Badger cull – how dim can they be?

When I hear a Government Minister say ‘but the science is clear’, my alarm bells start to ring. Most Ministers know as much about science as I do about how my computer works. But this minister from DEFRA, David Heath, has a background in science – at least to some extent, being a qualified optician. So was there cause for concern with what he said to the BBC yesterday?

Yes. Because he is a politician and yes because he is keen to support his constituents in rural Somerset. Which has left him, despite all he knows about eyes, rather blinded to the real situation.

There have been BIG scientific surveys – and the most recent one (the Randomised Badger Control Trial) concluded that, “It is highly unlikely that reactive culling – as practised in the RBCT – could contribute other than negatively to future TB control strategies” and that “Proactive culling – as practised in the RBCT – is unlikely to contribute effectively to the future control of cattle TB.”

The trials did find that, locally, a 70% effective cull lasting for four years might lead to a 16% reduction in the incidence of bovine TB. Farmers are arguing that this is enough to warrant the expense of a cull.

But I wonder whether there is a subtext? Currently it is difficult for farmers to get rid of badgers – after all, they are an awful nuisance – making holes and possibly spreading disease. Dead badgers are difficult to dispose of – and can lead to prosecutions in rare moments. My wonderful badger-man from The Beauty in the Beast, Gareth Morgan, told me of the awful things that were being done to the badgers while under full protection. How their setts would have slurry pumped into them; how poisoned food would be left for them; how many of the road casualties he saw were rather suspicious – either due to the unsubtle presence of lead shot, or because they were in the wrong place (badgers are creatures of habits and are usually killed on roads at regular crossing points).

When killing badgers becomes acceptable again there will be an inevitable change in the how people react. No longer will it be a shock – it will be the norm. And as the slaughter of wildlife becomes normalised so the massive amount of work done over the last few decades to protect wildlife will unravel.

But back to the science. What David Heath and his masters miss is that for the cull to be effective locally, there needs to be a 70% reduction in the badger population for four years. We do not know how many badgers there are to start with. This is one of the very first lessons anyone looking at wildlife management has to learn – you cannot control a population the size of which you do not know.

And by the time a proper survey has been completed, the vaccines will be ready and we won’t need to engage in wildlife warfare.

This is a cause for which direct action seems appropriate – and there are people out there willing to ensure that badgers are saved. But they should be aware that the Gloucestershire Constabulary has already made it clear that those attempting to stop the slaughter of badgers could be arrest for … … ‘disturbing badgers’.

One thing that can be said for the Government, while they may be losing a grip on science, they have not lost their sense of humour!

As a post script I must add, I am not the world’s greatest badger fan – for those of you who have read A Prickly Affair, you will realise that they sometimes have a rather poor relationship with hedgehogs (from the perspective of the hedgehog that is) … this relationship is complicated – and the BHPS and the PTES are currently funding a PhD that might help unravel what is going on and possibly enable us to find a way of helping to re-establish more of a balance in nature.



What a weekend …

On Friday I got a ‘google alert’ (I get my ego massaged (occasionally) by this wonderful device that I have set to my name) telling me I had been mentioned in the Church Times. It was referring to my performance the previous weekend at the Greenbelt festival. I had been concerned about talking to a crowd of evangelical Christians, that is not my usual audience. And at 5 minutes to show time, when I was already plugged in to my ‘Madonna mic’ (that is what the technician’s there called it …), this was my audience:

What the organisers had not told me was that the doors were shut and, as I returned from a breath of fresh air (and a thought about running away) a stream of people flooded into the room … 255 in total (no, I was not bored and counting during my talk, they had someone on the door with a clicker!)

But back to the review, “Warwick believes that any creature can be a gateway to the love of nature. Meeting a bird or animal close at hand, you gain a precious glimpse of wildness. It’s an almost mystical experience…” I really enjoyed Greenbelt and have asked to come back next year … it is not often you get to preach hedgehog (and other lovely animals) to such a crowd.

Next up on Friday I was asked to pen a quick note for Meet the Species – a final component of the amazing project that also manages the Bristol Festival of Nature – The Bristol Natural History Consortium. So here is that piece – and, to my surprise, I found that they published it with a video of me talking at the Wilderness Festival – a spontaneous (and rather noisy) show ably assisted by the remarkable Amalie.

And on Friday I was also asked if I would help Anne Brummer from the Harper Asprey Wildlife Rescue with Wildlife Rocks. I had originally been asked to do a hedgehog talk at this event inspired by Brian May (and you can read more about him in my Olympic Blog) – but then she asked if I would step in and do a little compering … now I was given advice by an experienced wildlife/media person … ‘never say no’ … so I said yes, of course, I would love to … Anne was pleased and I put the phone down thinking ‘oh *&^^$&*’ … in less than 24 hours I would have to learn a new skill. Thankfully my neighbour is the absurdly talented Steve Larkin, stand-up poet, musician and compere beyond compare.

As I arrived at Guildford Cathedral I saw Brian May walking with Anne around the stalls. She beckoned me over and asked me to join the small crowd as she wanted to explain a little more of what was planned for the day – turns out I was not to ‘help’ with the compering but to DO IT – oh, and while there would be the usual thanks and welcomings to do, sometimes there would be a bit of time to fill in – as people got themselves set up … and there were around 24 separate events … so, no challenge there then!

Walking with them was Gavin Grant, CEO of the RSPCA. He impressed me enormously, walking straight over to the Hunt Sabs stall and chatting with them – he is obviously not frightened of the more activist sides of the animal world. And then his talk inside was a brilliant attack on many key issues – including the planned culling of badgers and, delightfully, the fact that the RSPCA is not just taking individual huntsmen to court for breaking the law, but also the hunt itself …and the hunt in question just happens to be the one that David Cameron loves to play with, the Heythrop Hunt. And when they win (well, lets hope) they will seek to rehome the horses and hounds, and sell off the buildings.

So my job was to bounce onto stage, say thank you (often to the amazing YEM Youth Theatre) and then chat to the crowd in the Cathedral for up to ten minutes … I think I managed to hold it together, it was a fantastic experience to have to think on my feet so fast – and also to be meeting the artist David Shepherd, Will Travers from the Born Free Foundation and the actor Peter Egans among many other. Perhaps the highlight, though, was rather predictable … when Brian May took to the stage with Kerry Ellis to perform to an absolutely packed cathedral.

I had forgotten about how famous Brian May is … and after the event he was sitting in an outside tent meeting and greeting and the queue was epic. An hour later his ‘people’ said enough was enough (he was looking exhausted) – but he still had time to help me with a publicity shot to help promote The Beauty in the Beast.

What a wonderful day – I really hope that they are able to hold another event next year, and then I might get to see some of what was going on! Though it was a rather fun challenge introducing each guest and trying to get a mention of hedgehogs and the British Hedgehog Preservation Society each time!

And as if that was not all enough, last night Countryfile on BBC 1 showed the piece they filmed with me a couple of weeks ago about Hedgehog Street. I was a little nervous – I was filmed for Blue Peter a while back and they ended up using less than one sentence. But this time it was great, the programme opened with the hedgehog piece and we got to talk about the major concerns we have for hedgehogs as well as the potential solutions.

To add icing to the cake, they also covered Ivan Wright, the solitary bee man from my book!

You can have a look at the programme for the next 6 days on iPlayer: Countryfile hedgehog programme

And because I like an easy life … I am off to the woods with the children now, then dancing and tomorrow – off to a conference all about hedges …