DEPUTY Prime Minister Nick Clegg has backed the controversial West badger cull – and urged celebrity campaigners against it to stop inflaming the situation.
Public body Natural England has issued a licence for the free shooting of badgers in West Gloucestershire, with a second one in Somerset imminent.
Ministers, including David Heath, Somerton and Frome MP and Minister of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, insist it is vital for tackling the spread of bovine TB, which is devastating the region's farms and costing taxpayers £90m a year.
But celebrities like Queen guitarist Brian May are fighting back, and the petition he launched against the cull has now been signed by more than 100,000 people.
As comments become increasingly emotional, there are calls for boycotts of supermarkets over the cull, and warnings by some activists of taking direct action.
Mr Clegg said: "This is an incredibly difficult issue. It divides opinion, it provokes a great deal of emotion and passion. I can understand that.
I'm a great animal lover myself.
"The idea of culling a single badger is distressing, but I really do think it needs to be balanced against the huge distress and pain which cattle experience, and the massive psychological, emotional and financial distress caused to farmers and their family.
"It's not as simple as only focussing on the suffering on one side of the equation because there is suffering on both sides of the equation.
"You don't want to cull badgers but if you don't cull badgers at least on a pilot basis, which is what we are doing, there's very little evidence anywhere around the world that you can really bear down on bovine TB without bearing down on the animal population that carries the disease in the first place."
Speaking at the Liberal Democrat conference, Mr Clegg said they were being sensible, and guided by science, in holding the two pilot culls to see whether they could be conducted safely and humanely.
He added: "I visited farms in the South West myself, and it made quite an impression on me to see the animal and human effects of bovine TB."
TV wildlife presenters Sir David Attenborough and Bill Oddie also oppose the cull.
However, broadcaster Clarissa Dickson Wright suggested people should eat badgers that have been culled, claiming they taste delicious.
Mr Heath said there was a lot of misleading information from cull opponents. He added: "They say culling will make the situation worse and that vaccination is a viable alternative – the science says they're wrong on both counts."