LONDON — A battle over badgers is brewing in Britain – and rock star Brian May is leading the fight.
May and other animal rights activists are going up against the country's cattle farmers in a bid to save Britain's native burrowers from a government-authorized cull.
For animal-loving Britons, raised on tales of the wise Mr. Badger from the children's classic "The Wind in the Willows," the black-and-white creatures are a treasured part of the rural landscape.
To cattle farmers, however, they are a feral menace, spreading bovine tuberculosis, a disease that can devastate herds and hurt farm revenues.
This week the government approved a trial plan to kill badgers in one part of England to try and slow the spread of infection. Soon hunters – licensed to cull – will be roaming by night in search of the animals, unless a public campaign in support of the badgers succeeds in altering government policy.
That's where May, the Queen guitarist, comes in.
May performed in front of millions around the world last month playing "We Will Rock You" at the Olympic closing ceremony. On Wednesday, he spent the morning standing on a cherry-picker in front of a giant billboard of a badger so photographers could snap his picture as six lanes of traffic thundered by.
"This is a horrific proposal, truly horrific," said May, an animal-welfare activist and fan of the "charming, intelligent, funny animals."
"Badgers have just as much right to live in this country as we do," May said. "They mind their own business. They do nobody any harm."
Many farmers would disagree. They have lost cows and income to bovine TB, which is spread – in part – by infected badgers mingling with cattle herds and transmitting the bacteria through their urine.
Under British law, animals that test positive for TB must be slaughtered and the rest of the herd is quarantined. More than 18,000 cattle were killed because of the disease in the first six months of this year. The British government estimates controlling bovine TB costs taxpayers 100 million pounds ($160 million) a year.
The disease, once confined to a corner of southwest England, is spreading, and the National Farmers' Union says the number of cases will double in a decade if nothing is done.
But so far no remedy has been found. There is no cattle vaccine effective enough to have been approved by European authorities. There is a vaccine for badgers but it must be administered by injection, so a large-scale vaccination program for the elusive underground dwellers would be a challenge.
That leaves culling.
"At the moment it's the only tool in the box," said Adam Quinney, a beef farmer and vice president of the National Farmers' Union.
He says animal welfare groups don't have a monopoly on caring about animals.
"I grew up getting up early in the morning to watch the badgers on our farm," Quinney said. "It's not that we hate badgers – it's TB that we hate."
The shooting, carried out by specially licensed farmers and other locals, is expected to begin within weeks in the western England county of Gloucestershire.
The government acknowledges that the effect will be limited. It hopes culling 70 percent of the badgers in the area will lead to a 16 percent reduction in the number of bovine TB cases.
Critics say it's too high a price to pay.
Biologist John Krebs, who led a major government-commissioned study of badgers and bovine TB, this week called the culling plan a "crazy scheme that may deliver very small advantage (and) may deliver none."
That view boosts the confidence of May and Team Badger, a coalition of animal-welfare groups – including the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Humane Society – that are campaigning to stop the cull.
The groups have gathered more than 55,000 signatures on an online petition. The government promises to debate in Parliament any issue that gets 100,000 names.
Activists are lobbying the European Union to approve a cattle vaccine and hope to persuade residents of the trial area that a cull would be bad for tourism.
More militant badger-lovers plan direct action – roaming the target area and making noise to scare away the badgers and disrupt the cull.
May says he doesn't plan to take part in direct action, and won't support any law-breaking or any intimidation of opponents.
Now 65, May has been a rock star for four decades, forming the core of 1970s rock icons Queen with the late frontman, Freddie Mercury. May still performs with the surviving members of Queen and others – he even played recently on a Lady Gaga track – but in many ways he is an atypical rock star. He has a Ph.D. in astronomy and runs an animal sanctuary on his English estate.
May says he has felt all his life that "really we have it wrong as regards the way we treat animals."
But he's confident history is on the side of the badgers.
"There's no doubt, we're right about this," he said. "I believe in the end the public will speak and they won't allow the government to get away with this."