LONDON -- The sharpshooters came by night, with high-powered rifles and cages. Their foes came, too, with candles and masks and bright yellow slickers.
Britain's contentious badger cull, a trial limited to two broad tracts of countryside that is designed to kill 5,000 badgers over the next six weeks, was under way. And so was the campaign among badger lovers to stop it.
For months, the two sides have sparred. Farmers supporting the cull say badgers spread lethal bovine tuberculosis that decimates herds of cattle. The opponents maintain that there is no scientific proof that culling, which they call inhumane, will help.
But as the nation awoke on Tuesday to news that the cull had started in a broad area of Somerset and was to move on to parts of Gloucestershire, what seemed so especially English about the duel was the intensity of the passions that animals arouse on both sides. Similar emotions flowed in the struggle over a ban on hunting foxes with dogs, which was enacted in 2005.
Then, as now, the rival camps divided on which animal they favored most.
"We understand passions run high," said Peter Kendall, the president of the National Farmers' Union. "But we'd ask them to remember not just the 5,000 badgers we're talking about culling, but the 38,000 cattle slaughtered" when herds were found to be infected with bovine tuberculosis.
Not only that, he said, there was also "the emotional damage this disease does to farmers and their families."
David Barton, a farmer in Gloucestershire, said he had lost a third of his cattle to the disease over the past two years. "These are animals I know. They have characters. And I hear people being very passionate about badgers, and I can empathize with them. But they're not animals they deal with on a day-to-day basis," he told the BBC.
Protesters camping out in Somerset have said they would do what they could to disrupt the cull, during which farmers are licensed to hire trained sharpshooters to kill free-running badgers as well as animals trapped in cages.
Since badgers are nocturnal animals, the collision of protesters armed with flashlights and marksmen armed with rifles will mostly take place in the dark, making it potentially perilous.
On the first night, protesters acknowledged, the victory went to those on the hunt.
"We always knew the first night would be tricky," an activist identified only as Carla told The Press Association news agency. But "nothing stays a secret for long. We know where it was last night, and I am hoping it will be there again for the next few nights."
The protesters have called their Somerset headquarters Camp Badger, potentially competing for headlines with environmental activists in other parts of southern England who have set up camp to frustrate plans for shale gas extraction.
The farmers, supported by the Conservative-led government, argue that the badger cull could slow a spread of bovine tuberculosis in cattle that could cost upward of $1.6 billion over 10 years as more herds are infected.
Owen Paterson, the environment secretary, said the disease was devastating the beef and dairy industries. "We have to use every tool in the box because tuberculosis is spreading so rapidly," he said. If the trials in Somerset and Gloucestershire are successful, he said, the cull could be widened to other areas.
But protesters, who argue that the disease should be fought through vaccination, say culling is ineffective. "I'm just so angry," an unidentified protester told the BBC. "The government is just not listening to us."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.