HUNDREDS of badgers across Sussex are set to be shot dead to try to stop cattle catching disease.
Farmers have been told by the Government they will be able to hire marksmen to eliminate the animals.
Wildlife charities last night said the Government would have blood on its hands if it allowed the cull to halt the spread of bovine tuberculosis (TB).
They say the decision flies in the face of scientific evidence.
But supporters say the disease, which is spreading across the county, is already causing animals pain, as well as risking farmers’ livelihoods and food supplies.
Environment secretary Caroline Spelman said this week pilots could be introduced next spring with wider implementation in 2013.
The Government hopes to reduce the badger population by 70% in TB hotspots such as Sussex.
Jane Wild, the founder of Badger Trust West Sussex, said: “This will lead to bloodshed. It will not be done in a humane and swift way at all. It will lead to hordes of yobs roaming the countryside killing for pleasure.
“It’s like we’ve stepped back in time. A lot of people thought these barbaric practices were over.
“The Conservatives are underestimating how much people love badgers. We see them on posters, leaflets, stamps – they are our heritage.”
Roger Musselle, who runs Brighton-based Roger’s Wildlife Rescue, said: “Like everyone I’m horrified they are considering killing our wildlife.
“It’s not just badgers that carry TB – deers are also carriers but no one is suggesting they’re culled.”
William Goodwin, the vice chairman of the South of England Agricultural Society, said the TB problem was spreading across Sussex, having been sparked in hotspots such as Lewes.
Mr Goodwin, who runs a farm in Ardingly, near Haywards Heath, said: “What many opponents don’t appreciate is this about stopping a great deal of animal suffering that is going on at the moment.
“It also has massive implications for food production because there is increasing demand but if cattle are having to be slaughtered needlessly then that demand cannot be met.”
The last badger census in Sussex was carried out in 1998 but current numbers are estimated to be in the hundreds.
Last year there were eight confirmed cases of TB in cattle across Sussex.
Brighton Pavilion MP Caroline Lucas, who is honorary vice-president of the RSPCA, said the proposed cull showed “a shocking disregard for animal welfare”.
She said a nine year randomised cull trial, costing £50 million and destroying 10,000 badgers, had concluded “badger culling can make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control in Britain”.
And Conservative Hove MP Mike Weatherley said: “I am not at all inclined to support a badger cull.