THE first pilot badger control operations have begun on the Worcestershire border in west Gloucestershire and west Somerset, the National Farmers' Union (NFU) said.

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 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."

Informing NFU members that the cull had started, Mr Kendall wrote: "I know that many of you reading this will have suffered the misery of dealing with TB on farm - some of you for decades - and I hope now you will feel that something is finally being done to stem the cycle of infection between cattle and badgers... 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."

Around 5,000 badgers are expected to be culled in the two trial areas over the next six weeks, where two pilot schemes are taking place in an attempt to stop the spread of bovine tuberculosis.

Although precise details of the cull areas have not been revealed the Gloucestershire area is known to stretch as far as the Worcestershire border and includes areas around Newent and Tewkesbury.

But there is widespread opposition to the cull. Campaigners on Monday night turned out in large numbers at the two pilot sites to protest against what they have called an "inhumane" measure. Somerset Badger Patrol held 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 on Monday night.

But Mr Kendall said: "It is also useful to remember our own survey this summer, which showed that two thirds of the public either support or have no opinion on these badger culls. I hope that when time shows that these culls have reduced TB in cattle - just as has happened in Ireland - that even more people will understand that while sad, these culls are absolutely necessary. I hope that you will continue to show support for those farmers who are facing the nightmare of TB on farm and especially for those who are in the culling areas. You can rest assured that the NFU is working hard to support its members and the companies concerned with the culls."

An anti-cull activist was arrested on Monday at a site belonging to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The man, named in reports as Jay Tiernan, who runs the Stop The Cull campaign, 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.

On 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.

Environment Secretary Owen Paterson said: "Bovine TB is an infectious disease that is spreading across the country and devastating our cattle and dairy industries. 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. That is why these pilot culls are so important. We have to use every tool in the box because TB is so difficult to eradicate and it is spreading rapidly. If we had a workable vaccine we would use it. A badger vaccine would have no effect on the high proportion of sick badgers in TB hotspots who would continue to spread the disease. We are working on new badger and cattle vaccines but they are years away from being ready and we cannot afford to wait while TB gets worse."