Badgers are shy creatures, their black-and-white coats often darting out of human sight -- but in Britain, a fierce band of protesters has been working through the night to save them from a government-backed cull.
It is 10:00 pm and bitterly cold when a gunshot shatters the silence in this rural corner of Gloucestershire, southwest England.
"Oh no," murmurs Louise, an animal rights activist in her thirties, as she and a gaggle of other protesters race through the darkness towards the crack of the bullet.
It's a scene that has repeated itself every night since the end of August, when a cull of thousands of badgers began in Gloucestershire and the neighbouring region of Somerset.
The cull is aimed at tackling the spread of tuberculosis in cattle, which can catch the disease from badgers.
The government says bovine TB has forced farmers to slaughter 300,000 cattle since 2003, at a public cost of £500 million ($800 million, 600 million euros).
But in animal-loving Britain, the cull has sparked outrage amongst campaigners who say killing the furry creatures is inhumane and will do little to combat the disease.
'Farmers tried to run us over'
Brian May, the guitarist with rock superstars Queen, is one of the cull's most vocal opponents, although he angered Jewish groups last month by describing it as a "genocide in the countryside".
In Gloucestershire, Louise claims up to 500 people are participating in nightly "patrols" aimed at scuppering the cull by getting between the badgers and the marksmen taking aim at them in woodland on the fringes of farms.
"We've got teachers, vets, doctors, firemen and even a judge. It's just amazing," she tells AFP as she gathers with around 30 other badger-lovers in a tiny hamlet before heading out into the eerie darkness.
They have had a few brushes with farmers, infuriated by the bid to sabotage the cull.
"Some of them tried to run us over," says Louise, who declines to give her full name. "We reported that to the police."
Dressed in luminous jackets emblazoned with the outline of a badger, the patrollers split off into groups of four in order to cover as much of the woodland as possible.
"It's best to be out in force, in case of intimidation," says 79-year-old patroller David, who has spent 40 years, in his words, "in the service of our badgers".
The culling takes place at night as badgers are nocturnal. The marksmen tempt the animals into their range with peanuts -- but can only shoot if they are at least 30 metres (100 feet) from their burrows, to prevent them disappearing underground and dying a slow, painful death from their injuries.
The protesters' aim is to get in the way and make a huge din to scare the badgers back to their setts.
"We shout, we wave our hands, we blow whistles to prevent the shooters from hurting these lovely little creatures," says Helen, a woman in her fifties.
Several 4x4 cars trundle past the patrollers in the darkness -- "probably farmers trying to intimidate us," says David.
Three cold, miserable-looking policemen also arrive, although David is not worried by their presence. Indeed, he tells AFP, he is convinced that the patrollers' work is paying off.
'The badgers are moving the goalposts'
Only 708 badgers have been killed in Gloucestershire during the past six weeks, just over 30 percent of the local population -- well below the 70-percent target deemed necessary to have any effect on reducing TB.
The cull was due to end this weekend, but the government is now likely to extend the programme -- just as it has in Somerset, where the cull killed 58 percent of badgers.
Environment minister Owen Paterson said the culls had proved shooting was "safe, humane and effective".
To suggestions he was moving the goalposts by extending the programme, he said: "The badgers are moving the goalposts."
Officials are now also looking at the possibility of gassing the badgers -- which Britain's largest animal charity, the RSPCA, said added a "further outrageous twist to this misguided policy".
"It's quite clearly a travesty, a mess," said Bill Oddie, a well-known British TV nature presenter who joined in one of the patrols.
"This is one of the most controversial, unreasonable, damaging, unnecessary conflicts I've ever known."