LONDON, Aug 27 (Reuters) - A cull of thousands of badgers began in southwestern England on Tuesday in a bid to slow the spread of a cattle disease with animal rights activists vowing to do everything possible to stop the shootings after blocking the cull for eight years.
The National Farmers' Union (NFU) said the cull started overnight with marksmen set to shoot up to 5,000 of the black-and-white striped nocturnal animals in two test areas of Somerset and Gloucestershire over the next six weeks.
"We cannot go on culling tens of thousands of cattle every year because of tuberculosis while knowing the disease exists in wildlife uncontrolled," NFU President Peter Kendall said in a letter to NFU members that was posted online.
The government says the cull is "science-driven" and follows a study that found culling 70 percent of badgers in an area could reduce by 16 percent bovine TB, a disease that caused the slaughter of an estimated 28,000 cattle in England last year.
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.
Between 1998 and 2005, about 11,000 badgers were killed in an operation to control badger numbers and farmers, politicians and animal rights campaigners have since battled in the fields and in courts over how best to control the badger population.
Activists including Brian May, the guitarist of rock band Queen, the opposition Labour party and Green party argue the numbers do not justify killing badgers and have called for a vaccination programme instead.
Some militant hunt saboteurs have vowed to disrupt the cull and police have increased patrols in the countryside fearing trouble between farmers and activists. Hundreds of protesters staged a vigil event against the cull overnight.
Environment Secretary Owen Paterson said he was aware the policy to cull badgers was controversial but it was the only way to manage TB effectively in the short-term.
He said if the pilot culls in these two areas were deemed "effective, efficient and humane" the cull would be extended to other locations next year with the aim of making Britain TB-free within 25 years.
"It is pointless vaccinating diseased animals, particularly badgers, which have the capability to spread this disease in such an extraordinary manner," Paterson told BBC Radio.
"We think about half the infections of cattle in the hot spot areas do come from infection in badgers," he said, adding that bovine TB was estimated to cost Britain about 1 billion pounds over the next 10 years if not controlled.
The Humane Society International/UK said it would oppose the slaughter using peaceful and legal means.
"We are appalled to learn that the mass shooting of badgers has begun in our countryside. This is a dark day for Britain as science and ethics have been sacrificed at the altar of political expediency," said Mark Jones, executive director for HSI/UK, in a statement. (Editing by Stephen Addison)