* Aim is to limit bovine tuberculosis, plan is divisive
* Local police barred from taking leave in case of clashes
* Britain has history of costly animal diseases
By Alessandra Rizzo
COALEY PEAK, England, Oct 12 (Reuters) - Senseless massacreto some, a necessary evil to others, a plan to cull thousands ofwild badgers to stem the spread of tuberculosis in cattle issharply dividing rural England.
Marksmen could start the cull any day but details are beingkept secret for fear of clashes between farmers determined toprotect their livestock and livelihoods and activists who havepledged to foil the plan by scaring away the badgers.
Passions are running so high that police leave has beencancelled until the New Year in Gloucestershire, one of twoareas 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 acreature that holds a special place in English hearts.
The disease in England has cost the taxpayer some 500million pounds over the past decade, as farmers were forced todestroy herds made unfit for human consumption.
The debate is a sensitive one in Britain, where the massslaughter of cattle to control disease in livestock has leftdeep 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 isdifficult and costly, although some trials are underway. Theyargue that shooting badgers is the most efficient way to slowthe spread of the disease, which is so acute some farmers havegiven up rearing cattle altogether.
Critics, however, argue the science is far from conclusive.Some of the more militant animal rights activists say they willvandalise supermarkets selling products from farms involved inthe cull, and the National Farmers' Union says some of itsmembers have received threatening letters and phone calls.
Retired policeman Tony Dean, who has been watching badgersfor 30 years, is among those appalled by the prospect of thekilling.
"They call it a cull. I call it a slaughter," said the79-year-old, pointing towards one area where the animals will belured from underground after dark and shot.
"For every badger they kill, I'm absolutely certain there'sgoing to be nine or 10 badly injured that will die a long,lingering death," he said.
"QUEEN" LEGEND IS NOT AMUSED
Under the plan, badgers will be shot for six consecutiveweeks in each of the next four years in parts of Gloucestershireand the neighbouring county of Somerset. The aim is to reducethe badger population by 70 percent.
"Of course nobody wants to be going out there and killingbadgers," said Tom Rabbetts, a policy adviser for the NationalFarmers' Union. "Unfortunately it is the lesser of two evils."
Lengthy government trials have suggested culling could leadto a net reduction in TB in cattle, with a decrease within thecull area only partly offset by a rise outside, as badgers thatsurvived ranged more widely.
The trials also found that, if less than 70 percent of thebadgers in the area were killed, the wider spread might outweighany benefit. The pilot areas for the current cull have beendesigned to limit the potential for spreading by usingboundaries like rivers and motorways.
Animal rights activists say the same trials showed badgershad a marginal role at most. They point to a 2007 study at theend of the trials that said culling made no meaningfulcontribution to eradicating cattle TB.
Celebrities have joined the debate on saving the badger inBritain, where the popular image of the wise if curmudgeonly MrBadger from the classic children's book "The Wind in theWillows" by Kenneth Grahame, lives on.
Brian May, guitarist of the rock band Queen, has started ananti-cull petition that has gathered about 150,000 signatures.He said he was sure there would be clashes but urged parties torefrain from any intimidating behaviour.
"There are a lot of people in Gloucestershire and Somersetwho have this on their doorsteps and they don't want it, so theyhave every right to protest in a lawful way," May said, speakingat an event at the European Parliament in Brussels.
The culling debate is also being driven by memories of thethick smoke billowing from the pyres used to burn infected herdsduring outbreaks of disease in the last 20 years.
"Mad cow" disease in the mid-1990s led to the slaughter ofmillions of animals and prompted foreign bans on British beef,devastating the farming sector. In 2001, foot-and-mouth costagriculture and tourism an estimated 8.5 billion pounds ($13.6billion), with more than 6 million animals slaughtered.
Rabbetts, the farmers' union adviser, argued that farmersare unfairly tagged as heartless because they produce animalsfor 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 Englandrecorded cases of TB, prompting the slaughter a year later ofabout 26,000 of the animals, according to the government'sDepartment for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
If no further action is taken now, the department says, 1billion pounds will be needed over the next decade to controlthe disease.
Gavin Grant, head of the Royal Society for the Prevention ofCruelty to Animals, said culls are ineffective.
"There is no good reason why this cull is taking place andthere is every good reason to oppose it. At best, it's adistraction; at worst, it's a disaster," he said.
Grant said the cull diverted attention from the need topress the European Union to approve a vaccine for cattle, and inthe meantime vaccinate badgers and introduce better measures toprevent cow-to-cow transmission.
He has urged supermarkets to adopt badger-friendly labels socustomers know which products come from farms that have culledbadgers.
In the market town of Stroud, in Gloucestershire, graffitisprayed beside a canal feature the black-and-white face of abadger and, in blood-red paint, its plea: "Don't Kill Me".
But at the weekly farmers' market, packed with stallsselling fresh farmhouse cheeses and locally raised meat, StanJones of Hinton Marsh Farm said bovine TB had forced him toslaughter about 10 cows in recent years.
"They've got to do something about it because there's somany cows being killed," said Jones, 69.
Farms minister David Heath defended the cull and rejectedaccusations that his Conservative-led government had backed themove to curry favour with the farming community.
"If I wanted to be popular I would not be talking aboutkilling little black-and-white creatures that everybody loves,"he said.($1 = 0.6240 British pounds)
(Additional reporting by Alessandra Prentice in London; CharlieDunmore in Brussels; Editing by Anthony Barker and Jon Boyle)
Keywords: BRITAIN WILDLIFE/BADGERS