Good fences make...?

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Mark Avery's blog

I'm the RSPB's Conservation Director. My aim with this blog will be to comment on matters of conservation importance and give you a few insights into the RSPB's conservation work - there's plenty to write about!

Good fences make...?

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Last week I spent two half days, and some time in a bar in between, with a bunch of RSPB site managers (or wardens as we used to call them!) talking about fox control.

Photo - Nigel BlakeWe have over 200 nature reserves and we cull foxes on about 20 of them, so, as written before, we use fox control as a management option but not as a standard management prescription.  Our main reason for fox control is where we have vulnerable populations of breeding waders such as lapwing, redshank and snipe and where we believe that foxes are making a big difference to their numbers or breeding success.

But getting out the rifle is not the only option - non-lethal methods may be more effective, cheaper and more acceptable to the public or to our staff.  One option is fencing, and the results of some trials are described in the RSPB Reserves review for 2010 (see pages 34-35 of the document or pages 36-37 of the pdf).  A couple of different fence types have been tested but both have electric strands.  One advantage of fences is that, as well as foxes which we know can be important predators of waders nests, they also exclude badgers which are more occasional nest predators.  Another advantage is that you aren't up late at night with a reifle trying to get a clean shot at a wary animal.

The results are encouraging but we are a cautious bunch so we aren't claiming anything yet.  I can't see fences being very useful in the uplands but in lowland areas they may have a part to play.  We'll see.

I live in the countryside and hardly ever see a fox.  Most of my recent sightings have been in London on early mornings where just as the foxes seem very nonchalant about people, most Londoners seem very relaxed about urban foxes.  I get quite excited when I see a fox - they are lovely animals.  But I don't, personally, have any problem about a bit of fox control to protect birds of conservation importance.

But we, the RSPB, do take a particularly strict line on predator control on our own land.  We don't use snares.  We don't use dogs to flush foxes underground or above ground.  And we try very hard not to shoot at times when we might kill lactating vixens with young cubs underground.  Those constraints don't make fox control very easy compared with the job a gamekeeper can do. 

Overall, over the last few years, (2005-2009, see the Reserves Review) lapwings and redshanks have increased in numbers on our nature reserves (and that isn't because we've added more land - it's true of the land we started with in 2005) so unless lots of waders flock into our reserves every year (which is just possible) we can't be doing too much wrong.  But lapwing and redshank numbers fell a bit this year (2010) so there's nothing to be complacent about.

  • I have just seen a photo of the new Rainham anti-predator fence (in the Marsh Matters newsletter). It looks OK!

  • Quote Gert "I just hope they find a vaccine for cattle soon as I don't think the general public (and I certainly don't) has the stomach for the wholesale extermination of Badgers."

    If and when they find a vaccine they would then have to change EU Law, because it is currently illegal to vaccinate cattle against TB, as it then makes testing impossible, which renders most of the control and eradication measure useless. BTW, 5 years is the latest estimate for a vaccine, but which time all the UK will have bTB if other measures aren't taken.

  • Apologies - one last thing:-

    And Pro Tim strangely dismisses a report by the then Government Chief Scientific Advisor Sir David King with just a reference to its existence rather than explain its content and conclusions – that a badger cull was indeed necessary and the only viable solution – and this is a report that Pro Tim - as an ECOLOGIST- personally contributed to as a designated expert!  The inclusion of these details would have very well illustrated the dilemma that exists – but no – nothing! Why?

    If Pro Tim had outlined the PCR science and detailed its associated benefits along with the disastrous RBCT criticisms and the content of both Sir David King’s and Prof Godfray’s heavily critical reports coupled with the ‘acidic’ Veterinary Science reports I have no doubts that Pro Tim would have achieved ‘persona non grata’ status overnight and been drummed out of the “Brownies” and jeopardised his career under the previous political regime that was New Labour where ‘he who paid the piper called the tune’!

  • I just hope they find a vaccine for cattle soon as I don't think the general public (and I certainly don't) has the stomach for the wholesale extermination of Badgers.

  • Prof Tim Roper writes (supporting my view) that:-

    • “if TB is self-sustaining in badgers (virtually certain) and if the percentage of new cattle infections attributable to badgers exceeds 50% (which it does significantly), then it seems self-evident that some kind of action against the wildlife reservoir will be necessary, at least in the hot-spot areas”

    His scientific ‘summaries’ on this subject are not always those of an independent scientific thinker, reviewer or commentator; to a very large extent – they replicate the ‘thinking’ of the then / current(?) DEFRA management team’s mindset as installed and groomed by the previous New Labour regime.

    Indeed Pro Tim ‘bottles’ his conclusion by saying “the scientific case against isolated, one off, spatially restricted, culls of limited duration, such as were carried out in the RBCT is very strong”  ie don’t choose a 4 foot, blind, one-armed, alcoholic Cuban to be the England goal keeper !!!


    go visit the home page - look at the graph halfway down - culling works and the harsher the culling methodology the greater the effectiveness - the politically-driven constraints imposed by New Labour and admitted by Pro Bourne (ISG) made the RBCT no basis to formulate a strategy to eliminate bTB

    Pro Tim sadly fails his audience - he is only reviewing so-called scientific publications - he virtually ignores PCR technology for example - like New Labour - his most recent reference is 2004 anf then he only refers to rather than outline its benefits etc etc

    The original publication is better !!

    And before everybody thinks that vaccination is the way forward the bTB BLOG states  

    "So far from that gallopingly wild headline, adopted by all and sundry - and Moonbat - of a 74 per cent reduction in TB of the 800 wild vaccinated badger trial group, the conclusion on p 9 of the Appendix, opines that

       "it is not possible to to estimate efficacy of BCG vaccination, in this study"

  • Tim Roper's concluding remarks in the chapter on Badgers and Bovine TB;

    ' And what about badger culling, which is, of all the possible management options, the one of most interest to readers of this book? It is easy to understand why farmers are frustrated by the lack of progress towards controlling what is, by any account, a serious disease situation. It is also easy to understand this frustration results in calls for the resumption of badger culling. Culling has a strong intuitive appeal:it seems only common sense, when faced with a disease reservoir, to try to eliminate it; and the most obvious way of doing this is by eliminating the host species. However, the RBCT has shown that things are not that simple. At best culling may not have much of an effect and, at worst, it may have unintended and counterproductive side-effects. And despite the multiplicity of trials, the long term effects of culling on the prevalence of TB, in either cattle or badgers, are still not known. From a political point of view, culling is hard to defend because of its unpopularity with the general public and because the economic costs of doing it are substantially greater than the immediate economic benefits that the expected reduction in cattle TB would bring. It is still possible that culling would contribute usefully to TB control in certain well-defined circumstances or in combination with other measures such as vaccination or enhanced biosecurity. However, the scientific case against isolated, one-off, spatially restricted culls of limited duration, such as were carried out in RBCT,is very strong.'

  • Even a badly managed and politically-driven operation - the RBCT - produced the following from the author of the book "Badger" which Mark has recently bought and read.

    Pro Tim Roper importantly says “it has subsequently become clear that this is not the end of the story - culling ceased in 2005 – but the incidence of TB in cattle within the proactively culled areas continued to decline while the perturbation effect also declined and eventually….  went into reverse”.  

    The case is so strong that even BAD SCIENCE produced positive results !!


    Mark says

    • “Badgers and TB - think Nightjar is right in saying that the science shows that badger culling may increase TB levels - this is the perturbation effect which is well-established - but is not the only thing to consider in this complex question.  I'll come back to badgers and TB some time soon too.”

    Nightjar says ‘hard science’ and Mark says ‘the science’  

    Both make the same mistake of assuming – and they should know better – that the RBCT performed by Pro Bourne’s ISG was ‘scientific’.

    • Just because a task is performed by scientists doesn’t make that task ‘scientific’

    The truth of the matter is that ‘science’ has proven and continues to prove that if there are no badgers whatsoever – there would be no bTB – that’s a hard scientific fact – this is your scientific baseline – this is your starting point!

    Incidentally the Veterinary Association for Wildlife Management (vets, profs and fellows of Royal College of Pathologist) said in 2004

    They conclude "Tb is a disease of overcrowding, stressed conditions and nutrition and the current status of the badger as a protected species is now creating exactly that situation for them. Failure to act now, will not only see the disease spreading in both cattle and badgers, but progressive environmental contamination will see it establish in other domestic stock for example free range pigs and (domestic) cats. It will produce more cases of human Tb, particularly in the rural population. (or those roaming the countryside?) The long term 'holistic' approach advocated by the ISG is entirely reasonable if time could be made to stand still but the problem is out of hand now, and will inevitably worsen in the years to come that the group and government take to formulate their 'solution'.

    2004 eh? - that’s over 80,000 dead cattle ‘ago’ !!

    Now try to think scientifically – please!

  • Quote "this is the perturbation effect which is well-established".

    Actually the on going monitoring has now, recently, disproved this, but the badger websites will not be reporting this :-)

    Quote "Badgers and ground-nesting birds - yes they do take some nests (of course) but our studies suggest they are much much less important than foxes."

    As I said, in hot spots you are very wrong, they are a major predator.

  • A fascinating debate! Another aspect relating specifically to reserves is their role in providing enjoyment and education for the public, and in recruiting members.

    My understanding is that after badgers raided the islands in Burrowes pit at Dungeness some years ago, the nesting terns and gulls went elsewhere (for many seasons - are they all back now?). What a pity that visitors were deprived of a fantastic spectacle from the visitor centre windows. I know badgers are a protected species, but it still seems a pity...

    At Minsmere the Sand Martin colony in the old carpark must have given enormous pleasure to visitors over the years. I have a feeling stoats have been a problem there and certainly Magpies learnt to take the about-to-fledge young from the nest entrances. Not sure if the martins were back there this year. I'm sorry, but there are far too many magpies at Minsmere (or at least there were a couple of years ago when I visited more regularly than I do now).

    What's the problem with taking out individual birds or mammals that are causing trouble? Nature is red in tooth and claw, perhaps reserve managers should take more of a leaf out of nature's book. Fences are fine in particular cases but for 'natural' wilderness reserves are they really any substitute for playing God and managing wildlife populations?

  • Snares: I know it is your agreed Council policy - but why? It is a legal, effective and humane management tool (or, if you prefer, "the least inhumane method of pest control", according to a senior vet who gave evidence to the Scottish RAEC).

    Mustelids: No, you're right, not many stoats at Otterburn. But there are plenty of other places where their impact on ground nesting birds, eg waders and blackgrouse, is considerable, with peer reviewed science to prove it. Besides, the quote about them being one of the most important nest predator species came from a paper by the RSPB's own scientists Macdonald and Bolton. If you don't think they're that important, why say so in your lapwing information leaflet?

    Who is talking about managing every predator to oblivion?  I'm not, and nor I am sure is Phillip Merricks. As for the hapless Lindsay Waddell, he was merely the messenger, quoting Merricks' paper in the October issue of British Wildlife.

    The issue is trying to ensure a sustainable population of waders. Where the rate of hatching and fledging success falls below a certain level then we surely have a species of conservation concern. Merricks would say that predator control is an essential ingredient - one of several - in any management solution; so do Lindsay Waddell, trimbush and I. So, it would appear, does Ian Newton. What about you?

  • All - I thought you'd be interested in this subject!

    A few points now - but I will come back to this subject fairly soon.

    Snares - we don't use them because that is our agreed Council policy. But we haven't campaigned against their use by others (we have expressed some concerns about capercaillie being caught in snares in some parts of Scotland).  That hardly seems an absolutist position - just our choice!  Others can use snares as long as they remain legal.  I thought that there was quite a chance that snares might be outlawed in some parts of the UK - but I may be wrong as we don't enter into this debate ourselves.

    Badgers and ground-nesting birds - yes they do take some nests (of course) but our studies suggest they are much much less important than foxes.

    Fences - did you look at the results in the link?  They do look very promising so why not use them?

    Stoats/weasels - not many killed in the GWCT Otterburn study which helped show that predator control can increase wader breeding success and numbers - and little evidence from our work that they are that important.  Rarely seen on nest cameras monitoring predation events.

    Badgers and TB - think Nightjar is right in saying that the science shows that badger culling may increase TB levels - this is the perturbation effect which is well-established - but is not the only thing to consider in this complex question.  I'll come back to badgers and TB some time soon too.

    Titchwell is a nature reserve not a bird reserve - last time I looked stoats were part of nature too.  The idea that every predator must be managed to oblivion on a nature reserve would strike most people as a contradiction in terms.  Lindsay Waddell though, is a gamekeeper, so has a very different perspective.

    RSPB culls some predators on some of our nature reserves - we do it to protect species of conservation concern.  We also use non-lethal methods if we think those will work.  And we take animal welfare issues into account in how we carry out predator control.

  • ... and why does the RSPB adopt such an absolutist stance on snares? After all, the Scottish Government acknowledges that they are an essential tool in countryside management. And the Rural Affairs and Environment Committee has just today come out in support of them.

    Where birds of conservation importance are in serious decline and even at risk of extinction, as some wader species are in many parts of the country, including (it has to be said) on your own reserves, don't you have a duty to use every legal tool available to you?

  • Nightjar - "hard science"?   Do you refer to the RBCT by the ISG?

    Sadly - Your 'understanding' of these matters undermines everything else that you have previously said.

    You should seek the truth - the whole truth and nothing but the truth - and learn to recognise it.

    When badgers were gassed in setts - a mere 300 infected cattle were slaughtered each year

    As the culling strategy 'softened' it gradually rose to some 4,500 infected cattle per year in 1996

    When New Labour ceased culling in 1997 it rose from 4,500 to the present 35,000 per year - QED

    Get a grip!

  • "LW suggests the RSPB stops moaning at farmers and gets on with producing more chicks."

    Bad news stories help hold up RSPB subscriptions ;-)