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.

Podcast uploaded: Allan Bantick OBE | Cairngorm Conservation

A new podcast! The intro text I wrote says it all:

“Allan Bantick OBE has had a remarkable career in conservation. Roles in the past have included Chair of the Scottish Wildlife Trust, Chair of the Scottish Beaver Trial, Vice Chairman of Scottish Badgers, Founder Member of the National Species Reintroduction Forum, Member of the Scottish Biodiversity Committee and Trustee of The Wildlife Trusts. In February this year he stepped down as Chair of the Scottish Wildcat Action Steering Group, but remains a Trustee of Scottish Badgers and sits on the Scottish Environment Link Wildlife Forum and Wildlife Crime Sub Group.

I went to visit Allan in March and recorded the following interview in the Strathspey Badger Hide, which looks one way onto a huge hillock that’s been assiduously mined by badgers for decades and the other towards the River Spey and the mountains and pine forests that make this part of the world such a wonderful place to visit.”

If you’d like to hear it (and that is kind of why I make these podcasts) it’s at https://soundapproach.co.uk/podcast/#ep27

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.

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…