Readers’ offer

I am at the Game Fair (Fri and Sat).

I’m pretty sure this will provide bloggable material for a while!

But while I am away – why not buy this excellent book which is a fully updated and enlarged edition of an earlier work?  Oliver Prys-Jones and Sarah Corbet are old friends and colleagues from Cambridge and they asked me to write the foreword to their book.  I was glad to do so as it really is the book on bumblebees that you need whether you are an expert or a novice – I am a novice.  But I have been running after bumblebees in the back garden with this book in my hand in recent days!

This book is published as part of a revitalised Naturalists’ Handbook series by Pelagic Publishing and readers of this blog can avail themselves of a 20% discount by entering the voucher code MABB20 as you put this book in your shopping basket here.

In case you are wondering – I don’t get a penny out of it.

I would probably never have got into birds had I not had a copy of Peterson, Mountford and Hollom’s field guide.  Knowing what you are looking at is a good start to developing an interest and an understanding of wildlife.  I suppose it doesn’t have to be like that but I’d be surprised if  anyone got very interested in any wildlife group without being able to tell one from the other and being able to put a name to them.

This guide allows you to do that for the 24 British bumblebees but also tells you much more about them than a simple field guide would, so it really is a good introduction to the buzzing world of bumblebees.




I do wonder about vets sometimes.

In the Sunday Telegraph a ‘report’ (which has not yet been published) is featured under the sensational headline ‘The extinct species back from the brink and causing mayhem’.

Crikey! Which species are these?

Well, the article doesn’t give any actual examples of mayhem being caused unless you count the red kite which has now ‘become dominant’ in many parts of the country and ‘is threatening songbird populations’.  Ahhh  – I detect a strong whiff of tosh!

The report comes from the Veterinary Association for Wildlife Management, whose secretary, Dr Lewis Thomas, is also the author of an article entitled ‘The welfare case for hunting’ which points out that ‘Hunting is also unique in that, unlike all other methods of control, it is selective and will catch up the weak and the sick in direct relation to their degree of debility. Thus the health and vigour of the population is maintained by a process of natural selection.’.  It was so remiss of us, almost cruel, not to start chasing songbirds around with packs of hounds after the red kite was persecuted to extinction in England.

The Telegraph article says the report says that reintroduced species can ‘spread disease’ and so they might, which is why such projects are licensed and undertaken with veterinary advice and guidance.  I look forward to the VAWM’s views on the annual import of millions of non-native pheasants into the country and then their release into the countryside.

I hope to track down a copy of this report at the Game Fair this week.

I can’t find coverage of this important report elsewhere.  I sometimes wonder about vets but can always rely on Telegraph newspapers.


Shooting in the dark

This is probably the last word on this blog on badgers for a while – but who knows?

Today the Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman made the long-awaited announcement on badger culling in a House of Commons more interested in what was about to happen across the road in Portcullis House where phone-hacking would be the subject of discussion.

But this announcement was an important one, dealing as it does with the lives and emotions of many farmers and the lives and well-being of many badgers.  It was also an important announcement for Mrs Spelman as it is clearly one where it is impossible to please everyone.  And it is important in terms of how much weight we should give to the Tory Party’s Election Manifesto pledge to adopt a science-led approach to badger culling.

The government has said ‘yes’ to culling but only under licence in two pilot areas which have not yet been agreed.  Further consultation on safety, practicality and humaneness are to be undertaken.  Details from the Defra website – click here.

Here are some important words: ‘The Government will not attempt to eradicate the disease nationally by culling, and there would be no culling over the whole endemic area at the same time.‘.

The two pilot areas, if they go ahead, will have to be at least 150 square kilometres in size and farmers will have to be trained (at night school?) to carry out shooting in the dark.  Given that bTB is a problem, and a serious problem, in much of western England the area affected by bTB is huge.  The combined area of just four affected counties, Cornwall, Devon, Somerset and Gloucestershire, is over 17,000 square kilometres (not all of that land is farmed of course).  Let’s say that about half of that land is farmed and has cattle on it – is that a reasonable guess?  And let’s say that the other affected counties in England double the area affected so that we could say, ballpark only, that 17,000 square kilometres of farmland are affected by bTB.  If the pilot areas for culling are much bigger than the minimum needed, let’s say three times as big, then about 900 square kilometres will enter a pilot cull area.  So, 900 out of 17,000 square kilometres will have some legal, licenced culling introduced.  This is as close to a no-cull policy as Defra could possibly have come before Ministers were drummed out of the NFU and CLA without ceremony.

And given that culling may well make things worse for farmers in the pilot areas if their efforts are not effective, and may well make things worse for fellow farmers on the edge of the pilot areas anyway, because of perturbation effects, many a farmer should welcome this announcement of an almost no-cull way forward.  If badger culling, in the dark, goes well, the existing science suggests a possible reduction in bTB of about 16% in hot-spots.  That’s by one sixth.  So in about 6% of the area affected by bTB badger-shooting may reduce bTB by about one sixth, so Defra has agreed to culling that might be expected to reduce the national incidence of bTB by about 1% (maybe a bit more because culling will be aimed at hot-spots).  And so we need measures to reduce the other 99%.

I am glad to see the emphasis being on strengthening cattle control measures thus ‘Measures to address bovine TB in cattle remain the cornerstone of efforts to control the disease right across the country, and existing measures will be strengthened.’.

And I’m also glad to see this statement:  ‘Ultimately, we want to be able to vaccinate both cattle and badgers, and we’re investing in research – but there are serious practical difficulties with the injectable badger vaccine, which is the only available option.  We are working hard to develop a cattle vaccine and an oral badger vaccine, but a usable and approved cattle vaccine and oral badger vaccine are much further away than we thought and we can’t say with any certainty if and when they will be ready. We simply can’t afford to keep waiting.‘.

Mrs Spelman also correctly judged, I believe, her words of sympathy for farmers and regret for having (in her mind) to cull any badgers at all.

All in all, this is clearly not the worst possible outcome for England’s badgers – although thousands face death because of it.  And, all in all, it does add up to a more potentially effective control strategy because of the strengthening of cattle and biosecurity measures envisaged and planned – and the continuing development of vaccines for cattle and badgers – and despite the totemic but essentially irrelevant (as far as national bTB levels are concerned) partial agreement to future pilot culling.

The NFU and CLA seem to be putting a brave face on what is as close to a no-cull policy as could be expected given the Tory Party Manifesto commitment (As part of a package of measures, we will introduce a carefully-managed and science-led policy of badger control in areas with high and persistent levels of bTB .)  and the strength of feeling of the farming community with which all four Defra Ministers have strong links.

The Tories had stuck their necks out before the election in promising a cull and Jim Paice stoked the fires of expectation after the election (and cancelled vaccine trials which was a silly thing to do).  Given all that, there should be quite a lot of badgers breathing a small sigh of relief tonight although thousands of them may still be killed because Defra couldn’t quite stick to the science when it came down to it.

Now, I expect, the lawyers will have a field day – which rarely does any farmer, taxpayer or wildlife that much good.


That’s my last word on this subject for a while – but you have your say in comments.  But please, keep your comments short-ish, on topic and polite (or at least not close to libellous).


Brocks and Brooks

Twitter is buzzing today with suggestions that the English Government will announce its decision on badger culling tomorrow.  We’ll see – but I’d keep your ears open at around 1230 or so if I were you (unless you are a badger in which case I’d run down a hole, put your paws over your ears and go LaLaLaLaLaLaLaLaLaLaLaLaLaLaLaLaLaLaLaLa).

Tomorrow’s announcement has to be judged on whether it contributes to a well thought-through programme to eradicate bTB in cattle (and badgers).

You might have thought, indeed many people do think, that the excuse provided by phone-hacking, resigning senior coppers all over the place, Murdochs coming to Parliament, Rebekah Brooks being arrested and the Prime Minister’s relationship with the former editor of the News of the World still being a live subject of speculation and unfavourable comment, would be reason enough for any government to plead that it had run out of road for reasons beyond its control.

However, the ‘news’ that vets say that an oral vaccine for badgers may not be feasible looks like a story designed to ease the path for a badger cull.  Or am I being too cynical? But who are these vets, exactly?

The Veterinary Laboratories Agency website does not admit to having made any pronouncement on this subject (neither on its bTB page nor on its news page). The Defra website does not have any pronouncement on this subject either as far as I can see.  It appears that this story in the Western Morning News is the source where unnamed scientists have disclosed that an oral vaccine may never be perfected.  Doesn’t seem very authoritative, does it?

The Farmers Weekly – always a good source of gossip – is saying that they have heard from an ‘industry source’ that Defra will go for two free-shooting pilot areas – in Gloucestershire and Devon.  That’ll please farmers in Somerset,  Cornwall and the West Midlands no end, of course.  As I’ve mentioned in this blog before, any badger cull is likely to disadvantage some farmers – either through perturbation effects spreading the disease or through simply not being part of the trial.  We’ll have to await the details – it there are any – to find out what’s what.

This week’s Farmers Weekly (page 6) has a photograph of Lord Krebs who led one of the biggest studies of badgers and bTB under a headline ‘Bovine TB expert slams futility of badger cull‘.  Lord Krebs is quoted as saying that culling was not an effective policy and that enhanced biosecurity is needed in the short term and a vaccine in the long term.


Butterflies, Sir David, Ingrams, Waitrose and windfalls

I’ve done my bit for Butterfly Conservation this weekend and carried out a Big Butterfly Count in the back garden.

This very serious survey was postponed as when the rain fell this morning I nipped in to Waitrose in Rushden to stock up on cheap white wine and found that my local Waitrose store was giving me another opportunity to help butterflies.  As you leave the store you are given a green plastic token which you can put into one of three boxes representing local good causes.  At the moment one of these is Northamptonshire Butterfly Conservation and so they got my token.

That’s a form of democracy in action – I wonder when the government will adopt a similar approach to deciding public spending?  War in Iraq or habitat recreation?  Pillar 1 payments or reducing student fees? MPs’ pensions or my Mum’s pension?  Badger vaccine or badger cull?  Still, that’s just a dream.

Richard Ingrams is just a nightmare though!  Although I was told today that I might be turning into an Ingrams-like grumpy old man.  Grumpy? Old?  In yesterday’s column in The Independent Ingrams mentioned the Big Butterfly Count and said he’d rather count butterflies by squashing cabbage white caterpillars in his garden than counting adults.

And that’s exactly why he should get out and do that count today or over the next couple of weeks.  There is no such thing, or there are perhaps three such things, as cabbage white butterflies.  And whereas he says, in different words, that the errors of counting that he might make in his garden would be compounded if lots of us were doing similar things he is wrong about that – at least as far as inaccuracy is concerned.  The more the better – Mr Ingrams’s over-counting will be compensated by my, or your, under-counting this year.  And if we both do it again next year then the changes between years will be pretty comparable.  At least that’s the theory and it is backed up by some real statistical theory too.

I had to look fairly closely at the white butterflies in my garden to work out if they were Small Whites, Green-veined Whites or Large Whites and I’m sure that Mr Ingrams would benefit from doing the same.  They were, I’m pretty sure, all Small Whites and there were a couple of Gatekeepers too.  No doubt if I nip out later this afternoon the garden will be full of more interesting and rarer species, but that is the fate of many a citizen scientist – or at least it often seems so.

Being in the garden I admired the potential bumper crop of apples on our tree but looked sadly at the number of them already windfalls on the floor.  The best preserved were collected for apple jelly production.

Having got into the mood for looking at insects I saw a few hoverflies and noticed quite a few Cinnabar Moth caterpillars at the end of the garden.

The Big Butterfly Count is well worth doing for the fun of it – it’s only 15 minutes – and because David Attenborough supports it and Richard Ingrams decries it.