England badger cull court appeal
Badgers could be shot across England within weeks, barring a last minute legal challenge.
Natural England is preparing to issue licenses that will allow farmers to shoot badgers at night in parts of Gloucestershire and Somerset.
The government says action is needed to help combat cattle TB, which costs the UK more than £100m per year.
The Badger Trust, which claims the government is acting illegally, is taking its case to the Court of Appeal.
In July, it lost a legal bid at the High Court to block badger culling in England.
Gwendolen Morgan of the law firm Bindmans LLP, which represents the Badger Trust, told BBC News: "Culling as proposed is likely to do more harm than good and we hope that the Court of Appeal will find in our favour and prevent this recipe for disaster and prompt more productive means such as vaccination and cattle control measures."
The Badger Trust argues that the cull is illegal, as it will at best make a small impact on the disease and could make it worse.
However, the government argues that bovine TB is taking a terrible toll on farmers and rural communities, and action is needed now.
Licences 'well advanced'
A Defra spokesperson said: "Nobody wants to cull badgers. But no country in the world where wildlife carries TB has eradicated the disease in cattle without tackling it in wildlife too."
If what Defra calls "controlled shooting" of badgers is to take place this year, the six-week cull must begin soon, before the badger breeding season begins.
Culling is not permitted when there is a risk that badgers feeding their young might be killed, leaving their cubs underground without food.
In England, two companies have been set up by farmers to manage the cull, using trained marksmen to shoot badgers at night on farm land in two pilot areas each the size of the Isle of Wight.
Natural England, the government agency in charge of issuing the licenses, says holders must liaise closely with the local police, including on dates, times and areas where badger control will take place.
A spokesperson from Natural England said there was no definitive time scale for issuing the licenses but "we would hope to issue them shortly".
The exact scope of the pilot areas is not being revealed to the public for fear of reprisals against individuals or their property.
This has led to concerns from the public in rural areas that they might stumble across the culls while walking their dog or returning from a night shift.
"People's safety is vital," said a Defra spokesperson. "Only highly trained individuals will be licensed to cull badgers, and every licence application will have to meet strong safety requirements."
Dr Gordon McGlone of the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust argues that the vaccination of badgers is a better alternative in the control of cattle TB.
He said: "People are unhappy that this sort of iconic native mammal is being culled, seeing that it is being done by private groups and that it involves firearms in the open countryside."
The proposed killing of wild badgers is a sensitive issue. A small proportion of wild badgers can become infected with the bacteria that cause bovine TB, and pass the infection on to cattle.
However, scientific studies have shown that culling would be of little help in reducing the disease and even suggest that it could make things worse in some areas.
Plans to begin culling in Wales were recently abandoned in favour of a vaccination policy. There are no proposals to cull badgers in Scotland.