December, 2011

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Martin Harper's blog

I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t
  • A sad day for badgers and for farmers

    This afternoon in the House of Commons, Caroline Spelman announced that the UK Government is to proceed with a badger cull.  This is a contentious decision and I’m sure one that she will have thought long and hard about.  It cannot have been easy, the coalition was committed to pursuing a cull but there are also strong arguments against.  The Secretary of State is in a difficult place.

    I will try to set out my thoughts on why ultimately I think we all lost today.  First, let’s make it clear bovine TB is a serious disease that is having a huge impact on cattle farming throughout the south and west.  It must be devastating for farmers to lose their herds to this disease.  Almost 25,000 cattle were slaughtered last year at a huge emotional cost to farmers and financial cost to the taxpayer.  So, it is serious and we need to find effective, sustainable solutions.  Yes, that is solutions in the plural as there is no one silver bullet. 

    I also think it is beyond doubt that badgers play a part in the transmission of this disease. Not the only part and probably not the main part, but they are involved.  Mrs Spelman was keen to stress to the Commons that no other country had eradicated bTB without addressing the so called ‘wildlife residue’.  That may be true, but culling is not the only option and there are significant questions over whether culling is practicable and effective.

    One of the key aspects of this issue relates to how badgers respond to culling.  These stripey-headed creatures normally live in social groups.  When their population is disrupted by culling, animals move around more, often fleeing from the culled area, with badgers from outside entering the area to fill the void.  This stirring up of the population is called perturbation and it is important because detailed research on culling shows that it increases disease transmission. So the incidence of bTB in badgers may actually be increased by culling.  Culling in the initial stages can increase the level of bTB in cattle, particularly in the immediate vicinity.  The detailed science that has been carried out suggests that badger culling will bring about reductions in bTB if carried out across a big enough area (at least 150 km2) for four years and in a co-ordinated and highly synchronised way.

    The science is not that rosy in terms of making a real difference though. After 9.5 years (culling over a four year period and 5.5 post culling) bTB in cattle was reduced by around 12.4% across the 150km2 and a 2km perimeter around this area. This means that even after the effort of this culling, not to mention the killing of many badgers, more than 85% of the problem is left unaddressed.

    But the problems do not stop there.  The scientific research used a carefully controlled method of cage trapping and humane dispatch carried out by trained staff in a highly synchronised way.  Most of the culls were carried out over 8-11 days.  Those that were carried out over  longer periods were less effective - no doubt due to perturbation.  The scientists who carried out the work were keen to point out that using different methods in an unco-ordinated way could make matters worse rather than better.  It is therefore of great concern that the Government is proposing to allow farmers to use the untested method of shooting free ranging badgers over a period of up to 6 weeks. We believe this is a high risk strategy that could backfire.

    The Government is proposing a trial cull in two areas to test assumptions on whether large enough numbers of badgers can be shot safely and humanely.  We have doubts that a one-year trial under carefully controlled conditions will reflect what will be achieved over any wider cull that is proposed next. 

    Why has the Government diverted from the science?  In a word - cost.  It is cheaper to shoot in the open than to trap. It is cheaper or easier to do it over a longer period than in a controlled, synchronised way.  It is a high risk strategy that could be a recipe for perturbation.

    But there is an alternative.  Rather than stirring the badger population, we should be jabbing it.  An injectable badger vaccine has been developed and is being deployed on a small scale.  Detailed field trials have shown that vaccination is effective in reducing the number of badgers testing positive to bTB by 74%

    It is cheaper than cage trapping and culling badgers, though more expensive than the untested shooting of free ranging badgers.  It also has several very important advantages over culling.  It doesn’t lead to perturbation, it doesn’t risk making TB worse, it doesn’t need to be administered in a highly synchronised way and it is an approach that has widespread public support.

    It won’t be a solution on its own, it would need to be carried out alongside cattle testing, movement controls and improved biosecurity measures. When available, an oral badger vaccine and cattle vaccination should replace it.

    The Government has announced that £250,000 will be made available to support vaccination in each of the next three years but this, whilst welcome, is too little.  It is half the anticipated policing costs of the trial cull.  How bizarre is that?

    The Government’s costings suggest that a badger cull will cost farmers more than it will save them in bTB outbreaks.  I believe that, rather than passing the buck and most of the cost to farmers, the Government should have taken the lead by accelerating a programme of vaccination.  This would be a publicly acceptable, sustainable alternative to a high risk and divisive badger cull.

    But what about you?  What do you think? Do you think today's decision helps farmers or badgers or neither?

    It would be great to hear your views.

  • The end of the year is nigh

    Barring an environmental catastrophe (which really would be a bad way to end the year), this will be my last post of 2011. 

    It has been quite a year.   I have a fabulous new job which allows me to support the breadth of the RSPB's conservation work.  And I get to visit fabulous RSPB reserves like Abernethy, Bempton Cliffs and Dove Stone.  That can't be bad.

    2011 was the year that the coalition government began to outline its ambitions for the natural world through the Natural Environment White Paper and English Biodiversity Strategy.  Both of these documents were informed by the groundbreaking National Ecosystem Assessment which provided compelling arguments for better investment in nature. 

    Alas the year has also thrown up a whole load of new challenges: continued decline in farmland and woodland birds, threats to EU funding for wildlife-friendly farming, the economic growth imperative in danger of eclipsing environmental protection (through new planning proposals and reviews of environmental regulation), and, sadly, the inadequacy of the global response to tackling climate change.

    Throughout this period, I have tried to give you an insight into the work of the RSPB and our views on the topics of the day.  Below, in traditional end of year fashion, is my top 10 posts of the year (in chronological order). 

    I hope you enjoy my mini review of the year.  I look forward to picking up the story (and the fight) in the new year.  Until then, have a peaceful and relaxing Christmas.

    Martin's Top Ten Blogs of 2011

    1. Breathless over nature: a eulogy to the UK National Ecosystem Assessment.

    2. Don't cut the life from the countryside - the sequel">Don't cut the life from the countryside - the sequel: highlighting the threats to EU funding for wildlife-friendly farming

    3. The selfish gene at work within Whitehall: describing how some government departments might undermine Defra's Natural Environment White Paper ambitions

    4. New planning policy is a backwards step for nature: our initial response the now infamous consultation on the draft National Planning Policy Framework

    5. Conkers and bottle tops: reminiscing about the decline of full fat milk

    6. 7 Billion reasons to rethink our economy: acknowledging the impact of global population on nature and outlining our proposed response

    7. In search of happiness: reflecting on the Government's plan to establish a well-being index

    8. How green is the government? 29 critical friends have their say: the NGO report on Government's ambitions to be the greenest ever

    9. The Habitats Regulations ; the case for the defence: dealing with the consequences of the Chancellor's autumn economic statement

    10. A sad day for badgers and farmers: responding to the Government's decision to proceed with a badger cull

    Did I miss any of your favourites? What would you like to hear more about in 2012?

    It would be great to hear  your views.

  • And in Durban - a small bit of good news

    Credit where it's due.  Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman has once again displayed leadership in helping to tackle tropical forest destruction.  We are pleased that the UK Government has started to give money bilaterally to countries whose GDP would normally disqualify them for aid.  We are also pleased that they are funding work in the Cerrado which is far less glamorous than Amazonia but is, nonetheless, an incredibly rich ecosystem which is threatened by climate change. One could be a little sniffy and say we're not sure what ten million pounds will do.  But that would be churlish.  It is a start and, once again, Mrs Spelman, you deserve applause.  Oh and, yes, more of the same would be great.

    As my colleague Mel Coath's Durban blog suggests, leaders and journalists from across the world are now descending on Durban.  They will join the hundreds of negotiators and battle-hardened NGOs who have been there for 10 days.  Over the next 72 hours, the decision-makers have to do what they were elected to do - make some decisions.  Key will be keeping the prospects of a fair and ambitious global climate deal alive.  This means securing a second Kyoto commitment period which retains the principle of legally binding greenhouse reduction targets.  It is becoming a pre-Christmas ritual.  But thoughts and best wishes go to all those involved with these incredibly tough negotiations.

    If, in passing, more announcements like the one below are made by the western economies, then, that can make a difference and provide much needed optimism that the appetite for tackling global problems has not diminished. 

    Here is today's press notice from Defra. 

    Let me know what you think.

    UK pledges £10million to reduce deforestation in Brazil

    The UK Government is giving £10 million to a joint project to tackle deforestation in Brazil, Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman announced recently (Sunday 4 December 2011) at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Durban, South Africa.

    The funding will support a project based in the Cerrado, central Brazil, and aims to reduce rates of deforestation by supporting environmental registration of rural properties and by helping farmers restore vegetation on illegally cleared land. It will also fund measures to prevent and manage forest fires.

    Speaking at the conference on International Forest Day, Mrs Spelman said:

    “The Cerrado is rich in biodiversity and yet, alarmingly, it has almost halved in size, because of wild fires and the demand for agricultural products. If we’re going to stop the loss of biodiversity, we need to protect our forests – which house the majority of the world’s wildlife. We won’t succeed in tackling climate change unless we deal with deforestation.

    “The £10 million funding I’m announcing today will help farmers in the Cerrado to restore natural habitats, reduce forest fires, and ease the pressure for more deforestation to provide land for agriculture in the Cerrado.”

    Izabella Teixeira, Brazilian Environment Minister, welcomed the bilateral cooperation:

    “In past years, Brazil has been leading a consistent policy to reduce deforestation. In the Amazon region, we managed to reduce deforestation from 27 thousand km² in 2004 to 7 thousand km² in 2010, a 75% decrease. This successful experience in the Amazon has inspired us to broaden it to other affected regions, such as the Cerrado, the Brazilian savannah. In this context, we welcome the timely cooperation between Brazil and the United Kingdom, in line with the Brazilian interest to protect its forests and eradicate poverty”.

    The Cerrado biome in central Brazil covers almost one quarter, or 2.04 million km2, of the country. It is home to 5% of the planet’s biodiversity and is one of the most biodiverse savannas in the world. The area is considered to be one of the world’s 34 biodiversity hotspots by Conservation International.

    The UK Government is helping developing countries to prevent the loss of forests as part of wider efforts to enable them to adapt to the impacts of climate change whilst continuing to promote low carbon, resource efficient development and the sustainable use of natural resources. The UK wants to see gross tropical deforestation halved by 2020 and net global deforestation halted by 2030.

    The world’s forests are home to over half of the world’s plants, 80 percent of the world’s terrestrial species and support the livelihoods of over one billion people, while deforestation accounts for almost a fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions. Forests have effectively disappeared in 25 countries and another 29 countries have lost more than 90 percent of their forest cover. Deforestation is leading to the loss of some 13 million hectares (130,000 km) of forests a year.

    Through the International Climate Fund, the UK is providing £2.9 billion to a number of projects to tackle climate change; .a significant proportion of this money will be for forests in support of REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation). The UK is developing a forests and climate programme that will support developing countries on REDD+ and which will provide specific benefits for biodiversity as well as tackling greenhouse gas emissions and reducing global poverty.

    The UK Government’s participation in REDD+ is co-ordinated across DECC, DFID and Defra. At the Copenhagen Conference of Parties on climate change in 2009, the UK Government announced £1.5 billion funding for international climate change projects to 2012. Following the Comprehensive Spending Review, this has been increased and extended to £2.9 billion to 2014/15. The £2.9 billion will include significant new money for forests on top of the existing £300million commitment towards REDD+ made at last year’s Copenhagen Climate Conference. The final amounts are still under discussion.