This afternoon in the House of Commons, Caroline Spelman announced that the UK Government is to proceed with a badger cull. This is a contentious decision and I’m sure one that she will have thought long and hard about. It cannot have been easy, the coalition was committed to pursuing a cull but there are also strong arguments against. The Secretary of State is in a difficult place.
I will try to set out my thoughts on why ultimately I think we all lost today. First, let’s make it clear bovine TB is a serious disease that is having a huge impact on cattle farming throughout the south and west. It must be devastating for farmers to lose their herds to this disease. Almost 25,000 cattle were slaughtered last year at a huge emotional cost to farmers and financial cost to the taxpayer. So, it is serious and we need to find effective, sustainable solutions. Yes, that is solutions in the plural as there is no one silver bullet.
I also think it is beyond doubt that badgers play a part in the transmission of this disease. Not the only part and probably not the main part, but they are involved. Mrs Spelman was keen to stress to the Commons that no other country had eradicated bTB without addressing the so called ‘wildlife residue’. That may be true, but culling is not the only option and there are significant questions over whether culling is practicable and effective.
One of the key aspects of this issue relates to how badgers respond to culling. These stripey-headed creatures normally live in social groups. When their population is disrupted by culling, animals move around more, often fleeing from the culled area, with badgers from outside entering the area to fill the void. This stirring up of the population is called perturbation and it is important because detailed research on culling shows that it increases disease transmission. So the incidence of bTB in badgers may actually be increased by culling. Culling in the initial stages can increase the level of bTB in cattle, particularly in the immediate vicinity. The detailed science that has been carried out suggests that badger culling will bring about reductions in bTB if carried out across a big enough area (at least 150 km2) for four years and in a co-ordinated and highly synchronised way.
The science is not that rosy in terms of making a real difference though. After 9.5 years (culling over a four year period and 5.5 post culling) bTB in cattle was reduced by around 12.4% across the 150km2 and a 2km perimeter around this area. This means that even after the effort of this culling, not to mention the killing of many badgers, more than 85% of the problem is left unaddressed.
But the problems do not stop there. The scientific research used a carefully controlled method of cage trapping and humane dispatch carried out by trained staff in a highly synchronised way. Most of the culls were carried out over 8-11 days. Those that were carried out over longer periods were less effective - no doubt due to perturbation. The scientists who carried out the work were keen to point out that using different methods in an unco-ordinated way could make matters worse rather than better. It is therefore of great concern that the Government is proposing to allow farmers to use the untested method of shooting free ranging badgers over a period of up to 6 weeks. We believe this is a high risk strategy that could backfire.
The Government is proposing a trial cull in two areas to test assumptions on whether large enough numbers of badgers can be shot safely and humanely. We have doubts that a one-year trial under carefully controlled conditions will reflect what will be achieved over any wider cull that is proposed next.
Why has the Government diverted from the science? In a word - cost. It is cheaper to shoot in the open than to trap. It is cheaper or easier to do it over a longer period than in a controlled, synchronised way. It is a high risk strategy that could be a recipe for perturbation.
But there is an alternative. Rather than stirring the badger population, we should be jabbing it. An injectable badger vaccine has been developed and is being deployed on a small scale. Detailed field trials have shown that vaccination is effective in reducing the number of badgers testing positive to bTB by 74%.
It is cheaper than cage trapping and culling badgers, though more expensive than the untested shooting of free ranging badgers. It also has several very important advantages over culling. It doesn’t lead to perturbation, it doesn’t risk making TB worse, it doesn’t need to be administered in a highly synchronised way and it is an approach that has widespread public support.
It won’t be a solution on its own, it would need to be carried out alongside cattle testing, movement controls and improved biosecurity measures. When available, an oral badger vaccine and cattle vaccination should replace it.
The Government has announced that £250,000 will be made available to support vaccination in each of the next three years but this, whilst welcome, is too little. It is half the anticipated policing costs of the trial cull. How bizarre is that?
The Government’s costings suggest that a badger cull will cost farmers more than it will save them in bTB outbreaks. I believe that, rather than passing the buck and most of the cost to farmers, the Government should have taken the lead by accelerating a programme of vaccination. This would be a publicly acceptable, sustainable alternative to a high risk and divisive badger cull.
But what about you? What do you think? Do you think today's decision helps farmers or badgers or neither?
It would be great to hear your views.
Barring an environmental catastrophe (which really would be a bad way to end the year), this will be my last post of 2011.
It has been quite a year. I have a fabulous new job which allows me to support the breadth of the RSPB's conservation work. And I get to visit fabulous RSPB reserves like Abernethy, Bempton Cliffs and Dove Stone. That can't be bad.
2011 was the year that the coalition government began to outline its ambitions for the natural world through the Natural Environment White Paper and English Biodiversity Strategy. Both of these documents were informed by the groundbreaking National Ecosystem Assessment which provided compelling arguments for better investment in nature.
Alas the year has also thrown up a whole load of new challenges: continued decline in farmland and woodland birds, threats to EU funding for wildlife-friendly farming, the economic growth imperative in danger of eclipsing environmental protection (through new planning proposals and reviews of environmental regulation), and, sadly, the inadequacy of the global response to tackling climate change.
Throughout this period, I have tried to give you an insight into the work of the RSPB and our views on the topics of the day. Below, in traditional end of year fashion, is my top 10 posts of the year (in chronological order).
I hope you enjoy my mini review of the year. I look forward to picking up the story (and the fight) in the new year. Until then, have a peaceful and relaxing Christmas.
Martin's Top Ten Blogs of 2011
1. Breathless over nature: a eulogy to the UK National Ecosystem Assessment.
2. Don't cut the life from the countryside - the sequel">Don't cut the life from the countryside - the sequel: highlighting the threats to EU funding for wildlife-friendly farming
3. The selfish gene at work within Whitehall: describing how some government departments might undermine Defra's Natural Environment White Paper ambitions
4. New planning policy is a backwards step for nature: our initial response the now infamous consultation on the draft National Planning Policy Framework
5. Conkers and bottle tops: reminiscing about the decline of full fat milk
6. 7 Billion reasons to rethink our economy: acknowledging the impact of global population on nature and outlining our proposed response
7. In search of happiness: reflecting on the Government's plan to establish a well-being index
8. How green is the government? 29 critical friends have their say: the NGO report on Government's ambitions to be the greenest ever
9. The Habitats Regulations ; the case for the defence: dealing with the consequences of the Chancellor's autumn economic statement
10. A sad day for badgers and farmers: responding to the Government's decision to proceed with a badger cull
Did I miss any of your favourites? What would you like to hear more about in 2012?
It would be great to hear your views.
Credit where it's due. Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman has once again displayed leadership in helping to tackle tropical forest destruction. We are pleased that the UK Government has started to give money bilaterally to countries whose GDP would normally disqualify them for aid. We are also pleased that they are funding work in the Cerrado which is far less glamorous than Amazonia but is, nonetheless, an incredibly rich ecosystem which is threatened by climate change. One could be a little sniffy and say we're not sure what ten million pounds will do. But that would be churlish. It is a start and, once again, Mrs Spelman, you deserve applause. Oh and, yes, more of the same would be great.
As my colleague Mel Coath's Durban blog suggests, leaders and journalists from across the world are now descending on Durban. They will join the hundreds of negotiators and battle-hardened NGOs who have been there for 10 days. Over the next 72 hours, the decision-makers have to do what they were elected to do - make some decisions. Key will be keeping the prospects of a fair and ambitious global climate deal alive. This means securing a second Kyoto commitment period which retains the principle of legally binding greenhouse reduction targets. It is becoming a pre-Christmas ritual. But thoughts and best wishes go to all those involved with these incredibly tough negotiations.
If, in passing, more announcements like the one below are made by the western economies, then, that can make a difference and provide much needed optimism that the appetite for tackling global problems has not diminished.
Here is today's press notice from Defra.
Let me know what you think.
UK pledges £10million to reduce deforestation in Brazil
The UK Government is giving £10 million to a joint project to tackle deforestation in Brazil, Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman announced recently (Sunday 4 December 2011) at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Durban, South Africa.
The funding will support a project based in the Cerrado, central Brazil, and aims to reduce rates of deforestation by supporting environmental registration of rural properties and by helping farmers restore vegetation on illegally cleared land. It will also fund measures to prevent and manage forest fires.
Speaking at the conference on International Forest Day, Mrs Spelman said:
“The Cerrado is rich in biodiversity and yet, alarmingly, it has almost halved in size, because of wild fires and the demand for agricultural products. If we’re going to stop the loss of biodiversity, we need to protect our forests – which house the majority of the world’s wildlife. We won’t succeed in tackling climate change unless we deal with deforestation.
“The £10 million funding I’m announcing today will help farmers in the Cerrado to restore natural habitats, reduce forest fires, and ease the pressure for more deforestation to provide land for agriculture in the Cerrado.”
Izabella Teixeira, Brazilian Environment Minister, welcomed the bilateral cooperation:
“In past years, Brazil has been leading a consistent policy to reduce deforestation. In the Amazon region, we managed to reduce deforestation from 27 thousand km² in 2004 to 7 thousand km² in 2010, a 75% decrease. This successful experience in the Amazon has inspired us to broaden it to other affected regions, such as the Cerrado, the Brazilian savannah. In this context, we welcome the timely cooperation between Brazil and the United Kingdom, in line with the Brazilian interest to protect its forests and eradicate poverty”.
The Cerrado biome in central Brazil covers almost one quarter, or 2.04 million km2, of the country. It is home to 5% of the planet’s biodiversity and is one of the most biodiverse savannas in the world. The area is considered to be one of the world’s 34 biodiversity hotspots by Conservation International.
The UK Government is helping developing countries to prevent the loss of forests as part of wider efforts to enable them to adapt to the impacts of climate change whilst continuing to promote low carbon, resource efficient development and the sustainable use of natural resources. The UK wants to see gross tropical deforestation halved by 2020 and net global deforestation halted by 2030.
The world’s forests are home to over half of the world’s plants, 80 percent of the world’s terrestrial species and support the livelihoods of over one billion people, while deforestation accounts for almost a fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions. Forests have effectively disappeared in 25 countries and another 29 countries have lost more than 90 percent of their forest cover. Deforestation is leading to the loss of some 13 million hectares (130,000 km) of forests a year.
Through the International Climate Fund, the UK is providing £2.9 billion to a number of projects to tackle climate change; .a significant proportion of this money will be for forests in support of REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation). The UK is developing a forests and climate programme that will support developing countries on REDD+ and which will provide specific benefits for biodiversity as well as tackling greenhouse gas emissions and reducing global poverty.
NotesThe UK Government’s participation in REDD+ is co-ordinated across DECC, DFID and Defra. At the Copenhagen Conference of Parties on climate change in 2009, the UK Government announced £1.5 billion funding for international climate change projects to 2012. Following the Comprehensive Spending Review, this has been increased and extended to £2.9 billion to 2014/15. The £2.9 billion will include significant new money for forests on top of the existing £300million commitment towards REDD+ made at last year’s Copenhagen Climate Conference. The final amounts are still under discussion.
There’s lots of talk at the moment, not least in Durban, about what new commitments governments might make to help save the planet. But we shouldn’t forget one very important promise the UK Government has already made – in the revised England Biodiversity Strategy - to prevent any human induced extinctions of known threatened species before 2020. As I have blogged before, this is a bold and rightly ambitious commitment. But, the reality is Defra Ministers have their work cut to fulfil this promise.
The hen harrier is a spectacular bird of prey, which has been a rare sight in England for many years due to illegal persecution, mainly on land managed for intensive driven grouse shooting. Figures released today show that a population that has been in terrible health for many years is now on life support. Despite the Government’s own figures showing there is enough habitat for 323-340 pairs of hen harriers in England, in 2011, there were just FOUR successful nests. All were on a single estate in Lancashire, owned by United Utilities and managed in partnership with the RSPB. This is a terrible state of affairs. One wet spring, or a bad year for voles, or a fire at the wrong time of year or simply the pervasive effect of continued persecution and the hen harrier could be lost from England. This would be a tragedy for the birds and for anyone who cares about wildlife. But it would also mean the UK Government would have broken its promise.
With this in mind, you might think the UK Government would be throwing everything at saving these last few birds. Yet right now its quite hard to identify what they are doing. It is the RSPB and a few friends, including United Utilities and dedicated raptor workers, and with the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund, who are fighting the harrier’s corner. We recently launched Skydancers, a project designed to help the hen harrier recover across northern England through a mix of community engagement and direct conservation work. Skydancers is named after the male hen harrier’s rollercoaster aerial display, known to many as ‘skydancing’. Through this, we have to dispel the notion that hen harriers and grouse shooting cannot co-exist.
I visited Langholm moor in southern Scotland in the summer, where a diverse group of partners are working to demonstrate exactly this. One of the techniques being trialled is diversionary feeding – basically a bird table for harriers so they don’t need to predate grouse. It is straightforward to deliver, and the good news is it appears to work. In four years of diversionary feeding, not a single grouse has been observed being brought to hen harrier nests at Langholm. Yet despite this, there isn’t a long list of grouse moor owners lining up to trial it for themselves. There are a few honourable exceptions in Scotland, but in England, to the best of my knowledge, no grouse moor is trialling it. We think they should be, and Natural England agrees with us.
Of course, diversionary feeding isn’t the only option. Scotland has introduced vicarious liability – making landowners legally responsible for ensuring their gamekeepers don’t kill birds of prey. The public interest case was accepted in Scotland - is there any reason why it wouldn’t also be met in England given the damage being wrought on our birds of prey? I can’t think of one. Defra has asked the Law Commission to consider how wildlife protection laws in England and Wales can be improved - we expect the Commission’s proposals to be made public in mid 2012. We will suggest vicarious liability as one means of strengthening protection for wildlife. There will be opportunities for readers of this blog to have their say – more nearer the time. In the meantime, and if you haven’t already, please support this epetition, asking for the idea to be debated in Westminster.
So the gauntlet has been laid at Defra's dorr. If you want to keep your promise to prevent extinctions on your watch, then you need to commit to a dedicated species action plan for hen harrier and other highly threatened species. This is what England’s wildlife needs and what everyone who cares about the rare and threatened demands.
What do you think the answer is? Diversionary feeding might be an easier option, but does it need the stick of vicarious liability to deliver real change? Maybe both?
PS Did you watch David Attenborough's Frozen Planet finale last night? Read what RSPB Chief Executive, Mike Clarke, says here.
It is a week since the Chancellor made his autumn economic statement. Since then I have been delighted by the response from our supporters. Hundreds of you have told us that you have written to your MP to make the case that wildlife and the natural environment don’t need to be sacrificed for growth - that they can be at the heart of our economic recovery.
And it seems others share our view. This article appeared from Mary Riddell in today’s Telegraph.
This is what our elected representatives (and the Chancellor) need to hear. So, if you have not yet done so, please do write to your MP.
And another thing they might like to know is that every day of every year, the RSPB is offering advice to developers about how to conform with the planning system and wildlife legislation. At the last count, we were engaging with something like 741 cases. These include applications for new houses, new windfarms, new airport capacity or new ports. A selection of these are featured here.
For example, over the past five years, we have engaged with about 1500 windfarm proposals often affecting internationally protected sites or species. We sustained objections to just 83 (c6%). Smart developers engage with us early. They want to understand the likely impacts of their proposal and, if they want their proposal to proceed without objection, then adapt their plans accordingly.
Take the London Array windfarm - in 2003 the developer consortium first brought forward a proposal for the largest offshore windfarm in the world in the outer Thames Estuary, to consist of up to 341 turbines with a potential 1-gigawatt capacity (equivalent to a nuclear power station). During baseline environmental surveys, the site and wider area was found to contain a previously unknown internationally important population of red-throated divers, a protected species that preys on small fish on shallow submerged sandbanks. The higher densities of feeding red-throated divers in the estuary were associated with the northern area of the application site, whilst the generally more exposed southern end held lower densities.
Divers are very prone to disturbance by boats and man-made objects, and a windfarm had the potential to displace very large numbers of divers from their feeding habitats. The developers had worked closely with the RSPB and other nature conservation stakeholders throughout the formulation and implementation of their environmental impact studies. The site was a candidate for listing as a Special Protection Area (SPA) designated under the EU Birds Directive, and, from the outset, the developers chose to treat the area as though it had been designated. Constructive discussion led to the developers amending the footprint of the windfarm to avoid the highest concentrations of divers. And after a few months of negotiation, a solution was agreed, in which the installation of 175 turbines would proceed, which would be economic for the developers, but by avoiding the northern part of the site, would not adversely impact the divers. Phase 1 of the wind farm is due to be completed at the end of 2012. That is great news for renewable energy and great news for wildlife.
The RSPB will, of course, oppose development which we think needlessly destroys our finest wildlife sites and species, but we are also happy to help support sustainable development. That is why we are offer any developer across the UK advice about wildlife legislation, including the Habitats Regulations which are now subject to review in England. The Secretary of State has suggested that the regulations work in 96% of cases. The question which the review will need to ask is for the remaining 4% of cases is it the developer that is at fault or the regulations?
If you are a developer, what problem do you hope the review will address? Have you ever thought about asking the RSPB for advice? And, don't you agree that it's worth taking the effort to adapt development applications to save species such as the red-throated diver?