Monday, 11 June 2018

A response at last

I have finally recieved a response from DEFRA. I will post it below. It did't really satisfy me. They did, to their credit, give links to the supporting materials. What annoyed me the most is the lack of public consultation on the expansion of the cull zone. Yes one was carried out in 2010, 8 years ago. A lot has changed in that time.

I leave you to formulate your own opinions:

Dear Mr Smith,
Thank you for your email of 9 March to the Secretary of State regarding bovine TB and badgers. I have been asked to reply and I apologise for the long delay in doing so.
Bovine TB is one of the greatest animal health threats to the UK. Over the last 12 months over 33,000 cattle have been compulsorily slaughtered in England to control the disease. That is why we are taking strong action to eradicate the disease and protect the future of our dairy and beef industries, with a comprehensive strategy including tighter cattle movement controls, more cattle testing and badger control in areas where badgers are an important factor in spreading disease to cattle. There is no evidence to suggest TB in other wildlife species is a problem that is driving the epidemic in cattle.
We are carrying out a review into what we should prioritise in the next phase of our strategy for achieving Officially Bovine Tuberculosis Free (OTF) status in England by 2038. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/a-strategy-for-achieving-bovine-tuberculosis-free-status-for-england-2018-review

In response to your query regarding the scientific validity of badger culling, The Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT) provides scientific evidence that proactive badger culling in areas of England with a high incidence of bovine TB reduces levels of the disease relative to similar un-culled areas.
With regard to your comments that the outcome of previous badger culls were not made public, the results from the 2017 cull show that the culls were carried out safely, humanely and effectively in all 19 badger control areas. The Chief Veterinary Officer's (CVO) advice states that data gathered from the 19 areas showed that industry-led badger control can deliver the level of effectiveness required to be confident of achieving disease control benefits. Results of badger control in previous years can be found at: https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/bovine-tb-controlling-the-risk-of-bovine-tb-from-badgers

Regarding biosecurity, the encouragement of better on- and off- farm biosecurity (i.e. measures to reduce the risk of transmission of TB between cattle and between badgers and cattle) was one of the commitments in the Government's TB Strategy in 2014. It is a key part of our strategy (alongside tougher cattle measures, badger vaccination and culling where the disease is rife). A biosecurity initiative is the five point plan. This practical biosecurity guidance was collectively agreed by Government and industry. It sets out basic good practice for TB biosecurity. The guidance contains five key recommendations that farmers can implement to help protect their herd from TB, which can be found at http://www.tbhub.co.uk/biosecurity/protect-your-herd-from-tb/
In response to your concerns regarding other TB reservoirs, cattle and badgers are the two main reservoirs of infection in this country. Other species are considered 'spillover' hosts and so play an insignificant role in the persistence of bovine TB in England, particularly when compared with cattle and badgers.

Cattle measures - including reducing the disease transmission risks from cattle movements - are the foundation upon which our Strategy is based. As we tackle the disease in wildlife, we must reinforce our cattle measures to sustain the benefits we expect to achieve. We continually look for opportunities to enhance them. In recent years TB cattle controls have been tightened considerably. For example, in 2016 we introduced compulsory post-movement testing of cattle moved from annual (or more frequent) surveillance testing areas of England and Wales to the Low Risk Area (LRA) of England, the compulsory pre-movement testing of cattle from such herds has been in place since 2006.

Regarding your concerns of the welfare of the badgers being culled, the CVO's advice remains that the likelihood of suffering in badgers culled by controlled shooting is comparable with the range of outcomes reported when other culling activities, currently accepted by society, have been assessed, such as deer shooting. We publish a report of humaneness each year which makes clear that the likelihood of suffering in badgers culled by controlled shooting is comparable with other culling activities accepted by society. The report can be found at https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/bovine-tb-controlling-the-risk-of-bovine-tb-from-badgers

In response to your concerns that culled badgers were not assessed for the presence of TB, as part of the evidence base to support an adaptive TB Strategy, it is important that we understand TB disease in both cattle and badger populations. To supplement the existing comprehensive TB surveillance in cattle, in the 2016 badger control operations we initiated development of a TB surveillance program on badger carcasses obtained from the culling operations. Tissue sampling, followed by culturing and genotyping is the most reliable method for diagnosing TB in badgers, but challenges remain with this technique when the quality of the carcasses is variable. Once the method has been optimised, the data obtained will not be used to inform short term decision-making, but to provide a longer term view of the disease pattern in the cull areas. The information on the 2016 surveillance project is available on the GOV.UK website: https://www.gov.uk/go vernment/publications/bovine-tb-surveillance-in-wildlife-in-england-2016-to-2017

Finally, in response to your comment on Natural England's "Opportunity to Comment" consultation, a consultation was previously run in 2010 which allowed individuals to comment on the social, ethical and scientific aspects of badger culling.
Kind regards,
TB Correspondence Team

Ministerial Contact Unit

Sunday, 3 June 2018

Three days of Wildlife

This long weekend is the last before I return to work tomorrow for the final 7-week haul to the Summer Holidays.

As part of my action against the badger cull I started Friday by posting off 13 letters to the heads of DEFRA, Natural England and Warwickshire County Council. I am not expecting a reply but I have to say something. Additionally,
my welcome pack from the Badger Trust arrived and I got in touch the Warwickshire Badger Group to tell them of the setts I knew of.

Several weeks ago I discovered a large network of holes not far from me and so in the afternoon I set up on of my trail cameras to see what I could find. I continued my cycle up to the top fields where sometimes I see Little Owl, sadly none were in evidence but I did spot a vibrant Greenfinch and the local Buzzard wheeling casually in the sky carrying his dinner, a rabbit from the looks of it.



The following day I went back to the camera to see if the sett was being used and retrieved the camera. I was pleased to discover that it is in use and had at least one cub. In the clip below you can see play-fighting behaviour.


Last night with my battery recharged I put out my moth trap. I was a little disappointed with the results this morning but I did get some interesting non-moth inhabitants including an Alder Fly and 3 Mayflys Ephemera danica. 

I collected 8 moths in total. 4 Heart and Darts (Agrostis exclamationis), 1 unknown Pug, 1 White Spotted Pug (Eupethicia tripunctaria), 1 Marsh Pug (Eupethicia pygmaeata) and 1 micro moth Eudonia pallida.

Heart and Dart

White Spotted Pug

Mayfly





Monday, 28 May 2018

Save Mr Brock


As any reader of this blog will know I am vociferously against the ongoing Badger cull in the UK. I have highlighted my scientific concerns many times. 


This year plans were put in place to extend the cull to 8 new regions in Low-Risk Areas, which is set to include my home turf, Warwickshire. As you may recall I have both emailed and written to the Secretary of State for the Environment, Micheal Gove and my local MP, Matt Western.

I sent the last letters on the 22nd April and so far haven't received a single reply, a sad indictment on our political situation. My local MP has lost my vote in the future. 

Letters aside I was horrified to read an article stating that approval of the new areas is a done deal and that to encourage shooting squads that every badger killed will net them £50 (Telegraph). All hope isn't lost yet, two legal challenges are due in July but given the success of previous cases, this is nothing but a tenuous hope, as DEFRA have already posted their guidance to Natural England regarding cull licencing (Natural England).

I worry about the setts near me. I worry about my badgers the ones I am slowly getting to know and identify. I find it so hard to rationalise the image presented by DEFRA and the reality. Take for instance their main web page ( See below)

DEFRA splash page 28th May 2018 (https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/department-for-environment-food-rural-affairs)
The six lead articles are inspiring and uplifting. Action taken across the globe to protect the environment and species and yet at the same time, the same organisation is implementing a vendetta against a species on a political whim rather than a scientific one.

So what is there to do... well there's not much I can suggest, write to everyone you can you may have more luck than me. Talk to your friends and colleagues, maybe boycott UK milk and beef, help fund local action groups or donate to the Wildlife Trust or Badger Trust. I do not advocate any illegal action in any form, there is always an alternative to such actions. 

Links:

Friday, 25 May 2018

Nature, red in tooth and claw

The cycle of life was brought into sharp relief yesterday when a Sparrowhawk caught a juvenile Starling in the garden. 



The young starlings have been quite prolific this year and there are several noisy families on the estate. Starlings once a common sight in gardens is actually in decline nationally even though locally they still seem to be doing well. The species have been red-listed by the IUCN and are a local biodiversity action plan listed.

Sparrowhawks, on the other hand, have a favourable conservation status and in the UK have increased in number considerably since 1974. This is partly due to reduced persecution and increased brood sizes.

The individual show in the picture is a female, no doubt catching food for some nestlings somewhere. You can tell it's a sparrowhawk rather than another raptor or falcon by the distinctive thin 'knitting-needle-like' legs. You can tell it is a female from the brownier plumage and lack of yellowish buff neck and front.



Sunday, 20 May 2018

Consider the duck - a philosophical musing


Although the bridge is still out of action I still go and have a drink down the mill, read a book and watch the world go by. Last week I watched a Heron hunting and this week a lone male Mallard caught my eye. He was comfortably paddling amongst the reeds oblivious to those of us on the terrace sipping drinks or finishing of a platter of breakfast.

Mallard Drake (c) M. Smith


He swam slowly, almost leisurely between the vegetation pausing to dip his head down to sample the food below. Finding a good spot he would upend in the traditional fashion un self consciously showing everyone his white rear end as his neck delved below.

As I watched his antics I consider how his life varied from mine and what that meant. I placed myself in his webbed feet. Were our roles reversed my life would revolve around basically food and sex, not bad you might say but dig a little deeper. Most of his day would be taken up foraging for food just to make it to another day. During my degree I explored Optimal Foraging Theory; this is the delicate balance species have to make between expending energy in gaining energy. It is no good expending 300 calories of effort to get only 200 calories of reward. In the wild this seemingly complicated mathematical analysis is innate, get it wrong and you die, get it right and for time being you get to live. It is a concept now being exploited in computer games, the survivor genre is often accompanied by zombies or the apocalypse as in State of Decay 2 or Metal Gear Survive but the ingredients are the same, get food, water, medicine first or you won’t survive long enough to turn back the zombie horde or to build the best outpost.

Balancing life and death decisions on this level is something we are remote from. Consider the duck again; he will forage for as long as he is able. He must find a suitably safe roosting spot and in the long term find a mate with which to procreate. The basics of being an organism, I, however, had just paid for someone to give me a cola and if I so wished would have brought me food. In 5 minutes my sustenance needs were met, I had a home for shelter and even more food and drink waiting for me there and I was able to spend the next hour just sat reading a book. Okay the money I used had to be earned and I spend 5 out of 7 days achieving that but what leisure time did the duck have and what did it do with it?

The critical point for mankind was the development of farming, the minute we could produce more food than we needed daily we became something new. Free time was invented when we did not need to spend all day hunting and gathering when we could build houses and walled towns to protect ourselves. Free time is what allowed the development of civilisation. That free time allowed for hobbies, tools and weapons didn’t need to be merely functional; they could be intricate and beautiful. Time spent drawing, painting; singing no longer interfered with the basics of staying alive. Art for art’s sake, for pleasure, was possible. Humankind was able to begin its dominance over the world. But let us not forget that we are still one species amongst many, that our roots are the same as a dog or monkey.

Do animals do things for pleasure? This is a more complex issue than I wish to address today but let’s look at an animal further along the scale, say a cat. Domestic cats have their meals provided and have a shelter so what do they do with their spare time. Well, like all good followers of optimal foraging theory they conserve energy, they sleep, but they also go out and hold territories, they don’t need them but they still do it. They hunt, they don’t need to but they still do. They play, they don’t need to hone their skills to hunt, but they still play. Are these innate hold over’s from a pre-domestication time. Has the passage of time not been long enough for basic urges to be overcome as they seem to have been in man or perhaps the cat has chosen to do these things with its free time? Are we then in thousands of year’s time to see the art and civilisation of animals we have raised up or as David Brin may have put it – uplifted?


And yet the duck keep paddling about until I have finished my drink and I have decided to go home and make myself a sandwich.

Saturday, 5 May 2018

Pellet Analysis

Last month I discovered a large batch of 31 owl pellets beneath a tree not far from where my trail cam was in operation.

The dark pellets belong to a Tawny Owl that I believe uses the tree as a roost site. Tawny Owls are occasionally seen on the site, I have been lucky enough to see a young owl a few years back and last, June was fortunate enough to catch a failed kill on camera.



As you can imagine dissecting the pellets took some time. I used a dry method waiting until the pellets were completely dry before working on them by teasing them open with gloved bare hands.

Each pellets length and width was measured and its weight recorded. I then separated out the bones and reweighed it giving me a bone mass and a fur mass. I used skulls and jaws as my main counting method to determine the number of prey per pellet.



The results were very interesting I was amazed at the high number of Shrew prey in the pellet, far more than I ever expected. It is unclear how long a time period these pellets represent and until the bridge reopens and I can collect any new pellets the timeframe is unknown.

What is interesting is the amount of available small mammals in the area. I regularly record Wood Mice on the trail cams, Bank Voles I see if baited out in the late afternoon and Shrews can be seen or heard in the summer, but bear in mind that the Tawny Owl isn't the only predator in the area, I have recorded Weasel, Stoat, Fox, Kestrel, Buzzard and Grey Heron on the site, all of whom would prey on these mammals.

I hope to supplement these observations with some small mammal trapping and follow up pellet analyses ( if the same tree is still being used).

The main data:



Sunday, 15 April 2018

Ongoing Projects - an update

I haven't posted in awhile and there are some good reasons for that, so I thought I would update you on whats going on.

Over the last two weeks, the weather hasn't been very inspiring and I have felt out of sorts this has meant I haven't been out as much as usual, add to that I have had an assignment to write for my Master's course.

Camera Trapping
My camera trapping project is coming on a pace and I am still wading through the piles of data to collate them into a suitable document for publishing.
The bait camera trap is still producing excellent results and I am starting to build up a database of individual badgers that use the area.
At home, with help of Ron Bury, I have managed to repair my two Acorn cameras and was able to use one this week to finally solve the mystery of what has been making a hole in the lawn - a mouse!


Campaigning
I m still campaigning against the Badger Cull and the lack of scientific rigour in the government's plans, there will be more on this soon.
Sadly I still haven't heard back from Micheal Gove or my local MP yet.

Owls
Whilst pottering about on my land I discovered a huge haul of over 30 owl pellets. I believe them to be from a Tawny Owl that uses the oak tree as a roost. I have spent the last 2 weeks slowly dissecting each one. It is fascinating to see the number of prey eaten. I have only dissected out 21 so far but have counted 72 individual prey items - all rodents to far although one did contain a beetle leg, another a feather and nearly all of them soil - an indication of worm consumption.