New Podcast Uploaded: Tormod Amundsen | Biotope

I do enjoy making podcasts. I love talking with inspirational, passionate, committed campaigners and activists, But it can get a little – er, depressing occasionally, wrapping my head around the latest decline, cull, or wildlife crime…

Sometimes it’s just nice to have a chat, with a birder, about birds, and birding stuff. A birder like Tormod Amundsen…

From the introduction I wrote for this podcast…

Tormod Amundsen is Norwegian, a birder, an architect – and by any measure I can think of, something of a visionary. How so, because in 2009 Tormod decided to move everything he owned to a small, run-down fishing town in the Arctic circle that at the time was languishing at the bottom of a list of the worst places in Norway to start a business – and start a business.

That business was Biotope, which is described on its website as “the worlds first and only architectural office with special expertise on birds and birdwatching. We engage in pro nature projects. We design bird hides, shelters, nature trails, outdoor amphitheaters and much more. We make destination development studies, exhibitions and arrange workshops. We develop new concepts for experiencing nature and wildlife.”

Which is – in my opinion anyway – visionary…

The podcast is on The Sound Approach website right here – enjoy!

New Podcast Uploaded | Badger vaccination Symposium 2019

From the spoken intro to my latest podcast for Lush Player:

“As many people will know – and as we’ve discussed in a number of podcasts here on Lush – the UK government has sanctioned the killing of badgers across an ever-expanding area of England in an attempt to control bovine Tuberculosis or bTB, a disease of cattle and the cattle industry. To quote Dominic Dyer, the chief executive of the Badger Trust, the cull “is the largest destruction of a protected species in living memory. In the five years to the end of 2018, the government will have spent over £50m of public funds killing over 67,000 badgers, many of which are healthy and tb free”.

Killing wildlife to protect economic interests has long been the default reaction of government, but is there an alternative?

Vaccinating cattle against bTB is a non-starter because at the moment there is no test to distinguish between a vaccinated cow and an infected cow which means the meat cannot be sold in to major retail markets, despite the minimal risk to consumers especially if that meat is thoroughly cooked.

So how about vaccinating badgers against bTB instead?

In April I attended the UK’s first Badger Vaccination Symposium. Hosted by the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust, National Trust, and the Badger Trust the event was held at Derby University and brought together policymakers, academics, scientists, veterinarians, farmers, and vaccination teams for the first time.

The symposium looked at the latest science concerning Bovine Tuberculosis, the role of badgers in the spread of the disease (and badgers undoubtedly do 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) the practicalities of vaccinating badgers (with particular reference to the work taking place in Derbyshire) and its effectiveness as a strategy to halt the spread of the disease.”

After the symposium I spoke with five of the key players: first with Debbie Bailey of the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust and Gail Weatherhead of the National Trust, then with the aforementioned Dominic Dyer, Professor Paul Lynch of Derby University and the Chair of Derbyshire Wildlife Trust. and Tim Birch, the Head of Living Landscapes at Derbyshire Wildlife Trust.

That conversation has now been edited and is online at Badger Vaccination Symposium 2019

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…