TREBOROUGH, England — At dusk these days, the crackle of gunfire echoes through this normally tranquil patch of countryside. It is the sound calling Jay Tiernan once more unto the breach in Britain’s raging Badger Wars.
One of hundreds of Britons who have rallied to the aid of the nocturnal badger, Tiernan — an animal-rights activist decked out in full camouflage on a recent evening — hopped in the back seat of an SUV parked in front of a pub. He greeted two brothers-in-arms and quickly surveyed their arsenal of topographical maps, strobe lights, whistles and plastic bugles.
Their mission: disrupt a government-backed cull of an adored beast straight from the pages of English children’s literature.
But there are two sides to every tale. In the magical world of “The Wind in the Willows,” Mr. Badger was a cuddly curmudgeon with the wardrobe of a proper country squire. But in the real world, farmers say, his kind have bred like ill-tempered, supercharged rabbits since becoming a protected species in 1973.
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As badgers run amok, they are spreading a plague of tuberculosis among cattle herds that has cost farmers and the British government a small fortune. A cull, advocates claim, is the only solution.
But the notion of Mr. Badger at the wrong end of a shotgun has touched a deep nerve in this green and pleasant land, where the English maintain a near-obsessive attachment to a countryside long celebrated by poets, authors and master painters. In a country where even the coolest hipsters regularly skip out of town for a little bird watching or a “ramble” across emerald hills, taking aim at the badger has sparked an uproar that is claiming almost as much television airtime, Internet space and newsprint here as the Syrian civil war.
A renegade website — badger-killers.co.uk — is naming and shaming British companies and politicians that support the cull. Guitarists Brian May (Queen) and Slash (Guns N’ Roses) joined famed wildlife-documentary host David Attenborough and others to record “Badger Swagger,” a rap anthem against the cull.
“Killing all the badgers ain’t going fix the damage,” the song goes. “We can’t have this evil madness.”
In the current cull zone of western England, the operation is turning neighbor against neighbor, while drawing bands of volunteers from cities into “Badger Patrols” going out each evening. Wearing yellow vests to warn off stray bullets and occasionally packing night-vision lenses, the patrols are searching out vantage points where suspected hunters gather. They then let rip a barrage of blowing whistles and flashing strobe lights into the star-filled valleys, warning badgers back into their dens and trying to break the concentration of hunters.
“Camp Badger,” a commune for animal-rights activists, has formed just outside the cull zone and turned into an impromptu command center for the pro-badger movement.
The most radical groups — such as Tiernan’s Hunt Saboteurs — have resorted to an “annoy” campaign against pro-cull farmers, including trespassing and crank calls in which activists sing a frightfully cheery badger song into the phone.
“The badgers have been here since the ice age,” Tiernan said. “This is their land, not ours.”
Yet to Adam Quinney, vice president of the National Farmers Union and whose family has ranched cattle in England since the 16th century, the opposition to the cull is a classic case of city-dwellers with a romanticized view of the country.
Last year, more than 28,000 head of cattle in Britain had to be sold to the government at reduced prices because of bovine tuberculosis, which officials say is being spread by badgers. Cull supporters note that the spread of the disease increased in the 1990s, after badgers won even more protections.
Not to be confused with the honey badger of Internet fame, the badgers of Britain are less aggressive, if still formidable creatures. They became infected with TB decades ago — though how remains a mystery — and spread the disease to cattle, in part by doing their business in the fields where herds later grazed.
Quinney said he read as much Kenneth Grahame and Beatrix Potter as the next child when growing up. But “a third of my livestock was infected, and there’s no question the outbreaks are related to badgers,” he said.
“A good proportion of these protesters are also anti-livestock farming,” Quinney continued. “They may be animal lovers, but I don’t think they understand — or care — about the impact this is having on farming families.”
The science and necessity of the cull, however, is in hot dispute. So is the total size of the British badger population, which, depending on whom you ask, ranges from 350,000 to 1.3 million. A cull was launched in Britain in 1998, but since then, studies have differed on whether it had any impact on badger populations and cattle infections.
Activists say a more humane solution would be a vaccination campaign to root out TB among badgers, as Wales is set to try. But officials in England have dismissed that option alone as too expensive and potentially ineffective.
The cull launched two weeks ago in the English counties of Somerset and Gloucestershire is also a trial. If deemed successful, it will be expanded to other parts of England, with as many as 100,000 badgers killed in the next five years.
For that reason, activists are trying their best to make the trial unsuccessful.
On a recent evening in Somerset, about 215 miles west of London, the SUV carrying Tiernan’s Hunt Saboteurs sped down the private road of a farmer known to back the cull. When the farmer’s family saw the SUV, several beefy men hopped into a truck to give chase.
After 10 minutes of cat and mouse on country roads, the farmer’s truck cornered Tiernan’s vehicle on a dead end near the farmhouse. Several men from the truck, and a woman from the house, then surrounded the SUV, initiating a standoff that led to the activist team beating a hasty retreat. “We’re not trying to harass or intimidate, but we are trying to annoy,” Tiernan said. “And I think we’re succeeding.”