Culling adversity

David Barrington Barnes suggests single-issue focus groups, vote-watching politicians and lengthy licensing procedures are making wildlife management harder than it needs to be

Should you discover the corner of a wheat field where the crop is destroyed by the fresh earth works in it, then you can usually blame badgers. If your hunter breaks its leg by putting a hoof in a vertical hole concealed by vegetation then, again, this will likely have been excavated by badgers. A hole dug under the fence round a grant aided plantation – a hole that affords entry to the local muntjac – has been made by the same culprit. A big hole in your pheasant release pen, just above ground level, also speaks of badger. Flattened, rolled on maize – often wrongly attributed to deer – is down to badgers. A badger encountered round the pen with a poult in its mouth is killing as comes naturally to it. The shepherd may think his losses are being caused by foxes, but badgers predate on lambs too.

Badgers adversely affect a whole range of country people – arable farmers, shepherds, gardeners, horse breeders and trainers, foresters, gamekeepers and shoot operators, to mention but a few. None of these categories of persons have been offered a shred of assistance in dealing with badgers.

Badgers are protected under the Protection of Badgers Act 1992, Section 1(1) of which makes it an offence to wilfully kill, injure or take any badger, or attempt to do so. Section 3 of the same Act makes it an offence to interfere with a sett by damaging, destroying or obstructing access to it. The Act is so worded that if (under Section 1), it can be reasonably concluded an offence has been committed, then the accused has to prove he has not committed it. Although Section 7 provides a defence to the section 1(1) offence of killing a badger in an emergency, an application must generally be made to Natural England for a licence for the trapping and relocation of badgers, or, in Wales, the Countryside Council for Wales.

The delay and frustration inherent in any application to Natural England is such that very few licences are applied for or granted. The whole culture of Natural England is one of obfuscation and procrastination, and is of no help to anyone bothered by badgers.

I can safely assert that virtually no one involved in rural industries and occupations wants to eradicate badgers. I am equally confident in confirming that many persons in the categories I have listed above want to be able to cull or move badgers that, for whatever reason, are causing a nuisance. In my opinion, the badger is over-protected and the law needs changing to enable this to happen without any delay, expense or fuss.

As things stand, these long-suffering affected persons are not even lobbying for such a change in the law. It’s as if they recognise that the chances of this in the present climate are non existent. After all, in a small part of England, where bovine TB is rife, the confirmation of a badger cull has only just been announced, whilst in Wales the planned badger cull has been abandoned altogether.

The previous Welsh Government had looked into the merits of culling over vaccination, and made a decision to instigate a pilot cull in West Wales in a TB hotspot area in North Pembrokeshire. The decision was based on the scientific evidence. After the change of government, the new Environment Minister, John Griffiths, cancelled the planned cull and said he had instead opted to vaccinate badgers after carefully considering “the scientific evidence”.

Griffiths’s decision infuriated the Farmers’ Union of Wales and the cattle farming community, who have been subject to a raft of extra controls on their cattle since 2010. Plaid Cymru’s former Rural Affairs Minister, Elin Jones, who whilst in power drew up the cull plans, commented; “Farmers will now have to decide how best to protect their cattle and I for one would not blame them for anything they do.”

The British Veterinary Association president, Carl Padgett, said it was “a political decision, rather than a scientific one”, that would “potentially set back our efforts to tackle this devastating disease for many years.”

Against this, Griffiths’ supporters comprise the familiar rag tag army – the RSPCA, Pembrokeshire Against The Cull and, of course, rock star Brian May who, with his colleague, Ghastly McCartney, is a self-appointed expert on British wildlife.

Unhappily for him, the new Minister’s alleged reliance on the “scientific evidence” was exposed as a disgraceful sham by the resignation of Professor Christopher Pollock from his job as Chief Scientist for Wales, and as a member of the management board set up to oversee the eradication of bovine TB in Wales. Pollock – not a shooting man at all by the way – has a scientific C.V. as long as your arm. As one of the U.K.’s leading research scientists, he was also Director of the Aberystwyth-based Institute of Biological, Environmental and rural Sciences. He resigned because vaccination was unproven as effective and because vaccination in the targeted “Intensive Action Area” went against the recommendations of the Minister’s own scientific review.

The significance of the resignation of so eminent a scientific player in the bovine TB debate cannot be overstated. I am printing verbatim in an appendix to this article the text of my exclusive interview with Professor Pollock. In this, the Professor makes some highly perceptive comments about species conservation, the management strategy of control and the role of Natural England and its Welsh equivalent, and the flawed Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981. There are points of huge importance to the gamekeeping profession in this, and I invite readers to contact me through Modern Gamekeeping with their own views and experiences.

In Wales, the Government has abandoned a cull based on scientific evidence and quite shamelessly has claimed to have relied on just that. In England, with chilling similarity, the Government has abandoned its buzzard research project as a result of pressure from, not the public, but from one single issue focus group, namely the RSPB. Shame on both administrations! It’s time for sure that the gamekeeping profession, the shooting organisations and land owners made a concerted effort to bring some sensible, science-based sense to the control of predators, be they avian or mammalian. As it seems that policy is determined by the interest group that shouts at the minister longest and loudest, the Countryside Alliance should raise its voice and let out a mighty roar. What I would suggest we want is completely reasonable: it’s the right to get on with our business without unreasonable interference, undue restrictions, and disproportionate persecution. We are not one single issue focus group, but a large body of men and women involved in many different aspects of rural life, and it’s high time our way of life is accorded the respect it deserves and the tolerance that is its hallmark.

Interview

David Barrington Barnes talks to Professor Chris Pollock about his decision to resign, the role of science in policy making, and the legislation surrounding countryside management 

DBB: What was your role as CSA to the Welsh Government?

CP: I had a one-year contract to assess whether Wales needed a permanent Chief Scientific advisor. I also undertook a range of duties on an ad-hoc basis including becoming a member of the Wales Bovine TB project board that was to oversee the Welsh eradication plan.

 

DBB: Regarding the TB eradiction plan, on what science was it based?

CP: It was devised after a comprehensive review of the science and was based on better testing, tighter movement controls on animals in to and out of infected areas, better biosecurity to keep cattle and badgers apart, and finally, a culling programme that was to be rolled out first in an area of North Pembrokeshire

 

DBB: As culling was only one of four constituents, was it the new Minister backing away from this that led to your resignation?

CP: I resigned because (a) I felt that vaccination was an untried technique and thus I couldn’t defend the decision in public, and (b) because the report that the Minister himself commissioned said that vaccination would not reduce disease in badgers that were already infected. Since these can live for several years, it didn’t seem to me to be an effective control strategy in areas of high disease incidence, whereas there is a body of evidence from Ireland suggesting that long-term badger culling does reduce cattle TB.

 

DBB: Who was this Minister?

CP: Mr John Griffiths, AM for Newport East

 

DBB: Please elaborate on your general concerns over species conservation.

CP: The UK is a managed landscape. Although people see individual species as important, what underpins a sustainable landscape is sustainable ecosystems. In the case of the UK these are all agro-ecosystems which have to include an element of management to permit “farming” operations to exist side-by-side with the delivery of ecosystem services. If intervention is allowable in the case of (for example) invasive species, I cannot see the logic for banning intervention where the absence of things like higher predators leads to an over-abundance of “natural” species.

 

DBB: Can you illustrate with specific examples species and conditions relating to circumstances in which conservation/control would be appropriate?

CP: One of the most controversial is raptor control to promote survival of rare songbird species. Obviously habitat management has to come first, but if you believe Robin Page, unofficial raptor control has been very effective in speeding population stabilisation. I have a lot of sympathy with Page, who is trying to do what I mentioned above; generate viable agro-ecosystems that nurture the non-farmed part of the system.

 

DBB: Modern farming, shooting and fishing interests generally want to do some conservation and some control. Is there anything inherently wrong with this approach from a scientific point of view?

CP: Providing the management strategy is backed by open, validated scientific evidence rather than a desire to return to historic practices for the sake of it, no.

 

DBB: Would you agree that controlling species should be made easier and simpler? For example, more easily obtained culling licences?

CP: I have no direct experience of seeking licences to cull apart from the badger issue, which became a cause celebre and consequently was atypical. Obviously, I believe that all regulation should be evidence-based, proportional and as simple to administer as practicable. I also believe that conservation legislation should define end points and that monitoring should be mandatory, so that ineffective legislation can be repealed/improved.

 

DBB: Do you think Natural England or its Welsh equivalent can be both regulators and law enforcers at the same time, as they are now?

CP: I am actually in favour of separating legislation and implementation. Whether the current system is effective or not, I’m not in a position to comment, but a lot of the legislation/regulation that I am familiar with is very complex and in some cases different regulatory environments contradict one another (e.g. climate change obligations and water framework directive in terms of managing losses).

 

DBB: Why do you say the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 is faulty?

CP: Because it deals with species, not agro-ecosystems, and because there is insufficient emphasis on either end-points or monitoring

 

DBB: Are there any other views you want to put?

CP: It is naive to think that there is a perfect solution for conservation ecology which will give us a rich, diverse landscape whilst allowing land managers to deliver low-cost products to consumers. The reality is a set of pay-offs in which all interested parties need to look for the “least bad option”. To achieve this we need to develop tools to compare the “value” of all the different components and to derive management strategies that are robust, evidence-based and verifiable. Unfortunately, there are a considerable number of vested interests (NGOs, Government, food retailers) that will oppose particular options for non-evidential reasons. I find myself, accordingly, oscillating between optimism and despair. On one hand, I think there is a much greater awareness that this is an urgent issue with no simple solution; on the other, our society seems increasingly incapable of taking long-term decisions that do not have universal approval, regardless of the consequences of failure.

With thanks to Chris Pollock for sharing his time and his views.

 

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