LANDOWNER Charlotte Townshend has stepped down as the patron of Dorset Wildlife Trust after being targeted by animal rights activists.

Militants from the Stop the Cull group against the badger cull focused on Mrs Townshend and the trust in an online campaign.

The campaigners targeted Mrs Townsend because she is a joint master of the Cattistock Hunt and because it claims that the reserve site for the badger cull would be on her Ilchester Estates land.

A spokesman for Mrs Townshend and Ilchester Estates said: “Mrs Townshend would never do anything to harm the work of the Dorset Wildlife Trust which she and her family have supported for many years, and will continue to ensure that her estates are managed to the highest standard for the benefit of wildlife and conservation.

“It is a great shame that some of those who claim to be campaigning for wildlife actually focus on such negative activity rather than engaging in the sort of positive conservation work which Mrs Townshend has carried out over decades.

"She will continue to support the trust and work at a practical level for the future of Dorset's wildlife and countryside.”

Mrs Townshend’s Ilchester Estates owns large areas of land in Dorset including parts of Chesil Beach, the Fleet and Abbotsbury Swannery.

Activists have posted pictures of her home and estate on the internet and highlighted her patronage of the wildlife trust.

Trust chief executive Dr Simon Cripps said: “We are grateful to Mrs Townshend for her and her family’s support over many decades. Her grandfather was one of DWT’s founders over 50 years ago.

“It is vital to our conservation work that DWT continues to work with landowners and farmers in the county who have helped to make Dorset the natural environment that it currently is.”

He added: “The DWT is the most outspoken but rational organisation against the badger cull in Dorset. It’s a great shame that we and our patron are targeted by these animal rights activists.

“We may disagree on some issues but we maintain good relations with famers, landowners and with the NFU.”

The Government has given the go-ahead for two test badger culls in Somerset and Gloucestershire starting in early June but there is also a licence for a site in Dorset in case either fall through.

Mr Cripps said as far as he was aware the boundaries for any Dorset site had not been decided upon so the activists could not categorically say it was on Ilchester Estates land that the trust would continue to campaign in a positive way.

The Dorset Wildlife Trust has thanked Mrs Townsend for all of her family’s support.

The Stop the Cull campaign welcomed Mrs Townshend’s decision on its website and said that it had not targeted the trust.

It said that it hoped that it would send a strong message that it would take on anyone over the badger cull.

Mrs Townshend is described as a conservationist who is the only person other than the Queen entitled to own swans.

She owns about 15,000 acres of land in Dorset as well as about 29 acres at Holland Park in London.

The Government has given the go-ahead for two test badger culls in Somerset and Gloucestershire starting in early June but there is also a site in Dorset at an undisclosed location in case either fall through.