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Don’t cull me now: celebrities fight for badgers

Brian May, Queen guitarist and founder of Save Me, at a rally against the badger cull
Matt Cardy | Getty Images
Brian May, Queen guitarist and founder of Save Me, at a rally against the badger cull

Musician Meat Loaf, actress Judi Dench and Queen guitarist Brian May have joined forces in an unusual alliance in the U.K. to protest against a pilot scheme to cull badgers to stop the spread of tuberculosis (TB) in cows.

Pilot culls of roughly 5,000 badgers began this week in two English counties to stem the rising tide of bovine TB that has plagued British farmers. The cattle catch TB from infected-badgers and other animals, such as deer.

According to the U.K.'s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), approximately 28,000 cattle were slaughtered for TB control in England last year.

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Brian May, known for his curls and for playing the national anthem on the roof of Buckingham Palace to mark the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, has formed an animal rights group, Save Me, to focus on the prevention of fox hunting as well as the culling of badgers.

May even told the BBC in 2010 that he would rather be remembered for his work saving badgers than for his music.

Meatloaf and Judi Dench have appeared online for the group, Team Badger, a coalition of bodies that includes May's Save Me as well as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) and the League Against Cruel Sports.

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Team Badger cite a report by the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB from 2007 which was presented to the government and concluded, after performing a badger culling trial and assessing other data, "that badger culling cannot meaningfully contribute to the future control of cattle TB in Britain."

But it's not just celebrities who have a penchant for the furry friend.

Owen Paterson, the U.K.'s environment minister who is overseeing the pilot cull, has fended off attacks that he is being inhumane and pandering to farmers' unions by reminiscing about his childhood in rural Cheshire when he looked after a pair of orphaned badgers named Bessy and Baz.

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5,000 badgers are expected to be culled in a six-week U.K. trial
Damian Kuzdak | Getty Images
5,000 badgers are expected to be culled in a six-week U.K. trial

Badger love and frustration

The badger cull has sparked strong passions on both sides of the debate.

"In children's literature the badger always tends to be the fun-loving animal, like in "Wind In The Willows" or "Rupert The Bear"," Christianne Glossop, the chief veterinary officer for Wales told CNBC.

According to James Yeates, the chief veterinary officer at the RSPCA, there are a number of emotions involved. "Obviously, people see badgers and know that they're intelligent, social animals that can suffer and can be harmed."

Yates said he also understood the frustration felt by farmers who were defending their livelihoods.

"They feel very frustrated and it can be tragic when a herd breaks down with TB and I think they feel they want something to be done and I can completely understand that." But, Yeates added, "They've latched onto the idea of something that unfortunately won't work."

In a letter to its members, National Farmers' Union (NFU) president Peter Kendall wrote, regarding the pilot cull, "I know that many of you reading this will have suffered the misery of dealing with TB on farm - some of you for decades - and I hope now you will feel that something is finally being done to stem the cycle of infection between cattle and badgers."

Vaccinate or cull?

Instead, Yeates and the RSPCA say a pilot scheme in Wales where badgers are being vaccinated is a better alternative. The five-year program is currently in its second year.

Glossop, the chief veterinary officer for Wales, who is investigating the effectiveness of vaccinations, said culling isn't necessarily wrong and can reduce the incidence of TB.

On the other hand, the evidence for vaccinations is less clear (hence the experiment in Wales).

Whether badgers are culled or not, everyone agrees that bovine TB can only be reduced and not completely eliminated in the next few years. That means cattle will still be culled in both Wales and England for some time yet.