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Officers policing the imminent badger culls in England will allow protesters to "bend the rules" to ensure peaceful protests can take place, while working to enable the marksmen to carry out their task. Police have also carried out wargames with both animal rights activists and the cullers to simulate heated night-time confrontations between vuvuzela-blowing protesters and armed shooters.

Inspector Mark Ravenscroft of Gloucestershire police said policing the cull presents a major challenge: "It's a big concern. There are so many unknowns: where, when, who is coming?" The police have not been informed when or exactly where the culling will take place by the private companies licenced by the government to shoot the badgers.

Ravenscroft, who as bronze commander will control the policing during the cull, dubbed Operation Themis, said the emphasis was on enabling peaceful protest. "We will allow people to bend the law to protest peacefully." For example, he said, obstructing the highway is a criminal offence but officers might allow a short protest as a compromise with a group determined to block the road all day.

Ravenscroft said the police wanted to avoid surprises during the cull, both for protesters and police. "If you take us by surprise you get a kneejerk reaction and you don't have to look far back in history to see that kneejerk reaction are not looked upon kindly afterwards," he said, giving the example of G20 protests in London in 2009 when crowds of protesters were kettled.

"We are treading a line between the parties," said Ravenscroft. "Public safety is paramount to everybody involved. We could request that the culling company stop activity on the ground on a particular night to safeguard public safety."

Two pilot cull zones, in Gloucestershire and Somerset, have been licenced to kill about 5,000 badgers, with the cull due to be extended to many more areas if the pilots are successful. Ministers argue that a cull is necessary as part of measures to curb the rise of tuberculosis in cattle, which resulted in over 37,000 cattle being slaughtered in 2012 at a cost of £100m to taxpayers. But many prominent scientists have warned the cull is a costly distraction from improving controls on cattle movements and work on vaccination for both badgers and cattle.

The wargames involving anti-cull activists and the police used a map to track the minute-by-minute movements of marksmen, torch-waving protesters staking out setts, the police and volunteers conducting injured badger patrols.

The exercise revealed potential difficulties which the police are now working to resolve, such as who would decide whether an injured badger should be shot to end its suffering or taken to a vet for treatment. "If the wounded badger is sparko [unconscious] and blood is pouring out of it, that is one thing, if it is conscious and fighting like hell, that is another," said Lee Hopgood, an RSPCA chief inspector who took part in the exercise. He warned activists that anyone delaying the putting down of an injured badger may be committing an offence.

Another issue raised was how any illegal shooting of badgers will be distinguished from the licensed cull. "Our assumption will be that any shooting is illegal until we know otherwise and we'll look to take action," said Jay Tiernan, from the Stop the Cull group. Tiernan, who acknowledges past convictions for aggravated trespass and criminal damage but condemns intimidation or violence, said he was surprised to have been invited to take part: "Our reaction was that it was completely surreal." Other groups, including Gloucestershire Against Badger Shooting, declined to take part.

Separate wargaming exercises are taking place involving the cullers and, separately again, the government, the licensing body Natural England and other wildlife officials.

Ravenscroft said his force was trying to anticipate the concerns of residents in the cull zone: "Police are also being sent out to do local reassurance: some of these picturesque villages have not seen a bobby since the 1950s." He said he thought it would be possible to complete the culls: "If you look at the size and geography of the area, I don't think you will get occasions when the two groups meet very often."

Tiernan said: "I think the exercise was probably a way of the bronze commander saying to the people above him that three times the number of officers are needed to properly police this."

Recent analysis showed that rising police costs now meant the cull policy was more expensive than vaccinating badgers.
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