Under Government rules, the cull can only take place if landowners with 70 per cent of an area – enclosed by “hard” boundaries, such as a main road or rivers – agree to the killing. The Stroud 100 believe they can find enough people opposed to the cull, who own parcels of line dotted around the area, to make the cull impractical.
Among the Stroud 100 signatories are the bestselling author Jilly Cooper as well as Dale Vince, an eco-entrepreneur reckoned to be worth as much as £100 million through his green electricity business.
The dispute over the badger cull is threatening to be every bit as divisive as fox-hunting and Stroud, with its mix of rural farmers, city escapees and even the odd New Age hippy, is a strangely explosive mix. Only last week, the local National Farmers Union (NFU) insurance office in nearby Wotton-under-Edge was daubed with graffiti declaring farmers to be “Badger Killers” and “NFU Murdering Scum”.
“Whether ignorance is the right word to use or not, the campaigners are turning a blind eye to what is happening in the real world,” says Mr Cozens, 57, who has lived at his farm in the village of Eastington ever since his father moved there when he was just two. “We have to look at the facts without getting emotional about it and that is what is sadly lacking.
“I honestly cannot understand the protesters. I know the badger is a nice-looking animal and I know a lot of people in Stroud like looking at them. But they don’t understand the correlation between the badger and the spread of TB in cows.
“If TB was affecting domestic pets as much as cattle there wouldn’t be an issue over it.”
The row over a proposed cull has been simmering for about a decade but at the end of last year the Government, after much deliberation and wrangling, gave the green light to two pilot schemes allowing badgers, a protected species, to be shot by sanctioned marksmen. The precise locations of the schemes are being kept secret for now to try to minimise disruption and recrimination. The test sites, however, are expected to take place in Gloucestershire, close to the Forest of Dean, and in west Somerset, both counties where bovine TB is rife.
There had been plans for the culling to start in the summer but, according to sources, the authorities quickly realised that with police needed for deployment for the Olympics, it would be better delayed until the autumn.
In all, several hundred badgers will be killed during the six-week period to assess the effectiveness of the cull, using trained marksmen armed with high velocity rifles and presumably night-vision goggles – given the animals are nocturnal.
To put that number in perspective, an estimated 50,000 badgers are victims of road kill every year in the UK.
Jeanne and Nick Berry woke up to the badger cull in November last year after attending a meeting to discuss the issue in Stroud. They quickly decided to do something about it – horrified at the prospect of badgers being shot on their land – and immediately formed Stroud 100.
They hope their idea of getting landowners together to ban the shooting badgers on their land will spread up and down the country, halting the cull before it has even begun.
“Don’t call us animal rights activists. We don’t want to use violence; we are pacifists,” says Mrs Berry, who owns five rescue cats.
Her love of badgers began when the couple first moved in 2002 into their country cottage, with 10 acres of accompanying woodland, in Elcombe, a hamlet just outside Stroud. The widow of Laurie Lee incidentally owns a neighbouring wood.
In those early days, a rogue badger would enter the house through the cat flap, on one occasion even eating the Christmas pudding.
It is not the couple’s first clash with the area’s traditionalists. In 2006, following Mrs Berry’s campaigning, the local hunt was threatened with an anti social behaviour order on the grounds that the hounds might devour her cats. With other villagers, they created an Elcombe exclusion zone that kept the hunt at bay.
The Stroud 100 works on the same principle but spread over a larger area. The Berrys say even some farmers have signed up but that their identities are being kept secret for fear they will be ostracised by the farming community.
Mr Berry, formerly an efficiency manager with Gloucestershire county council, said: “We are very fond of badgers. The thought of somebody coming on to our land and shooting badgers while we are asleep just horrified us really.”
Last week, he dressed in a badger suit at a stall in Stroud to ensure the group secured its 100th member. Mrs Berry recalled only a minor confrontation at the stall. “There was one stroppy farmer on Saturday morning who said: 'If you were dairy farmers you wouldn’t be doing this,’ and then he stormed off. He didn’t give us the chance to answer back.”
The Berrys are certain that a cull would simply force badgers to move on, taking bovine TB with them and spreading the disease to new areas. The Berrys do not see the point of a pilot scheme to test its efficacy.
The couple approached Mr Vince, who runs the green energy company Ecotricity, which has its headquarters in Stroud, and he immediately signed up. Cooper spotted their appeal for supporters in her parish magazine and jumped on-board. After joining, the writer, 74, who owns 14 acres around her home in nearby Bisley, said: “We have masses of badger setts in our woods and have done a lot of research and passionately believe that the badgers are not giving TB to cows. I know it’s horrible for farmers, I do understand, but to cull the badgers is brutal.”
Farmers disagree. They are adamant badgers are to blame for spreading the disease. Phil Hudson, the NFU’s head of food and farming, says: “If it was a rat spreading TB, I would guess people would not be reacting in the same way.”
He fears the pilot schemes could be sabotaged by animal rights protesters – either by the likes of the Berrys with their cunning scheme to prevent shooting taking place on as much land as possible, or by militant animal rights activists such as the Animal Liberation Front trying to stop marksmen taking aim. Either way, the NFU said farmers in the pilot cull areas were too afraid at this stage to speak out publicly.
Andrew Cozens fears reprisals and is keen not to have his farm’s name in the newspaper. But he is willing to put his head above the parapet and hopes the pilot schemes do go ahead unhindered.
“Those hills,” he says pointing to the Cotswolds, “are perfect territory for badgers to dig into the limestone and make setts. Within three miles there are half a dozen setts with probably 20 badgers in each. At the end of the day, we just want to get rid of the disease. We don’t particularly want to kill badgers. But I hate killing cows and the campaigners don’t seem to care about that.”