Thousands of people decked in black and white clothing have marched on Westminster to call for an end to plans for a badger cull. Rock star Brian May led around 2,000 animal welfare supporters - many wearing cardboard badger masks - as they chanted "stop the cull" in protest at pilots in west Gloucestershire and west Somerset - two bovine TB hot spots, due to start from Saturday.
The pilot culls aim to ensure free-running badgers can be killed humanely, with marksmen observed by independent experts to check they are killing the protected animal swiftly, and post-mortem examinations carried out to assess speed of death. They will also assess whether sufficient badgers can be killed in an area to have an effect in reducing TB in cattle, following a long-term study which found that culling 70% of badgers in an area could reduce the disease in herds by 16%.
But animal welfare campaigners say the scientific evidence, public support and - crucially - financial costs all favour an alternative to the cull. Labour, who oppose the Government-sanctioned plan, have tabled an Opposition Day debate for Wednesday.
Speaking after the protest today, May called on the Prime Minister to reverse the decision for the cull to go ahead. The Queen guitarist said: "If the Government don't listen to us today the pressure will still be there. I think it would be easier for David Cameron to cancel it at this point, with some grace and clearly for the public good. I don't think there would be any shame in cancelling the policy because new evidence has come to light.
He added: "It's not going to save money. I'm not the person who cares about money, I care about everything else. There is no scientific justification for it, there is no public backing for it, there's no moral grounds - but if it's not going to save the public money either then surely the foundations for this cull will disappear."
The march - a few streets away from clashes between BNP and anti-fascist campaigners outside Parliament - saw young children leading chants, while older supporters also made their voices heard with loudhailers as they wound through Westminster in a stream of black and white. A handful of large black dogs, with white stripes on their faces to resemble the quarry, walked obediently while young women tried to add a touch of glamour with customised outfits.
The march, though peaceful, was not without some drama, as a group of anti-cull protesters set fire to a pile of newspapers - causing smoke to drift over the grounds of the Houses of Parliament.
They chanted "your cull, your lies, your greed" and "shame on Defra". Police officers arrived after a few minutes to put the fire out. May then broke off from the main group to deliver a near-250,000 signature petition to Downing Street calling for the cull to be scrapped. He said: "The petition carries the weight of the 234,000 people who have signed it so far. It will be the biggest petition ever on the Government's website. [The cull] is impossible to be humane, it's not going to work and solve the farmer's problem of eradicating bovine TB, it's going to put Britain's farmers against the public. The cull won't work. It's a waste of time, it's a waste of money and it's incredibly damaging in so many ways."
The rock musician said he was "moved" that so many people from across the country took part in the march, and added: "I'm optimistic that something will happen. We may or may not win the debate on Wednesday, but the mere fact that it is happening is significant. We could lick this - it doesn't have to be a war. This war wastes everybody's time and talent. We could be working together properly, constructively, to end bovine TB."
The Government said the cull is necessary as part of efforts to stop increasing outbreaks of TB in dairy and beef herds, which saw 28,000 cattle slaughtered in England last year. Without action, infection and costs would continue to soar, officials said. A poll released on Friday revealed that the public is divided on the issue of culling, with around a third (34%) opposing the policy, and almost as many (29%) backing it. The remainder of those questioned did not know or had no strong views on a cull.