive of Somerset Wildlife Trust, said: "The shooting of badgers could make the problem worse here in Somerset."
About 38,000 TB-infected cattle were slaughtered last year, with ravaged herds most frequently found in the South West.
The first case of bovine TB in badgers was identified in the 1970s on a farm in Gloucestershire, and farmers have since become convinced that the spiralling badger population is to blame for the spread of the disease. But it was only in 2011 when the coalition Government sanctioned a mass cull, which has now come to fruition.
Its start was confirmed in a letter from Peter Kendall, president the of National Farmers' Union, to members. 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. Mr Paterson previously urged farmers in Devon and Cornwall to prepare for the second wave from June next year.
Mr Paterson said: "The intention is to roll out this policy in other areas next year subject to these two culls proving effective, efficient and humane. My target is that the UK should be TB free in 25 years."
The NFU's Mr Kendall said the cull was "an important step not just for cattle farmers but for the whole farming industry". He wrote: "We cannot go on culling tens of thousands of cattle every year because of TB while knowing the disease exists in wildlife uncontrolled."
In the face of criticism even from celebrities, ministers have used the same evidence that Labour deployed to dismiss calls for a cull to argue that a 16% reduction in bovine TB incidents could result after nine years. The Government says the figure is significant and stems knock-on effects.
Officials estimate the total state bill for bovine TB is set to reach £1 billion.
The Government is investing in cattle and oral badger vaccines, but are wary of their effectiveness. An injectable badger vaccine is now available but costly and cattle vaccines are years away.