Strathspey Badger Hide with Allan Bantick

I spent much of the day with Allan Bantick OBE. You honestly couldn’t hope to meet a more thoroughly decent, highly entertaining, self-effacing man. Well, you could hope too, but I wouldn’t rate your chances too high…

We recorded an interview in the comfort of the Strathspey Badger Hide, just outside the village of Boat of Garten in the Cairngorms National Park where Allan lives.

The hide, which has solar panels mounted on the roof and the cosy feel of a well-loved garden shed, is built on the banks of the River Spey. It looks out onto a hillock which has been assiduously mined by badgers for decades. It’s a fabulous spot, and to quote from the Boat of Garten Wildlife Group website, the hide “is an independent project managed under the umbrella of the Boat of Garten Community Company Wildlife Group.  It was set up in 1996 to provide people of all ages with the chance to watch wild badgers at close quarters. The hide was built with the help of funds from Scottish Natural Heritage.  We ask our guests for a small contribution [Adults £10, accompanied children under 17 are free ]. The money raised is used to fund all of the projects undertaken by the Boat of Garten Wildlife Group.  In addition to maintaining the Badger Hide and its associated nest boxes your kind contributions help us manage Milton Loch and its Bird Hide, equip and run trail camera surveys in the Boat of Garten vicinity, maintain feeding stations for red squirrels and small birds in Deshar Woods, run a specialist nest box programme for crested tits and support the local Ranger.

£10 for all of that seems like quite a bargain to me!

The point of all this though is that as we chatted Allan asked if I’d be interested in joining a small group back at the hide in the late afternoon/early evening. That is, he said with a smile, if you’d like to see some badgers – oh, and perhaps a Pine Marten too…

Obviously – or there’d be no point at all in this post – I said yes, and found myself back in the hide around 18:30. The sky was still light as Allan drizzled the ground immediately outside the hide with peanuts, and he was barely back in through the door before stripey snouts started poking from several large holes no more than ten yards away.

Within twenty minutes we were watching up to six badgers unconcernedly snuffling just below us. Attuned to Allan’s voice rather than tame in any way, this was top-level wild animal watching, and I’d recommend it to anyone visiting the area. When you realise that the photos here were taken with a phone, you get an idea just how indifferent – and how close – to us these beautiful animals were.

And how nice to see badgers and not have to worry about their safety. I’m not going to get into the politics of the badger cull playing out on the other side of the Scottish border… only to say that I hate it in every way and have made a number of podcasts about it with expert campaigners and ecologists. Thankfully there is no bovine TB in Scotland (there are proper restrictions on cattle movements here) and these badgers are safe from the gunmen roaming parts of England killing a protected species on behalf of the dairy industry…

Anyway, we stayed in the hide for about ninety minutes before we had to leave. We didn’t see a Pine Marten this time (the camera trap on the trees opposite us had recorded marten activity every night this week), but – you know – you have to leave something for next time.

And the podcast with Allan I recorded earlier in the day? In the editing queue. As soon as it’s uploaded to Lush Player I’ll post about it here.

Wild Animal Welfare Committee Conference 2019

Yesterday the Wild Animal Welfare Committee (WAWC) Conference was held in the rather splendid Main Chamber of the City Chambers in Edinburgh – a room that boasts a huge clock (it’s always useful for speakers to be able to see their allotted time ticking away in front of them), a viewing gallery, and the sort of august environs that thoroughly suited the august group that the WAWC had gathered together to discuss ‘Who are the Guardians of Wild Animal Welfare’).

And what a group! The speakers alone included a number of Professors and Doctors, plus leading vets and campaigners (all of whom, I should add, were extremely friendly and happy to discuss concepts and ideas that ranged from the naive to the extremely complex). The delegate list included government officials, chief-executives, more vets, more campaigners, and me…a jobbing podcaster with a microphone and a gathering sense that what I’d come up to Edinburgh to do wasn’t really going to be possible!

Let me explain. My intention had been to record a ‘live’ summation of the day, with soundbites from delegates, short interviews with speakers, and perhaps even shorter extracts from their talks. I’ve done something similar before (eg the OSME Summer Conference) and it worked very well.

However, while I thought I’d researched and read up about ‘wild animal welfare’ I wasn’t quite prepared for the deluge of new information and science that was liberally poured from the main stage.

Unwrapping the premise of ‘Who is responsible for the welfare of wild animals?’ (as opposed to farm and companion animals) in a world of shooting for ‘sport’, widespread rodent control (the abomination that is glue traps deserves a conference of its own), predator ‘culling’ and ‘management’ of wild animals etc turns out to be like peeling an onion with tardis-like dimensions (as of course the members of WAWC already knew hence the charity’s formation).

From issues of sentience in cephalopods and marine mammal welfare in increasingly crowded seas, to how the welfare of wild animals is enacted in legislation, the ‘7 Principles of Ethical Wildlife Control’, and Animal Welfare Guardianship during Conservation Activities, this was a fascinating, challenging, and thought-provoking conference.

Dr Angus Nurse, Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Middlesex University School of Law

Two hours in and I was tweeting that:

This conference is like being in a room with people who think like you do and say the things you talk about only they think way more clearly and they are far more erudite! Genuinely inspiring and a little daunting at the same time

and

Perhaps it’s because I’m new to this forum but conference feels like we’re still at the beginning of a long (but utterly vital) process of legislation, recognition of sentience, deeper understanding of ‘welfare’ etc. Fascinating and incredibly valuable day

Judging by discussions at lunchtime, I wasn’t alone in thinking this way. It was everything you’d hope a conference of this type would be, only with many more moments along the lines of ‘Oh, I didn’t know that‘ (eg no country in the world recognises ALL animals as sentient) or ‘Okay, that’s an interesting way of thinking about it‘ (eg does the stress of capture prior to translocation for conservation purposes justify the stress and welfare concerns of handling a wild animal) than (I’d) expected.

Which while a ‘good thing’ in many ways, did mean I was facing a dilemma. I just couldn’t see that there would be an audience for a future podcast of soundbites from enthusiastic but slightly overwhelmed delegates alongside bursts of information from speakers who’d been asked to reduce an already extremely taut twenty-minute discussion into the audio equivalent of half a page of A4.

But I was at the conference to make that same podcast at the invitation of Libby Anderson, WAWC Secretary and Policy Advisor at excellent animal charity OneKind (now run by former RSPB Head of Investigations Bob Elliott who I interviewed just last month about his new role). As prickles of cold sweat began to trickle down my back I was facing the awkward realisation that I was on the verge of failing to do my job (and ‘accidental’ or not, I like to do my job).

This personal mini-crisis was perhaps understandable under the circumstances, but far from ideal. However an alternative proposal was beginning to take shape…

I figured that instead – if Libby and the WAWC folk approved of course – I would interview as many of the speakers as possible over the following six to eight weeks. I’d then release those recordings as a much more informative and considered series of podcasts. That would give all those involved time to digest what had been discussed and fedback at the conference and time to plan their next steps. And give me time to gather my thoughts too.

Which fortunately made sense to all concerned. Given that I already have a number of interviews lined up (see the right-hand column on this page) it will mean finding more days in a week than most weeks usually contain, but better that than letting someone down I respect by providing sub-par content. Plus Lush do fund these trips of mine and I do want to ensure they get good value too.

So that’s the plan, and while recordings still have to be scheduled with some already extraordinarily busy people, it seems to me to answer the requirements of covering the conference and giving anyone interested the sort of information that is hard to find anywhere else. Hopefully they’ll all be online in fairly good time.

However I was determined not to leave Edinburgh without some sort of recording, and I asked Libby if she’d be prepared to give me an hour the next morning (on her day off!) for an ‘overview’ interview – explaining the origins and objectives of WAWC, for example, and her thoughts of how the conference went.

Which is what she did, and very interesting it was too. I will start editing as soon as I finish writing this.

In the meantime though I’ve driven three hours north to Speyside and the Boat of Garten (aka ‘The Osprey Village’ as this is the area where in the 1950s ospreys established a foothold in the UK after being persecuted out of England by the 1830s and Scotland by the early 1900s).

I’m here to meet Allan Bantick OBE tomorrow for an interview (as I wrote in an earlier post) which I’m really looking forward to (to be honest I look forward to all of them, but in a misquoting of George Orwell, while all interviews are enjoyable some are more enjoyable than others…)

But that’s tomorrow afternoon. Tomorrow morning I’m hoping to reacquaint myself with a bird I’ve not seen for (gasp) about twenty-five years: Crested Tit*.

Yes, this podcasting stuff – it’s not all about microphones, cold sweats, and fumbled questions: occasionally you get to go birding as well.

Happy days…

[EDIT TO ADD *No Crested Tit sadly. Apparently they are in sharp decline for reasons no one is quite sure of – as explained in the podcast I did indeed record with Allan Bantick OBE]

Allan Bantick OBE

I’m heading up to Scotland tomorrow to record at the Wild Animal Welfare Committee (WAWC) Conference. There’s a fantastic list of speakers and pre-conference promotion has advised delegates that I’ll be there. mic in hand, doing my best imitation of an investigative reporter. It should be a very interesting day.

Rather than go all the way up to Scotland and turn right back around again, I’ve arranged to also interview Allan Bantick OBE.

After 26 years in the RAF teaching outdoor pursuits and aircrew survival and 20 years as a record producer and professional musician, Allan (according to his bio) ‘retired’ and now ‘just’ runs Cairngorm Wildlife and is the Chair of the Scottish Wildcat Action Steering Group. He was a Former Chair of Scottish Wildlife Trust; Founding Chair of the Scottish Beaver Trial (Allan’s OBE was partly awarded for his work on beaver re-introduction); Trustee of Scottish Badgers; Member of the Scottish Environment Link Wildlife Crime Task Force; and Founder Member of the Scottish Species Reintroductions Forum.

Wow, eh. On top of all that he’s suggested we record the interview in the Strathspey Badger Hide surrounded by wildlife.

Future guests are going to have to work hard to better that…

Dominic Dyer and the Bristol Nats

Chatting with Mark Avery about Wild Justice and Dominic Dyer about – well, loads of things, in the same week? My podcasting cup truly runneth over.

I have a huge amount of regard for both Mark and Dominic. They’re very different individuals of course, but both are intelligent, focussed conservationists. Dominic (we concluded as the sun sunk over the yard arm) has ‘street smarts’. He’s also honed his speaking style so it flows and loops back on itself with nary a hesitation or deviation (if he was on ‘Just a Minute‘ he’d win the round with ease every single time), but still has a great knack of being the ‘everyman’ despite a CV that include high-profile roles in industry, leading marches through London, taking tea with politicians, and steering the Badger Trust through the mass slaughter of what is supposed to be a highly-protected mammal.

Anyway, Dominic and I met up in Bristol, prior to his talk at the AGM of the venerable Bristol Naturalist’s Society (which was founded in 1862 and ‘exists to stimulate a greater awareness of natural history and geology in the Bristol area’). We meet up fairly regularly, and it’s always inspiring and interesting. We set the world to rights, firm up schedules, roll our eyes about the mess politicians have made of Brexit, and bemoan the current lack of opportunities for journalists to write about the environmental issues that we’re both most concerned about.

One ‘schedule’ we are looking at, incidentally, is a series of new conservation/environmental discussion-based podcasts that would look very much like a ‘town hall debate’ with me in the chair.

I have the location, the equipment, and the skills to record and produce the debates and a broad range of contacts who might take part, whilst Dominic has the knowledge to be an expert ‘semi-permanent’ contributor and an even broader range of contacts who would take part solely based on his say-so (at least that’s what we think!). We’re now going to go away and work out the first three or four ‘debates’, contact potential guests, and organise the dates. If that interests you, I’ll post updates right here.

To end this short post I’d like to just reflect on Dominic’s talk, which was on the politics of wildlife protection (and forgive the above photo: Bristol Nats use a church hall in Westbury-on-Trym and I couldn’t help myself).

As I said, Dominic has a remarkably polished speaking style. Using ‘A People’s Manifesto for Wildlife‘ as a prop (and see the photo below), he wound a tale that took in the moon landings, Greta Thunberg, stats on policing costs for the badger cull that were released just thirty minutes before he started talking, the history of pesticides, and the Bristol Nats themselves, without a single ‘er’, ‘like’, ‘you know’, or ‘what I’m trying to say’ in 35 minutes.

Apologies for perhaps seeming to eulogise, but as someone who can’t approach a five-minute introduction without notes, in an abstract ‘observing how things work‘ kind of a way I find it fascinating to watch a skilled proponent like Dominic at work. All the more so because I know for a fact that an hour before he started he really wasn’t sure what he was going to say.

I’ve seen Mark Avery do the same thing. Chris Packham is a remarkably organised speaker too. It’s as if their thoughts and their speech centres are linked so closely they almost function in synchronicity. There are obvious parallels with stand up comedians who hold ninety minutes of well-rehearsed material in their heads but can still make it sound fresh (while having to adapt to interruptions and current events). I’m not sure it’s a skill you can learn. It can be refined but while you and I can get better at ‘delivering speeches’ if we practice, I do believe we’d never get as good at it.

Does that matter? I think so, because I know that many of us question what we can contribute to conservation, what we can do to help the dire situation the planet and its wildlife finds itself in. I’ve beaten myself up (metaphorically of course) many times because I just can’t speak like Dominic, Mark, or Chris. But maybe that’s not my ‘role’ (or yours).

My podcasts are my contribution. If you listen to them I barely feature in them. And that’s deliberate. They’re not supposed to be about me. They’re a platform for the ‘guest’. I want to hear what they think, what they dream of, what they work towards – and when they can’t do it without hesitation or deviation (and very, very few people can) I’ll edit it to make it sound like they can. Of course I’d like to be a charismatic orator – many of us would I guess and I’ll always give my best imitation if I’m asked to try – but that’s not my role. That doesn’t mean though that conservation doesn’t need what I can contribute.

And if you’re also beating yourself up about not being a Dominic, a Mark, or a Chris, please don’t. Discover what you can do, no matter how small or large, how trivial you might think it is, because conservation (desperately) needs whatever you can contribute too…

spreading the message Dominc Dyer style…