Another unsatisfactory response from Defra

Not a vulture

I met up with Sir John Randall MP earlier in the week for a chat about a range of issues – mostly about birds as Sir John is a keen birder. Yes, we covered Malta, Hen Harriers, the banning of driven grouse shooting and a range of other topics. We also talked about diclofenac use in Italy and Spain, and Sir John gave me a letter he had received from Rupert, I mean Lord, de Mauley.

Sir John, who is, he tells me, an avid reader of this blog (and he is not the only MP who is reading these words alongside you, Dear Reader) had raised the potentially disastrous consequences of allowing veterinary use of diclofenac in an adjournment debate on 10 April.

The letter spells out what diclofenac is and some details about its regulation. It makes the point that for a veterinary medicine to be authorised it must be assessed by a competent authority (in the UK that would be the Veterinary Medicines Directorate) in order to ensure efficacy and safety for the target animal, user, consumer and the environment.

I was interested to see that although there are no veterinary products containing diclofenac authorised for use in the UK we do test for the presence of this drug and have found no residues in the last three years. I wonder whether that means that there were in earlier years – despite no authorised uses – I think I shall ask.

The letter plays down the risk to vultures in my view by saying ‘Products containing diclofenac are a risk to vultures if there is any exposure of the birds to carcasses of animals which had been treated prior to death.  In Europe there are laws which provide for the disposal of fallen stock which reduces the risk of exposure. Risk mitigation measures (instructions to users) could possibly be used to reduce exposure further by instructing users not to feed carcasses of animals treated with diclofenac to vultures.‘.

Photo: Goran Ekstron via wikimedia commons
Not Sir John Randall. Photo: Goran Ekstron via wikimedia commons

But the most worrying part of the letter is this: ‘It is our view, taking the above legal procedures into account, that the use of diclofenac as a veterinary medicine is properly regulated within the EU. Accordingly, we see no reason to put forward representations within the EU to question the licensing of diclofenac in other Member States.’.

Wrong, Rupert, wrong! This is an extremely complacent attitude to take to the unnecessary use (because alternative safe drugs are available) of a drug known to have killed tens of millions of vultures in India, Pakistan and Nepal over a matter of only around a decade. Tens of millions! Yes, the European situation is different but we know that threatened vultures in Europe are susceptible to diclofenac and that it takes very little diclofenac to kill a vulture – one meal will do it.  Why take any such risk when the downside of banning it tiny? Why?

And I would have hoped that my government would care enough about nature conservation to make representations to the EU, the Spanish Government and the Italian Government on this matter.  Instead, Rupert states that it is open to any stakeholder with concerns to raise them directly with the European Commission or with the authorities of the relevant Member States. So you and I have to do it because Rupert isn’t going to do a thing.

Come on Rupert – pull your finger out please!

Here is a place where you can make your views known – and Rupert can sign too.



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18 Replies to “Another unsatisfactory response from Defra”

  1. The response from DEFRA seems to be predicated on trying not to do something rather than looking for positive action.

    I look forward to the day when the politicians involved with the environment realise that there are many votes to be gained from punters when they can show us they are leading the world in making good decisions about it (the environment).

    Seemingly, there is plenty of parliamentary time available. This particular issue should an easy, all round win.

  2. So far the same response from this Lord regarding Swifts. Even the RSPB seem to have put a spanner in the works suggesting we don't know enough while Swift Conservation and DEFRA themselves have said we do. What is the point of these folk if they can't do the job they are supposed to do! Is there no way these type of people can be sacked for negligence!!

    1. John, some excellent posts but you assume a high level of knowledge of your audience with your allusions. A link would be useful. I guess this is about swift nest sites not diclophenac.

  3. Bless you Mark! But on what basis would you have hoped that this government and DEFRA (the Department for Enriching Farmers Regardless of Anything) would care about nature conservation? Was it their proactive approach to raptor persecution that fostered this optimism, or their rational evidence-led approach to the problem of bovine TB? Was it the big turnarounds they have achieved in the declines on our British wildlife, or the great strides they have taken in managing soil conservation and mitigating future flooding? No, it must have been their relentless focus on tackling climate change. That'll be it. May as well close the blog and leave them to it. The future of the environment we must one day live in looks in safe hands.

    1. It might have been Rupert's passionate interest in tree health as it says in his speech to the Wildlife and Countryside link, where he has thrown himself energetically into the task of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.

  4. Wasn't there a Ponsonby in Blackadder II, 'only having one leg and a speech impediment', who was accidentally executed by Baldrick?

  5. I am more and more concerned (as anyone reading my book 'Forest Vision' which I believe mark will be reviewing) at the danger to all of us of the simple lack of knowledge of so many of our decision makers - and this is a scary example. We don't have many vultures in the UK (not the bird kind, anyway) but in Europe - especially France - a lot of effort has gone into reintroducing and protecting vultures and it is now possible to see literally flocks of Griffon Vultures soaring over the Pyrenean foothills. But this is wild country where stock are effectively ranched and, as anyone who walks the Scottish hills knows all too well, not every dead sheep is disposed of neatly and it is not a landscape of neatly fenced fields where the farmer has track of all his livestock - so in just the place the vultures are, the risk of them feeding on 'lost' carcasses is high - something that anyone who knows about farming and birds would surely realise - but not Lord de Mauley, nor his civil servants in THE Department that surely must be the one we should expect to know about farming - and about birds.

  6. The powers that be make no effort unless there's 'money in it'. Unsustainable greed from ignorant fools. We must ensure the next government are much better informed about the crumbling of the natural web that supports all life. And government agencies need enough independence to regain some credibility. Maybe that's naive, but they must lose the culture of fear that currently overcomes all common sense and effectiveness.

  7. I doubt that in E U unless someone breaks the law that there is any danger from this drug as I would think dead animals have to be disposed of safely and quite expensively with penalty's that are severe to stop anyone disposing of them any other way.
    I would have to be sure the drugs that are alternative were just as good before backing a ban on this drug as when treating any animal that is sick whether pet or farm animal or Horse for leisure then I would like that animal to have the best drug available.
    It is obviously a entirely different matter in country's that have poor disposal of fallen stock but we have different rules for lots of other things than these country's so why not different on this issue.
    I also wonder if the rspb have campaigned to DEFRA for fallen stock to be left in fields for places where the re-introduction of WTE has taken place.

    1. Dennis
      As Roderick pointed out the places where vultures occur in Spain are rugged and remote so there is no certainty at all that fallen stock will be removed and disposed of neatly. Furthermore in Span there are vulture feeding stations where animal carcasses are put out to help support the fragile populations: will it be possible to be certain that none of these carcasses contains trace of the drug (and remember minute quantities are required to kill vultures)? Given that horse meat and even the horse drug 'bute' managed to find its way into human food products labelled as 'beef' last year I would love to know how you can be confident that diclofenac contaminated carcasses would never get fed to vultures.
      As I understand it there are effective alternatives to diclofenac available for animal treatment so, as Mark says, why take the risk?

    2. Dennis - are you suggesting all dead animals are disposed of in this country and that if we had vultures they would not be at risk from a single animal slipping through the net?! Remember a single carcass from a diclofenac treated animal can kill a vulture. What about the dead sheep I find, rotting in streams or around the moors? Should I be reporting these? Who to?

      Furthermore, in Spain dead livestock are an important food resource for animals like bears and wolves. Removing dead animals from the countryside removes this resource and quite probably increases the chance that wolves prey on live animals. Better to have diclofenac banned and carcasses disposed of in the traditional way surely, thus supporting both vultures, wolves and bears, not to mention a myriad of invertebrates. Assuming we want to share the world with these animals at all.

      Sadly vultures are in trouble in Africa now too:

  8. Ironically,Hugh Roderick and Jonathon almost agree with me as all those animals they talk about Spanish mountains,Scottish Highlands,moorlands and even some poor devils getting in reservoirs would certainly not have been treated with ANY drugs at all as for them to have had drugs they would have had to have been sick with disease and would certainly have been inside.They have simply succumbed to old age,cold weather,difficult lambing,drowning etc
    Of course all animal carcases have to be disposed of responsibly,it is fairly easy to find that information and all farmers without exception complain about the cost.
    There is no reason to have exactly all the same rules in the E U as in India for example.
    Just simply a complete over reaction.
    If this drug is banned it will still be used by the same people who would use it anyway,they will just buy it under the counter in some country just like loads of drugs came onto farms because you could buy them in chemists in Ireland at a fraction of the cost from vets in England.
    I am certainly not sure there are alternative comparable drugs or why would anyone use it anyway.I would have to have evidence of this before I jumped on the band wagon and nobody has pointed me in that direction with a link saying about these good alternatives.
    As far as I am concerned if I had a sick farm animal or pet I want the best drugs available to treat it at a very stressful time and I expect to dispose of it if it dies responsibly.
    Not really much difference to humans really.

    1. Dennis - I agree that extensively grazed livestock in mountainous areas are unlikely to have been treated with the drug (though it is not an impossibility). However, you have not answered the point about carcasses fed to vultures at feeding stations. These may well originate from more intensively farmed stock which might well have been treated with the drug. As I said in my previous post there is plenty of evidence from past experience to show that meat entering the human food chain is not always what it purports to be so there a good grounds to fear that it would be very difficult to ensure that drug contaminated meat did not end up being fed to vultures.
      Diclofenac is not registered for veterinary use in the UK where other anti-inflamatory drugs are used instead. I am not aware of any clamour from UK animal keepers suggesting that the available drugs are inadequate or unsuitable from an animal welfare point of view. Given this is the case why do we need to take risks with the survival of vulture populations in Spain?
      I received de Mauley's letter via my MP and interestingly it does include the statement at the end "In terms of action taken by the UK, as a precaution, the VMD [Veterinary Medicines Directorate] has announced it will not approve any requests from vets to import products containing diclofenac. Furthermore, the VMD will not issue any export certificates which name diclofenac-containing products in the list of products to be exported." which suggests to me that the Government does recognise there is a risk associated with the use of this drug that outweighs its potential benefit even if it is not prepared to try and change EU policy or make representations to the Spanish.

  9. Diclofenac, CAP, Hen Harriers, illegal hunting in Malta and Cyprus are examples of issues that the government are both unwilling to and incapable of tackling. I also think we should sack the incompetent people who are failing us all by not dealing with these issues.
    The problem is that the people appointing the staff at the various departments know absolutely nothing about these matters themselves. They have no shame - its all jobs for the boys, self promotion and money. The truth is 90% of them just make me want to throw up.

    I wonder how OP or Lord de M would feel if their child was seriously sick and the hospital Doctor was a plumber. They would be outraged no doubt. Well I'm outraged with our government who have put unqualified people in charge of our wildlife.

    And I'm sorry Dennis but if you think anyone in rural Spain gives a jot for EU rules and regs, you are living in cloud cuckoo land.

  10. do you ban mobile phones in U K because they have caused lots of deaths and no one all over the country seems to give a damn that it is illegal to use one while driving.It is only the other country's who have people breaking the law is it.
    As I have said where is a link that equally useful drugs can be used.
    Probably if the same rules applied in regard to Hen Harriers which you refer to then guns would be banned because for sure Hen Harriers are being shot which is illegal and they are definitely not rural Spaniards doing the shooting of them.

  11. Sorry, it is absolutely wrong that the animals I'm talking about won't be drugged and again it shows the risk of ignorance of agricultural systems - every sheep that dies on the moors in the UK will have been dipped, most will have been drenched for worms and in the nature of these things it is economic to add another drug to the cocktail, so it is absolutely, categorically not the case that these ranched animals are 'safe' even before you factor in the filly areas around the edge of legality & biological security which seem to keep coming up - from horse meat masquerading as beef back to our almost forgotten friend, mad cow disease.

  12. Roderick,bit extreme you talking about a retired farmer being ignorant of agricultural systems.
    Your last comment is wrong on several counts that I will just point out the biggest ones.
    There is absolutely no evidence that dipping sheep and worming sheep have any detrimental effect on any animal or more important human.
    Every meat from sheep will have had these drugs used on them and the drugs will have a withdrawal time that has to be obeyed before slaughter and it is in every farmers long term interests to obey that rule as when the meat is tested and found with residues then the whole industry would suffer.
    You are almost making out a case to eat nothing at all as all the food chain for humans will have had drugs or in the case of any fruit and veg have had some treatment to prevent pests or disease.
    I will not go into the bit about mad cow disease but as we were one of the first and in the long term worst affected farms due to someone else then i suspect my knowledge on that subject is at least equal to most.Any farmer whose cows had mad cow disease certainly never considered it their friend.Just something the Government of the day gave us livestock farmers to make our lives more difficult.
    Ironically leading to a carcase disposal system that is very good at stopping birds or animals getting access to carcases and I will repeat what I said in previous comment that any sheep found dead on the moors would not have had drugs as if it was sick with disease and been treated with drugs would have been taken into buildings to be treated.
    I will repeat those drugs for worming and dipping have as far as I am aware never
    caused any problem to birds,other animals or humans who have had the meat,indeed if you know that they have I would think you should report it.


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