My passion for wildlife was stimulated in my teenage years, mainly thanks to my Mum (a biology teacher) who made me look at the world differently and being inspired by writers such as Paul Colinvaux. This early interest developed into biological research in my 20s, when I did practical conservation work in places such as the Comores and Mongolia.
Today, any free time I have I spend pottering around the flatlands of East Anglia or escaping to our hut on the Northumberland coast looking for wildlife and castles with my wife and children.
I studied Biological Sciences at Oxford and Conservation at UCL, and worked at Wildlife and Countryside Link before spending five years as Conservation Director at Plantlife.
I joined the RSPB as Head of Government Affairs in 2004, became Head of Sustainable Development in 2006, before becoming Conservation Director in 2011.
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.
I learnt something new yesterday. Have a look at the table below (sorry if it looks a bit wobbly). It gives you an indication of the diversity of wildlife that can be found on the RSPB's nature reserves.
Britain RSPB %Total 47,423 15,253 32Vertebrates 419 397 95Other invertebrates 1,132 186 16Other arthropods 2,890 653 23Insects 23,619 8,644 37Fungi 11,873 3,649 31Algae 4,900 27 01Land plants 2,590 1,697 66
This is remarkable for two reasons. First, it shows the contribution that our reserve network makes to conserving the UK's wildlife. Second, we (with help from lots of other people - volunteer specialists) have managed to identify over 15,000 species on our sites. What an achievement!
So, if you are short of things to do this festive season - why not visit one of our 210 nature reserves (including Abernethy shown in its wintry glory). There's something for everyone! And, I will offer a prize to the person who can identify the 5% of UK vertebrate species that you cannot find on RSPB reserves.
Answers on a postcard please...
There are a few quotes that don't need elaboration - they speak for themselves. Here's one that seems particularly apt given the rhetorical flourishes to which we are becoming accumstomed in these austere times...
Kenneth Boulding, President Kennedy's environmental advisor nearly fifty years ago said, "Anyone who believes in indefinite growth in anything physical, on a physically finite planet, is either mad or an economist."
And something else that speaks for itself is wildlife. It is amazing. And, to selfishly remind me of a wonderful Saturday afternoon at Wicken Fen with the kids, here's an image of a barn owl. Enjoy it and then go and find one yourself. It's worth the hunt...