I'm heading off to Blenheim today (the stately home in Oxfordshire, not the battlefield in Belgium) to the CLA Game Fair. And I'm in an optimistic mood.
It is the “art of the possible” that makes me optimistic. Optimistic that we really can see a halt to the loss of wildlife by 2020.
In the UK, our countryside can be rich in wildlife. It can deliver us safe and wholesome food. It can lock up carbon to help address climate change. It can keep our rivers and wetlands flowing with clean water.
And how do I know this? Simply by looking at the number of farmers demonstrating the art of the possible. Today, we profile four of the best. There are many more than just four, it should be said, but these are exemplars worthy of recognition for managing land for multiple value. The four are the finalists in our Nature of Farming Award, which we run in conjunction with Butterfly Conservation and Plantlife International, and kindly sponsored by the Daily Telegraph.
Like all farms, the farmers are a diverse bunch. But what is clear from reading about their work and from talking to our advisors who have visited the farms, their shared love of nature shows how they have integrated conservation into their commercial businesses. With such a high standard of entries this year, I don’t envy the public the final choice (though the chance of winning a weekend away for two will hopefully provide a little encouragement).
So whether it is the chalkhill blue butterflies finding a home on a Hertfordshire farm, the mountain hares being looked after on Mull, the rare Venus’s looking-glass in the arable fields of Wiltshire, or even the 14 species of water boatman benefiting from clean water being created by the reedbed filtration on a Shropshire dairy farm , all are stepping up for nature.
And their efforts are being recognised in high places. The Farming Minister, Jim Paice, says: “The shortlist for the Nature of Farming Award demonstrates the good work that farmers are doing across the country to improve wildlife on their farms. Farmers know that they play an important role in helping us achieve our ambition for a healthy and vibrant natural environment that we set out in our recently published White Paper. I wish all the finalists well in the competition and hope that other farmers see them as an inspiration of what can be achieved.”
The vote opens today and runs until the 31st August.
Regardless of who ultimately wins the accolade of the UK’s most wildlife-friendly farmer, the real winners are the wildlife who are fortunate to share the land with these farmers. And whilst we face some big challenges in the future, not least CAP reform and ensuring the work of wildlife-friendly farmers is properly rewarded, it's worth being optimistic.
MPs are finally heading off, a little belatedly, on their summer holidays. I imagine they will all take care to avoid being photographed in overly glamorous locations, lest they are accused of being frivolous in a time of national austerity.
As well as exercising caution over where they are seen, they will presumably also be careful about who they are seen with. I imagine that the soirees of the so-called Chipping Norton set will be rather low-key affairs this summer.....
They could do worse than heading up to Scotland - always glorious at this time of year. If you're planning to be there too, you could help us by looking out for some of our rarest birds.
For the past couple of months, surveyors have been scaling some of Scotland's highest mountains in search of two species: The dotterel and the snow bunting.
These species only breed in the UK on our highest ground - the Scottish mountain tops. Because of this, they are vulnerable to climate change and associated changes in habitat and prey abundance. Already restricted to the highest, coolest conditions, they may find it difficult to move elsewhere in the UK if temperatures climb.
The RSPB and Scottish Natural Heritage are encouraging walkers to keep their eyes peeled for these species. The dotterel is found most commonly in the Cairngorms. It's a fascinating little wader that reverses traditional gender roles. The females are brightly coloured and take the lead in courtship, before leaving the smaller, drabber males to incubate eggs and raise any young.
Snow buntings are very rare - and quite hard to spot. But if you are likely to be heading to the tops of Scotland's highest mountains, do keep a look out.
If you're lucky enough to catch a glimpse of either species, please make a note of how many birds you've seen, along with the date and location (including a grid reference, if possible) and email the details to firstname.lastname@example.org
Admittedly, if your idea of the perfect Scottish summer is a few good nights out in Edinburgh, you probably can't help too much. But if you're more interested in Munros and mountains than in Festivals and Fringes, then please help us to look out for these rare and elusive birds.
Yesterday, the media focused on the hacking scandal and the foam pie thrown at the most powerful media mogul in the world. It was therefore perhaps not surprising that there were so few MPs in the House to listen to Secretary of State Caroline Spelman's announcement about a new bovine TB eradication programme.
The announcement includes badger culling proposals. The detail is as follows:
Our headline reactionis shown here. But below, I offer a little more detail.
I should start by reiterating our understanding and sympathy of concerns within the farming community over the impact of bovine TB. This is an important and significant disease and we need to find effective, sustainable solutions to stop its spread and ultimately eradicate it.
We welcome the recognition in Defra's proposals that cattle movement, cattle testing and biosecurity measures are at the heart of this. Although it seems that most of the cattle measures are still being considered. We also welcome the commitment to developing oral badger vaccine and cattle vaccine.
However, we are opposed to the inclusion of two pilot areas for badger culling, with the intention to extend culling after a year trial. Detailed scientific work on badger culling and cattle TB suggest that culling could have a small beneficial effect but only if carried out effectively, simultaneously, over a wide area (at least 150 km2) and in a co-ordinated manner over at least four years. Culling badgers disrupts their social structures and causes more badger movement between different groups. This ‘perturbation’ increases the spread disease and the prevalence of TB in the remaining badger population. Inefficient, short lived, poorly co-ordinated or timed culling can increase rather than reduce the number of cattle TB outbreaks.
The UK Government had pledged to base its approach on science. However, the use of shooting free ranging badgers is untested and it could well increase perturbation. It is our view that it has no place in a science-led approach. In addition, Defra costs estimates for this work are seriously unrealistic. It also seems that the UK Government has underestimated the costs of culling to farmers. Even so their figures show that an effective, well co-ordinated cull will cost farmers more than it will save them in cattle TB breakdowns prevented.
The science suggests that badger culling in the two pilot areas proposed by the UK Government may reduce TB breakdowns by about 16% over 9 years but that these benefits will take some time to accrue. This begs the question what will be done about the remaining 84% of TB in these areas and TB in the rest of the country.
Under the Bern Convention badgers can be killed to prevent serious disease but only where there is no other satisfactory solution. Field trials have shown that badger vaccination was effective in reducing the proportion of badgers testing positive to TB by 74%. Although modelling suggests that, in the short term, vaccination may not prevent as many TB outbreaks as an efficient cull, the difference is marginal. In contrast to culling, there are no risks of badger vaccination making the disease situation worse. The badger vaccine could provide an important component in a programme of TB control measures.
This is why we believe that badger vaccination offers a satisfactory, publicly acceptable alternative to badger culling.
The public seems to support this view as well. Licensing the killing of one of the most popular native animals is likely to provoke significant public opposition. 69% of the 59,450 people who responded to the Government consultation were opposed to culling. This appears to be a policy of little gain for a lot of pain!
While the media interest in the hacking scandal is likely to abate over the next few weeks, come the autumn, I think that the spotlight will fall on badgers once again.
Some time later today, Secretary of State Caroline Spelman is reported to be making a statement to the House of Commons on bovine tuberculosis and badgers.
We'll respond to what comes out, of course.
But, here in a nutshell is our position based on the proposal outlined by Defra in the consultation it conducted earlier this year.
We are sympathetic to concerns within the farming community over the impact of bovine TB. This is an important and significant disease and we need to find effective, sustainable solutions to stop its spread and ulimately eradicate it.
Culling badgers is a high risk, short term, unsustainable fix. Shooting free ranging badgers is untested, it could make things worse and has no place in a science based approach.
For a cull to be effective it would have to kill a large number of badgers, over a large area, for at least four years and in an synchronised and co-ordinated way.
This would be a huge logistical challenge and potential public relations nightmare. A poory co-ordinated cull will lead to an increase in TB outbreaks. The RSPB will not be culling on our nature reserves.
Vaccination, rather than decimation, is the way forward. It does not carry the same risks as cullig. Vaccination of both badgers and cattle, together with enhanced cattle testing/movement control, is the sustainable, publicy acceptable, long term solution. We have held this view for over a decade. The UK Government should get behind deployment of the injectable badger vaccination now and roll out oral badger and cattle vaccines as they become available.
I shall update this as soon as an announcement is made.
So, the final week of the parliamentary term starts now. Some MPs, including the Biodiversity Minister Richard Benyon MP will celebrate the start of their summer break by going to the Game Fair later this week. The RSPB will be there, as always, and this year we'll be celebrating our work with the wet bits of the natural world - apt given the weekend we have just had.
With the media still dominating the media, it is good to be able to report another good week for RSPB press coverage.
Last week kicked off with the relaunch of the Our River campaign – a joint endeavour alongside our friends at the WWF, the Angling Trust and the Salmon and Trout Association. This year we are asking people to tell us about their local river in an online survey and the story was featured on ITV’s Daybreak on Monday as well as in the pages of the Daily Telegraph. There is still plenty of time to let us know which wildlife species you’ve seen from your favourite riverbank at – www.ourrivers.org.uk
photo credit: Sally Arnold
Then on Tuesday it was an owl that hit the headlines – but not before it had hit a window. The amazing image of an owl perfectly preserved in a pane of glass was originally sent to the RSPB by a member of the public and proved to be a popular talking point on Daybreak and BBC Breakfast as well as making it into print in the Mirror, the Telegraph, BBC News Online and Metro.
Last week saw the unveiled proposals for reformed Common Fisheries Policy. The CFP was something most people were probably blissfully unaware of a year ago, but after Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s excellent Fish Fight campaign it has become an issue of great public interest. The RSPB signed up to a joint coalition of environmental groups calling for more sustainable management of Europe’s fisheries, as reported in the Guardian, and our head of Marine Policy Euan Dunn was interviewed by the Independent.
We get called on to comment on all kinds of bird stories at the RSPB, but one we’ve never had before was the tale of a man in Wales who, rather shockingly, had his eye pecked out by a gannet.
“This is an extremely rare, one off event,” our expert told the Mirror.
I am therefore relieved that the gannets behaved themselves while I was sailing off Bempton for the On the Road with programme. I did force myself to watch it over the weekend. And, as expected, the birds were the stars of the show.