Thousands of people have signed up to a campaign calling on the government to rethink its plans for a badger cull to combat cattle tuberculosis.

As Farmers Weekly went to press, an online petition by campaign group 38 Degrees was set to pass 20,000 signatures. Activists launched the petition just a week ago following an internet poll and online discussion.

“Last week we voted to decide whether or not to launch a campaign to stop the government’s plan to kill badgers,” wrote campaigner Marie Campbell on the 38 Degrees blog. “The results are in – 87% of respondents answered ‘Yes’.”

It remains unclear how many people participated in the poll. But the pressure group claims to have 800,000 members. A technical glitch, which saw some voters being directed to the wrong webpage, had no bearing on the poll outcome, it said.

The petition calls on the government to “listen to the scientists who warn this cull plan is unlikely to make any significant dent in cow TB and could even make the problem worse.”

Instead, the petition calls for investment in “evidence-based solutions” including vaccination and better cow welfare. The government should “focus on a long-term strategy to eradicate TB, not political gestures that aren’t backed by the science.”

This is the first stage of an anti-cull campaign likely to see activists lobbying MPs, taking out newspaper advertisements and mobilising placard-waving protestors to participate in demonstrations.

The move is significant. Relatively little-known in farming circles, 38 Degrees boasts some notable successes. Earlier this year, the group saw off proposals for Britain’s first “super dairy” – scuppering plans for a 3,770-cow herd at Nocton, Lincolnshire.

Campaigners also helped force DEFRA secretary Caroline Spelman into an embarrassing U-turn, ensuring she abandoned government plans to raise money by selling off publicly-owned forests and woodlands.

Within hours of the anti-cull petition being launched, the NFU hit back. The union emailed its members urging them to make their feelings known by posting pro-cull messages on the 38 Degrees website.

The NFU also posted a detailed Q&A on its own TB-free England website, disputing claims made by 38 Degrees and accusing the group of “performing contortions”. Culling might not be popular, but it was based on science, said the NFU.

“No-one has ever suggested that a badger cull alone would solve the problem of TB in cattle. It needs a comprehensive policy. The negative is, however, true. Bovine TB has never been tackled effectively without addressing a wildlife host, where it exists.”

Some 82 MPs have now signed an Early Day Motion calling on Mrs Spelman not to cull badgers. Instead, they believe the government should be focusing on cattle-based controls as a means of curtailing bovine tuberculosis.