The first pilot badger control operations in Britain have begun in west Gloucestershire and west Somerset, the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) said today.
How the problem had been dealt with in Ireland was held up by several parties as an example of why the cull was necessary in Britain.
In a letter to its members, NFU president Peter Kendall said the cull was "an important step not just for cattle farmers but for the whole farming industry".
He insisted the cull was absolutely necessary.
“I hope that when time shows that these culls have reduced [bovine tuberculosis - or TB] in cattle - just as has happened in Ireland - that even more people will understand that while sad, these culls are absolutely necessary.”
Environment secretary Owen Paterson said it was necessary to use "every tool in the box" to tackle the spread of bovine TB.
“Bovine TB is an infectious disease that is spreading across the country and devastating our cattle and dairy industries,” he said.
"We know that, despite the strict controls we already have in place, we won't get on top of this terrible disease until we start dealing with the infection in badgers as well as in cattle. That's the clear lesson from Australia, New Zealand, the Republic of Ireland and the USA."
Wildlife charity Care for the Wild questioned the government’s reliance on evidence from Ireland that culling badgers could reduce TB in livestock.
Philip Mansbridge, Care for the Wild chief executive, said: “The government claim that a cull has worked in Ireland, where half the country’s badgers have been killed for a small reduction in TB - but the same reduction was achieved across the Border in Northern Ireland without a single badger being killed.
“They are just cherry-picking information to justify the unjustifiable.”
Meanwhile, hundreds of anti-badger cull protesters held candlelit processions in the countryside as they prepared to step up their tactics to fight the badger cull.
Campaigners in Minehead, Somerset, turned out in large numbers to protest against what they have called an “inhumane” measure.
In his letter to NFU members, Mr Kendall wrote: “We cannot go on culling tens of thousands of cattle every year because of TB while knowing the disease exists in wildlife uncontrolled.
“It is why the NFU will be working with the pilot companies to ensure the successful delivery of these pilot culls over the coming weeks.”
Around 5,000 badgers are expected to be culled in west Gloucestershire and west Somerset over the next six weeks, where two pilot schemes are taking place in an attempt to stop the spread of TB.
Yesterday, activists from campaign group Stop The Cull gathered in Gloucestershire to form a “wounded badger patrol”.
Last night Somerset Badger Patrol organised a vigil event in Minehead against the cull.
A statement on its Facebook page after the event said: "Over 200 people tonight at the procession, thank you all so much for coming... We fight on, knowing that we are right helps."
Stop The Cull claimed on its Facebook page that more than 500 people turned out to protest at both sites last night.
Campaigners have vowed to stop the cull going ahead, and there have already been clashes with police.
An anti-cull activist was arrested yesterday at a site belonging to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).
The man was chased on foot by police and arrested after climbing over a barbed wire fence into Aston Down in Stroud. He was arrested by Gloucestershire Police on suspicion of aggravated trespass at the site.
He told ITV News that he was trying to gather photographic evidence after hearing reports that 200 “rusty cages” and “industrial sized fridges” were being prepared to hold dead badgers.
Last Thursday, a High Court judge made an order to stop farmers involved in badger culls being harassed and abused.
Mr Justice Turner granted an injunction at a High Court hearing in London after lawyers representing the NFU said farmers had been targeted.
The cull was due to begin last autumn but was postponed while research continued into the population numbers in both areas.
The British government said west Somerset had approximately 4,300 badgers, with west Gloucestershire’s population put at 3,600.
The aim is to kill 70 per cent of the animals, with west Somerset being set a minimum target of 2,081 and a maximum of 2,162. West Gloucestershire was set a minimum of 2,856 and a maximum of 2,932.
The culls, which will be carried out annually for four years, last six weeks and are allowed to take place between June 1st and January 31st.
If they are successful in stopping the spread of bovine TB, they could be rolled out, saving millions in compensation to farmers.
Mr Kendall added in his letter: “Badger control remains a controversial subject and we understand that some people will never agree with controlling badgers in this way.
“I am confident however that through the combined efforts of farmers, the NFU and government over the last year to illustrate the impact TB has on farms, and the scientific basis for badger control, more people than ever recognise the need to address the disease in badgers.”