December, 2011

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You might be surprised to read that our work is far broader than nature reserves and Big Garden Birdwatch. Read more about what else we do.

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.

  • A surprising thing - part 2

    This week I posed the question - which are the 5% of vertebrates that you cannot find on the current RSPB nature reserve network?  And, thanks to my colleague, Mark Gurney, here is the answer:

    Pool frog, Silver Bream, Common Sturgeon, Bleak, Allis Shad, Stone Loach, Barbel, Vendace, Gwyniad, Houting, Gudgeon, Burbot, Grayling, Lesser White-toothed Shrew, Brandt's Bat, Nathusis' Pipistrelle, and Myotis alcathoe.

    Mark elaborates...

    "The figures do not include marine species (either for RSPB reserves or for Britain), so there are no cetaceans or turtles in them, but they do include both resident seals because they breed on land.  Of the native land and freshwater vertebrates we have:

    • All 6 reptiles.
    • 6 amphibians.  We are missing Pool Frog, which became extinct in Britain but has been released at a few sites.
    • All 3 jawless fish.
    • 30 of 42 native fish.  We are missing Silver Bream, Common Sturgeon, Bleak, Allis Shad, Stone Loach, Barbel, Vendace, Gwyniad, Houting, Gudgeon, Burbot, and Grayling.  Some of these are widespread and probably occur on our reserves, but most of our fish records are from electrofishing at reedbed sites; we have few fish records from other sites.
    • 41 of the 45 terrestrial native mammals.  We are missing Lesser White-toothed Shrew, which is found only on Scilly, where we have no reserves; Brandt's Bat and Nathusis' Pipistrelle, which are both quite widespread but hard to identify and they have not been confirmed from RSPB reserves; and Myotis alcathoe, which is so cryptic that it was added to the British list only a couple of years ago.
    • All the regular birds (about 300)."

    So now you know!