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.

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.

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]