Badger Vaccination Symposium 2019

Yesterday I headed up to the University of Derby for the first ever Badger Vaccination Symposium. Hosted by the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust, National Trust, and the Badger Trust the event brought together (to quote) “policy makers, academics, scientists, veterinarians, farmers, and vaccination teams” for the first time.

The symposium, which was excellent incidentally, looked at the latest science concerning Bovine Tuberculosis (btb, a cattle disease), badgers (which undoubtedly carry btb, though whether they introduce btb to new areas or catch it from diseased cattle being moved around the country is still hotly disputed), and the effectiveness of vaccination (using syringes – oral vaccination is being developed but is not yet available) as a non-lethal means of controlling the disease.

And it’s the non-lethal bit that matters. As many campaigners and activists will already know, the government (urged on by the National Farmers Union/NFU) has embarked on a seemingly ever-increasing slaughter of badgers in a (so far pretty much pointless) ‘cull’ which, to quote Dominic Dyer, CEO of Badger Trust “is the largest destruction of a protected species in living memory. By the end of 2018, the government will have spent over £50m of public funds killing over 67,000 badgers [since 2013], which could push the species to the verge of local extinction in areas of England where it has lived since the ice age.

I do try and keep up with as many conservation developments as I can, but I have to admit – despite having interviewed Dominic Dyer a number of times for podcasts on the cull – I went up to the Symposium knowing relatively little about vaccinating badgers. Much of what was said was a real eye-opener…

My (personal) take-away from the symposium is just how hard volunteers are having to work to persuade farmers to let them on to their land to vaccinate, how little government support (in both financial and promotional terms) is available, how reluctant the NFU is to help promote vaccination, and how few badgers in total have been vaccinated despite the vaccine having undergone rigorous government testing and licenced for use as long ago as 2010 (the low total not helped by the government running out of vaccine in 2016 just as programmes were building up a head of steam)!

As a non-expert listening to experts, I came to the conclusion (and I’m neither saying that this was the intention of the speakers nor a view shared by other delegates), that basically many farmers simply want to get rid of badgers altogether rather than allow vaccinated badgers on their land.

As is often the case the issue is not entirely black and white, there are honourable exceptions of course, but speaking as a non-expert who listened very intently to the debate it really does appear to me that unless volunteers are prepared to overlook other practices that they would normally feel disgusted by (unnamed, but possibly trapping and snaring linked to pheasant shoots), unless volunteers offer ‘carrot’ after ‘carrot’ and withdraw any hint of ‘stick’, then almost no-one outside of a few highly motivated and entirely admirable individuals and a small smattering of farmers is prepared to do very much of anything to ensure the hideous slaughter of native wildlife is mitigated by a cheap, effective non-lethal means of controlling btb.

And it is cheap – far cheaper, anyway, if you compare the cost of vaccination with shooting (“Vaccinating one badger is costing approx. £82 compared to over £6,000 to shoot one badgeraccording to Derbyshire Wildlife Trust).

That’s the case because while the cost involved in trapping a badger is exactly the same as trapping it to vaccinate it or trapping it to shoot it, with vaccination there is just a small cost for the vaccine dose but there are no additional policing costs (arising from ensuring shooters don’t break the law (or shoot each other) and monitoring protestors), no costs of hiring so-called ‘marksmen’ (a description woefully wide of the mark in many cases) and night sights etc, and much of the vaccination work is done by trained (ie unpaid or low-paid) volunteers.

There are also no issues with perturbation (the increased movement of badgers due to the disruption of territoriality, and the increased ranging and mixing between social groups caused by removing badgers by killing them), which some experts say could lead to the spread of btb. Which results in more shooting etc etc

And it is effective, as one of the speakers detailed in one of the excellent talks given in the morning (which were mercifully short as the tight schedule ‘encouraged’ speakers to stick to the point).

The afternoon, incidentally, was given over to a series of workshops (photo above).

I attended one on ‘How to expand badger vaccination nationally’ – the answer to which seemed to be (or at least to my rather jaundiced ears seemed to be) saying thank you while giving farmers everything they want as we conservationists bend over and are mocked as badger-hugging weirdos who know SFA about the countryside.

As I say, that’s just how it seemed to me. I don’t work on the ground and I have huge respect for the volunteers who work incredibly hard to implement vaccination programmes – but in the same week that the ‘field sports community’ giggled about stringing up Chris Packham and predicted chaos in the countryside if they weren’t allowed free rein to blast pigeons and crows, I’m getting a bit fed up of constantly being reminded that unless conservation is prepared to compromise (and it’s always conservation that is expected to compromise) then the slaughter of so much of our native wildlife will go on unabated.

Having said that, please don’t in any way think that my slightly sour reflections here are indicative of the general feeling at the symposium. It was a triumph just to get everyone in one place to discuss the issue, and this was a remarkably positive meeting, with some of the most respected voices in their respective fields of expertise talking frankly and openly.

I came away full of respect for the organisers and for so many of the committed and incredibly hard-working people who are trying to change embedded and intransigent attitudes and save what is supposed to be a protected species from extermination in large parts of England.

Oh, and of course I was up there to record an interview as well. I’m very grateful to the aforementioned Dominic Dyer, Tim Birch and Debbie Bailey of Derbyshire Wildlife Trust, Gail Weatherhead of the National Trust, and Professor Paul Lynch of Derby University and Chair of Derbyshire Wildlife Trust for staying behind to talk with me.

I’ll be editing our conversation (which was punchy and very interesting) this week, and will upload it to Lush Player asap.

Congratulations Wild Justice

A few weeks ago I interviewed Dr Mark Avery (one of the founders of the then newly-launched Wild Justice) about the group’s legal challenge to the General Licence – a barely-there ‘soft-touch’ piece of virtual paper that allows the slaughter of huge numbers of birds (often to support shooting interests) without regulation, monitoring or data collection.

The podcast is here and gives more background information to the challenge.

Last night Wild Justice posted the following:

Wild Justice’s first legal case has been a challenge of the General Licences.

Yesterday afternoon (23 April), nearly 10 weeks after Wild Justice launched a challenge to the legality of the 2019 General Licences (on 13 February), Natural England announced that it was revoking the 2019 General Licences 04/05/06 on Thursday (25 April) after deciding to do so at its Board meeting of 15 April.

After nearly four decades of unlawful casual killing of millions, tens of millions, of birds, sanctioned by a succession of government statutory conservation agencies over the years, the current system has been shown to be unlawful by the tiny and fledgling wildlife organisation, Wild Justice.

We haven’t changed the law, we have merely shown that the current system of licensing of killing of certain species of birds, developed and administered by a statutory wildlife agency, is unlawful now and presumably has been for decades.

The full statement is on the Wild Justice website, and comment from Mark (plus the howls of outrage from shooters – some of whom admit to not even reading what the challenge was or how Natural England responded!) is on his widely-read blog here.

Mya-Rose Craig aka Birdgirl

Yesterday I interviewed a remarkable and very impressive young conservationist/campaigner – Mya-Rose Craig aka Birdgirl.

The daughter of a twitching father and incredibly supportive mother, at just sixteen Mya-Rose has a global bird list in excess of 5000 (she’s the youngest person to ever see 5000, which means she’s been birding overseas a LOT: she has a trip to Brazil in the summer lined up as well which could add another 300 new species), but – and in fact what is more interesting to me – she is perhaps as well known as a courageous spokesperson on issues like racism and helping Visible Minority Ethnic (VME) people into nature (for which she receives some absolutely disgraceful abuse on social media)..

We spoke the day after a rather weary Mya-Rose and her mother Helena had camped out at the Extinction Rebellion protest in London, an event that I assumed might have changed her life. How so? For example I’d read in numerous interviews (with an even younger Birdgirl of course) that Mya-Rose’s ambition had always been to see more than 5400 bird species (half of all the species recognised at the moment), but was that still the case? And how do young people who are so aware of the environment, biodiversity loss, and rising sea levels cope with catastrophe hanging over their immediate future?

We spoke for about an hour. I haven’t started editing our conversation yet so it’ll be a little while until the interview is ready, but I’m pretty sure it’ll be worth listening in to find out the answers…

New Podcast: Pauline Kidner | Grey Squirrels and the Invasive Alien Species Order 2019

For a so-called nation of animal lovers, we – or at least our government – really don’t seem to like Grey Squirrels. Reds yes, but Greys no.

While many people love seeing squirrels no matter what colour they are, others just can’t bear them. Chris Packham has suggested that the Grey Squirrel is the UK’s “most unpopular non-native invader” but do we really dislike them that much? Or are we actually being educated to dislike them against our better nature – are they really ‘vermin’, ‘pests’, ‘tree rats’?

Other introductions to Britain include the Brown Hare, Rabbit, Fallow Deer, Red-legged Partridge and of course the Pheasant (40 million of the latter are released into the countryside EVERY year) – none of them are strictly ‘British’ either (and of course all were introduced to eat, hunt, or shoot) – but we don’t seem to have quite the same problems with them.

Much of the rhetoric around Greys revolves around the fact that they’re squeezing out Red Squirrels – but we actually have a remarkably chequered attitude to Reds as well, exterminating them across most of their range by the end of the 19th century. Opponents also say that Greys damage trees. True, but not anywhere near as many as we damage/cut down through building transport and housing infrastructure, of course.

Whatever the double standards being operated here, the fact is that in the eyes of the law the Grey Squirrel is an invasive species under the Wildlife and Countryside Act which means that it is illegal to release one into the wild except under licence or allow it to escape after capture.

And now the law is really getting tough on them. Under a piece of legislation called – fittingly perhaps for a Brexit-era UK – the Invasive Alien Species (Enforcement and Permitting) Order 2019 it will be illegal to release squirrels that have been taken into care (something previously allowed under licence). Originally planned to come into force in March this year, the government has decided to delay implementation of the Order until the autumn…

What does all of this mean on the ground, though, to rescuers and carers, to vets, to the welfare of Grey Squirrels themselves (and they are sentient animals whatever your personal opinion of them might be)?

I went to the amazing Secret World Wildlife Rescue in Somerset to talk with its founder, Pauline Kidner, about how she thinks the new Order will impact squirrels, how it will impact her and the staff at Secret World and how it reflects a wider disconnect with wild animals and their welfare…

I began though by asking Pauline to explain what the current law allows and how it’s changing….

Pauline Kidner | Grey Squirrels and the Invasive Alien Species Order 2019

Visiting Pauline Kidner, founder of Secret World

I’m heading south later today to talk with Pauline Kidner, founder of Secret World Animal Rescue, about how a very specific change in the law will impact how carers/rescuers will be able to treat and release Grey Squirrels.

Not worth the bother?

The Grey Squirrel is one of the most maligned mammals in the UK, and heavily subject to ‘value-based language’ – it’s an ‘alien’, a ‘non-native’, it’s ‘vermin’. Greys are blamed for wiping out Red Squirrels, but we virtually exterminated the Red Squirrel throughout the UK ourselves in previous centuries and have reintroduced huge numbers of ‘non-native’ Reds from Europe. The forestry industry blames Greys for destroying trees, but it is us that has cut down vast areas of forest, and it is us that still devastate ancient forests to build housing and transport infrastructure.

And what about the impact on carers themselves – torn between taking in sick or injured animals but knowing it would be illegal to ever let them go again, even in areas where Reds have not been seen for hundreds of years?

As always, these stories are never as simple as they might seem…

EDIT: So I went to Secret World (with my daughter Evie) to do the podcast. I didn’t want to get in the way (everyone at Secret World is SO hard working) so half-expected to be in and out in under an hour. But Pauline took us on a guided tour, talked about the animals in her care, sat down with both of us for a cuppa in her kitchen, and then did the interview. What a genuinely lovely, lovely person.