LONDON (Reuters) - Protesters dressed as badgers and led by Queen guitarist Brian May marched through central London on Saturday demanding that the government scrap a plan to cull badgers, aimed at slowing the spread of a cattle disease.
About 5,000 of the nocturnal black-and-white animals are due to be shot by marksmen in the six-week pilot cull, authorized to begin on Saturday in two areas in southwestern England.
The cull has divided rural England, pitting farmers determined to protect their livestock and livelihoods against animal lovers who say the plan will not work and will cause suffering to badgers.
Dressed in a black jacket and black shirt with thin white stripes and sporting his signature long bushy curls, the rock musician May chatted with other protesters and posed for photographs with them.
"Thousands of badgers are going to be killed in a scheme which will not make life any easier for farmers," May told the BBC. "We don't believe it will work. We don't believe it's humane. And there is a better option which is vaccination."
He later handed a petition against the cull to Prime Minister David Cameron's office at Number 10 Downing Street.
The government says the cull is "science-driven and carefully managed". It 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 ministry in charge of farming says there is no licensed cattle vaccine against bovine TB available. It says an injectable badger vaccine is available but it is not a realistic option for dealing with the problem in the short-term because of practical difficulties.
The anti-cull protesters dispute the evidence cited by the government in its decision to approve the badger cull.
"This cull is unscientific and cruel. Badgers are innocent in the spread of bovine TB," said Malcolm Clark, from the rural county of Wiltshire.
"There are going to be people out at night shooting badgers in the dark. They are not going to kill them humanely. Badgers are going to be running down into their sets to die in agony," said Clark, whose wife stood next to him in a badger outfit.
A Reuters photographer said about 200 protesters took part, some dressed as badgers, others with their faces painted black and white, holding up pictures of badgers with the words "Not guilty" and placards with slogans including "Stop this cruel cull".
(Reporting by Dylan Martinez and Estelle Shirbon; Editing by Robin Pomeroy and Patrick Graham)