Dominic Woodfield is the Managing Director of Bioscan, a long established and well-respected consultancy specialising in applied ecology.
He is a life-long birder, a specialist in botany, habitat restoration and creation and in protected fauna including bats, herpetofauna and other species. He is also a highly experienced practitioner in Environmental Impact Assessment and Habitats Regulations Assessment. Most of his work is for the development sector, but he has also undertaken commissions for Natural England, the RSPB, Wildlife Trusts and campaign groups. He once mounted an independent legal challenge in defence of an important site for butterflies in Bicester, Oxfordshire, which resulted in planning permission for a five-hundred unit housing development being overturned. He lives in Oxford with his partner and family.
Note: this guest blog was first written in July 2021, shortly after Natural England had been forced to finally release the long-suppressed BTO report mentioned in the title. The blog was not published at the time to avoid any interference with a contemporaneous High Court case. The judgment in that case is shortly to be re-examined in the Court of Appeal, but as the key facts of the case referred to here have been broadly established, there is no longer the same sensitivity surrounding publication. The issues this blog raises are as pertinent now as they were just under a year ago.
How a suppressed BTO report became published as a ‘joint’ BTO/NE study.
In February 2021 a paper was published in the journal Bird Study, entitled “A comparison of breeding bird populations inside and outside of European Badger (Meles meles) control areas”. The paper had four authors: two ornithologists from the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) (E. Kettel and G. Siriwardena) and two employees of Natural England (NE), both of whom happen to have been closely involved with the licensing of badger culling (I. Lakin and M. Heydon). The paper reported on a contract let by NE to the BTO to analyse geographically delimited subsets of data from the records collected annually by volunteer birders partaking in the national Breeding Bird Survey (BBS). The purpose of the analysis was to attempt to detect any perceivable effects on bird populations from badger culling.
One of the risks to ecosystems subjected to badger culling is a trophic cascade phenomenon known as ‘predator release’ or ‘carnivore release effect’. This is where removal of an apex predator species creates a vacuum which other predator species may expand in population to exploit.
A particular concern in the case of badger culling is that populations of predator or omnivore species such as foxes and hedgehogs, that are more efficient at predating the nests, young or adults of ground nesting birds, may expand in cull areas as badgers are removed. Given that culling aims to reduce badger numbers by 70-95% in cull areas, these local population changes and expansions have the potential to be substantial. These additional predators may then exert additional lethal and non-lethal pressures on vulnerable bird species in cull areas, an impact potentially of conservation importance if affecting precarious populations of rare species (e.g. stone curlew) or declining species of conservation concern (e.g. lapwing). While badgers also opportunistically take birds and eggs, foxes in particular are widely accepted to exert proportionately greater pressure – especially for certain groups of species such as ground nesting waders. There is a reason why the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and other conservation organisations such as the RSPB spend large sums of money annually on excluding foxes from reserves by fencing and/or on lethal fox control.
Concerns about the potential negative consequences from this ‘predator release’ side-effect of badger culling were raised by Defra in 2007, drawing on data collected during the Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT) (Defra 2007). They were echoed again in a desk-study conducted by the Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA) in 2011 (FERA 2011). Culling started in 2013, but over the next five years to 2018 (when tens of thousands of badgers were culled over large parts of western England), and notwithstanding the findings and recommendations of Defra 2007 and FERA 2011, NE and Defra did precisely nothing to study or monitor such effects. In fact, it took the sharp scrutiny of legal challenges brought by Tom Langton in 2018 and the accompanying witness evidence of myself and others, to force NE into improving the robustness of its impact assessment processes, firstly in respect of European Sites and latterly in respect of SSSIs. In an effort to escape adverse judgment, Natural England promised a High Court judge in 2018 that they would look at the issue of risks from predator release more closely.
The BTO were contracted to analyse relevant BBS datasets and they reported that same year. Three years later, Kettel et al. 2021 purports to present the results of that 2018 study. The truth, however, is that Kettel et al. 2021 is the outcome of a suspiciously protracted process of ‘peer review’ during which the original 2018 BTO report to Natural England was withheld from public view, despite multiple requests for it to be released. Over the course of this period, many decisions on whether to grant culling licences were made by Natural England and a national policy decision on the continuation of the badger cull was made by the Secretary of State. The original BTO 2018 report was consistently cited as part of the evidence base informing such decisions. Yet the public were denied access to it.
Mark commented on Kettel et al. 2021 here. He remarked that it didn’t seem a particularly robust or conclusive study and didn’t really answer any of the questions or concerns about the potential collateral ecological effects on birds from removing large numbers of an apex predator from the ecosystem. He also observed that it was not the 2018 contract report sent to NE by the BTO and on which licensing and policy decisions around badger culling and advice to Defra and Ministers from Natural England up to 2021 was based. Tom Langton (see here) and myself had repeatedly asked NE and the BTO to see a copy of the original 2018 report and in 2020 Mark joined the clamour (see here, here, here and here). We were told that despite it being cited with no mention of ‘draft’ and despite it being used to make policy and licensing decisions, it was a draft scientific paper that was being prepared for publication and that it was undergoing a process of peer review, and on that basis would not be released.
BTO’s former Chief Executive Andy Clements effectively said “out of our hands – NE’s the client and they decide” (notwithstanding that he had already joined the NE board by that time). Mark commented that this secret use of volunteer data was not a very edifying position for BTO to have got itself into. However, I can report that the original BTO 2018 report has now, three years after it was issued to NE, been dragged into the light.
Once again, it has taken legal pressure to force action. The release is a consequence of a ‘discovery application’ made directly to the High Court in connection with a current legal challenge by Tom Langton to the Secretary of State’s (SOS) decision to adopt a new badger culling policy. ‘Next steps for the strategy for achieving bovine tuberculosis free status for England’ (‘Next Steps’) sets out the Government’s policy on bTB control going forward from 2020 . BTO 2018 represents relevant evidence in that challenge, as it is the only study conducted by NE or the SOS/Defra into the collateral ecological effects of badger culling since 2012 and the only study available at the time ‘Next Steps’ was adopted. The SOS claims that its mere existence was evidence that the Minister considered wider effects on biodiversity in making his decision in 2020 and in accordance with his statutory duty under section 40 of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006. NE and the SOS maintained that putting BTO 2018 in front of the court was not necessary as there was no material difference between it and Kettel et al. 2021 – despite the latter post-dating the impugned decision by around a year. However, in July 2021 two days before the hearing, they rescinded.
It had taken three years and countless requests, rebuffs, exchanges of correspondence and argument to get this report into the open. So, was it worth all the anguish and argument to get this report? Was the Secretary of State and Natural England right to say that BTO 2018 is not materially different from Kettel et al. 2021 and that it delivers the same conclusions? Well, on first pass it might be difficult to see much between them, other than noting that the original two BTO scientists who authored the 2018 report to Natural England have been joined by two new authors from Natural England (both of whom happen to have provided evidence to the High Court and Court of Appeal in support of Natural England’s approach to assessing the impacts of badger culling when issuing culling licences). However, once one drills down into the detail, one unearths a change of approach between the two papers that has arguably very significant implications for the scope, tone and meter of the discussions and conclusions and for any decision making based upon them.
To be clear, neither version of the study is an exemplar of robust science and neither suggests that decisions on assessing and mitigating the collateral risks of badger culling are being made on the basis of any solid evidence, let alone empirical, real-world evidence. Frankly, Kettel et al. 2021 is a rather embarrassing thing for a journal of the calibre of Bird Study to have within its pages. But beyond that is something much more interesting: the three years of ‘peer review’ have transformed the original BTO report to NE of 2018 into something that paints a somewhat more positive picture and, conveniently, better fits NE’s chosen narrative on this issue. Mainly this has been achieved by changing the methodology of the analysis.
In contrast to BTO 2018, the 2021 paper adopts an approach to assessing BBS datasets that clearly deviates from the scientific standard (Harris et al. 2018). This may be an attempt to broaden the scope of the study and overcome the crudeness of the base data and lack of data points, but its effect is to further reduce statistical power from a study already extremely underpowered. If one is being cynical, it is possible to read this shift in methodological approach as an attempt to massage the analysis to conceal some of the more unwelcome trends hinted at in the 2018 version. In any event, the result is the same: a different subset of species data gets taken forward for trend analysis in 2021 than in 2018, in the course of which negative and near-significant trends indicated for certain ground nesting waders in cull zones in 2018, disappear. Specifically, in Kettel et al. 2021, data from 15 BBS squares is used as a minimum threshold for analysis, rather than the normal accepted standard for BBS of 30 (which was applied in 2018 and follows Harris et al. 2018). In consequence, the crucial ‘ground nesting birds’ subset in 2021 excludes species such as oystercatcher (which showed a near significant negative trend in the 2018 study) and grey partridge (which did not). These instead become replaced instead by smaller passerine species, many of which nest close to but actually often above ground (e.g. yellowhammer, willow warbler) and some of which exhibited positive trends. Readers of this blog are not likely to need it pointing out that larger ground nesting waders are probably going to be of more relevance in a study of this nature as they are at inherently higher risk from predation or sub-lethal predator release effects than smaller songbirds and passerines. This is acknowledged by NE.
The consequence of changing the methodology and deriving a different subset for trend analysis is that Kettel et al. 2021 comprises fourteen species of, on average, lower inherent risk from carnivore release than the fourteen species making up the ‘ground nesters’ subset in BTO 2018. It is for this reason that BTO 2018 paints a somewhat less ambiguous and somewhat more interesting or even concerning picture than the public-facing Kettel et al. 2021. Obviously both studies are unable to disaggregate the potential causal factors underlying the observed non-statistically significant trends (i.e. distinguishing badger culling from other covariables), but there is enough in BTO 2018 (and, crucially, more than in Kettel et al. 2021) to suggest that a continued highly precautionary approach to assessing the impact of predator release on ground nesting waders and waterfowl is merited. That of course was and remains common sense. It is also consistent with the findings of Defra 2007, FERA 2011 and indeed the Godfray Review of 2018. But it doesn’t sit very well with the position of NE as set out in internal guidance for processing badger cull licences and the opinion of the two Natural England authors, who are largely dismissive of this risk (despite the contradiction of their being authors of the guidance that requires that the same risk must be assessed in respect of European Sites and SSSI).
One very pointed question arising out of all this is where does this leave the assessments of possible impacts on ground nesting waders and waterfowl occurring outside designated sites, for example lapwing and curlew and the many others for which the Kettel studies simply had insufficient or no data (e.g. redshank, snipe)? NE acknowledge that predator release is a threat that needs assessing and, in some instances, mitigating in respect of these species, but only in respect of protected sites. BTO 2018 supports the case that concern should be exercised outside protected sites, even if Kettel et al. 2021 is rather more equivocal on the matter. In point of fact, there are no such assessments. NE consider that there is no threat to such species outside designated sites. Perhaps others might consider the differences between the original BTO 2018 report and the public-facing Kettel et al. 2021 revision to be trivial.
At the end of the day, neither version of the study is robust, neither identifies clear, statistically significant effects but neither identifies a clear absence of effects (the part of that Ying Yang that NE seem keen to overlook) and consequently neither delivers any reassurance that possibly only small magnitude (but potentially highly significant in conservation terms) impacts, worthy of ours and Ministers’ attention, aren’t occurring in badger cull areas as a consequence of increased predation pressure on populations of vulnerable and/or scarce ground nesting species such as redshank, snipe and so on.
The study NE elected to do in relation to its promise to look more closely at this issue is tantamount to taking a count of the number of red cars on the way to work and then seeking to claim that local traffic volumes are going down from those data. As Mark said back in February 2021, “I’m not sure I would pile any more money into doing more of this [sort of study] on the basis of the results so far.”. I agree. As soon as I deduced back in 2018 what NE were up to with this methodology, I could see it was little more than a feint at investigative science, an excuse not to do something more meaningful and a means to kick awkward and difficult to answer questions into the long grass. If Defra and NE seriously want to demonstrate that this acknowledged risk is no risk at all, they need to actually design a proper monitoring experiment involving targeted collection of relevant, real-world data, not borrow coarse-grained datasets from somewhere else, apply meaningless analyses to them as a surrogate, and then tinker with those analyses to try and elicit a better answer. It is possibly for reasons of cost that NE have gone for cheap and cheerful analyses of already available data. But it may also be a more worrying thing: prejudicial dismissal of concerns which Defra and FERA before them, and the Godfray Review in 2018, specifically suggested ought to be subject to further study. But probably the most interesting and potentially alarming thing about seeing these two papers, at last, side by side is the question it raises about why the differences are there. Why were some of the points of note arising out of the analysis in BTO 2018 allowed to disappear as a consequence of the change in methodology in Kettel et al. 2021?
- Why was the lumping of passerine species that nest on or near the ground together with ground nesting waders/waterfowl (thus masking collective trends in respect of the latter that might otherwise be a cause for further investigation or concern) permitted and/or not explained?
- Why were the problems of poor experimental design (reliance on a dataset with methodological problems e.g. bias towards songbirds and expressly not designed for this sort of extrapolation) not discussed?
- Why are potentially significant negative effects on oystercatcher identified in 2018 and not in 2021?
- Why is there no comment on how the analysis in 2021 skews consideration towards species at inherently lower risk of negative effects from predator release than those extracted for particular attention in 2018?
- Are the two ‘new’ authors from Natural England solely responsible for these revisions? Are their backgrounds and role in facilitating badger cull licensing within NE a matter of any relevance here?
As Mark said back in February 2021 – you decide.[registration_form]
5 Replies to “Guest blog – How a suppressed BTO report became published as a ‘joint’ BTO/NE study by Dominic Woodfield”
I had the same problem with NE when I showed them the American way of preventing predation by raptors at Pheasant release pens. Their answer via, I presume landowners and keepers, was that there were too many trees in Britain for this system to work! No trees in America??
Thank you Dominic,
This is a very useful summary of and insight into one microcosm of how ‘policy-led’ science is enabled. The government will have been very grateful to Andy Clements who was head of BTO and an Natural England Board member at the time. Perhaps he has been rewarded for helping to keep a BTO volunteer-based report, used for public decision taking secret, and allowing Natural England ‘specialist’ staff to massage the report to get their ‘better’ result. None of what has been exposed would have otherwise come out, despite the pressure of repeated FoI requests, until the High Court process finally forced it out. We would all still be in the dark about how it all works behind the scenes.
A cynic might say that we are beginning to see bit of a ‘tribal’ pattern here around the bovine TB and badger culling government behaviour in support of badger culling. A couple of months ago, Defra used senior scientists (the Defra chief scientific advisor and chief veterinary officer no less) to try to rubbish an independent peer-reviewed paper on badger culling in England that showed the opposite results to Defra’s expectations. Then (you couldn’t make it up) Defra admitted errors in its alternative view, and since then gives the appearance of having gone into a silent sulk, perhaps out of embarrassment or following legal instruction, or a bit of both.
And in Northern Ireland (where Wild Justice are taking a legal challenge over badger culling starting), a whistleblower on the misuse of the APHA/DAERA cattle movement system (of relevance to bovine TB spread) has finally received an apology and pay-out, with the DAERA chief vet and others now under investigation. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-61212237
Welcome to the wicked world of clumsy disease control. https://thebadgercrowd.org/badgers-and-the-wicked
The Court of Appeal case at the end of July to which Dominic’s article relates, concerns the big picture responsibilities of government bodies to ‘have regard’ to biodiversity under the 2006 NERC Act. The upcoming legal case is a test of the extent to which efforts to safeguard biodiversity should be made in the run up to big policy decisions that impact listed wildlife priority species and habitats. The case is about badger culling but it is actually also about how government bodies at the highest level, go about addressing protection of all NERC Act species and habitats: birds, bees, beetles, heathland dunes and bogs etc. So it is very important in the big scheme of things in determining whether the nature depleted UK has been failed by governments, or if the legislation is not enough for them to have had taken precautionary steps in many areas. This is of course critically important, not least as the 2021 Environment Act builds on the duties in the 2006 Act and it might be argued that it can only do this with confidence if the original duties are not readily sidestepped.
The Act also established a new environmental watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), which will hold the Government and other public bodies to account. It should ensure that environmental laws are complied with, but if DEFRA don’t need to ‘have regard’ or if having regard means not so very much, then don’t expect too much progress to be made by 2030.
One of the things under consideration in court this July is whether the government should have done what the 2018 Godfray review suggested and carry out detailed monitoring of potential ecological impacts of badger culling, to investigate potential problems. This would have involved lots of equipment and hundreds of fieldworkers and major effort in the analysis to do well, costing many £ millions. Fifteen or so years ago the modest scale RBCT ecology studies scratched the surface and identified the need for further work. Since then the need has been overlooked and heavily resisted by Natural England. It is something Natural England considers itself successful in achieving over the last nine years.
Thanks are also due to Mark for his interest in the BTO report and awareness of the secrecy and its winkling out. Further, to Wild Justice for supporting the crowd funds for this legal case at each stage, to help see it through the court process.
I don’t normally look at this sort of thing online, but I was alerted to it by a colleague. It’s always good to see your work generating interest and discussion, so thank you to Mark for highlighting our paper. However, the blog by Dominic Woodfield contains some factual inaccuracies, misconceptions and false accusations. I welcome the opportunity to address these here.
I have worked in applied ecology – where independence is central for readers to have confidence in research findings – for more than 25 years, and I take exception to the accusation of collusion in the suppression of research results to suit a funder’s interests, not to mention the implications of corruption. Such accusations are unfounded, unfair and, I believe, morally indefensible.
Given the content of Dominic Woodfield’s blog, I feel it would be helpful to explain the process behind the publication of our Badger cull study. Obviously, I understand the wider context here: the Badger cull is morally and scientifically controversial and campaigners are exploring many different avenues to support their cause. It is not the BTO’s place to comment on whether a cull should or should not take place, but our data and expertise allow us to provide the relevant evidence to inform policy decisions, and that is our aim here.
Badgers are a top predator in the UK today and are also ecosystem engineers to some extent. Changes in their numbers are certain to have some effect on some other animals and plants, some of which may be biologically significant. Investigating these changes is of interest both for evaluation of the policy itself and in terms of basic ecology. The existence of landscape-scale survey data from the BTO/JNCC/RSPB Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) provides an opportunity to explore the implications of the culling policy for bird populations. It is in this context that BTO agreed to analyse the available BBS data.
The point of this project was to investigate whether there was any detectable effect of the Badger cull on birds. The analyses were limited by scale and context: this was not an experiment and cull areas are likely to have differed systematically in land-use from non-cull areas, added to which sample sizes were small. We took the approach of maximising the number and range of analyses that could be conducted, but acknowledging the weaknesses
The analyses were led by Esther Kettel, a BTO Research Ecologist who has since left us for a university teaching role. She and I conducted analyses using two definitions of “cull areas” in a given year: a 2km buffer and a 10km buffer. The former allows for an effect of culling up to 2km beyond actual cull areas, primarily as some Badgers may move into cull areas to fill the void left by culling. , In addition, as we did not know actual Badger movement distances and sample sizes with this 2km buffer were small, we also considered the larger buffer, although recognising that this is likely to classify many squares as “culled” inaccurately.
The rule-of-thumb (not a “scientific standard”) for most BBS projects is to use a minimum of 30-50 squares for reporting national-scale analyses. For this work, we began by aiming to use a minimum of 30 squares. However, there was a misunderstanding within the project team and a filter for inclusion of species was set at 30 square-year combinations, as opposed to 30 unique squares, and this was reported incorrectly in the report. This meant that species were included that were actually only present in very few unique squares, and notably in just one or two cull squares in some cases. The models concerned were therefore not reliable and it was an error to include them in the report. Overall, sample sizes were small and many species of interest would have been omitted with correct application of the 30-square threshold. However, it is reasonable to assume that a smaller number of squares are representative of a smaller region such as southwest England so, in order to maximise the analyses that were possible, we retained species with a minimum of 15 non-zero squares per species in the study region. The analyses that are reported in the final paper are a subset of those in the report – the methods and results are exactly the same. The difference is in the sample size threshold that was applied and the correction of the reference to that threshold in the text. The change (which was made in June 2019) was part of a quality assurance process in preparing a paper from a report.
We were contracted by NE to conduct an extensive study and then to produce a peer-reviewed journal paper. Academic peer-review is not a perfect system, but remains our best arbiter of scientific quality. The intention was always to produce a report for NE and then to refine that into a form that was suitable for journal publication. Hence, the report on which NE signed off the initial project in 2018 is more accurately viewed as an interim output, in which problems, like that with the sample size reporting mentioned above, were identified and rectified during the revision process. We also dropped the 10km buffer analysis from the paper because the 2km one was sufficiently powerful and the former, being less reliable a priori, added nothing substantive to the overall inference.
The paper was submitted to a journal in November 2018, but rejected, on the basis of being too inconclusive, in May 2019. Sadly, Esther Kettel left BTO in August 2019, delaying our responses to two rounds of reviewers’ comments following submission to a second journal, Bird Study. It was then finally accepted in Bird Study at the end of 2020. Scientific publication is often frustratingly slow; this was no exception. However, the paper was improved through the peer-review process (which is the point, after all). The report to NE was effectively a draft – to view it as some kind of absolute truth that was then watered down is absurd.
I sympathise with the view that policy should not be made on the basis of reports before they have been improved by peer-review, but I also sympathise with policymakers who may not have time to wait for the process to be completed. It is a difficult balance. Here, NE were informed of the revisions and changes throughout, so they could inform policy development if relevant, although, in this case, there were no substantive changes to inference. The addition of NE authors to the paper reflects credit for their input into the study. As we were reporting to them, it was not appropriate to name them on the report, but they provided important inputs into the focus of the work and the policy context, so merited inclusion as authors on the paper.
Dominic Woodfield raises several specific questions, which I will answer below:
• There is no lumping of species except to summarise patterns. All analyses were clearly species-specific and were reported as such – readers can make their own summaries if they wish. For our summaries, we included everything that nests within the reach of Badgers (as far as we could guess from nesting height data). I stand by that as a sensible cut-off, although clearly real, exact, nest heights vary.
• This was obviously not an experiment – there was no experimental design. We analysed patterns of culling that were introduced by policy using pre-existing, independent monitoring, all of which were out of our control. The limitations with the study are discussed explicitly, as is the lack of data on certain species of interest. We could only analyse the species for which we had enough data, which inevitable biased the work towards more common species. However, there is no reason why any species that nests on the ground would not be affected by the removal of Badgers.
• The Oystercatcher result (among others) in the interim report was based on too small a number of squares to be reliable, so was removed from the peer-reviewed paper.
• The analysis including species with too-small sample sizes includes more rare species (fairly obviously), so these were more likely to drop out when the unreliable models were excluded.
• The revisions, and the paper as a whole, are the work of all authors and we signed a declaration to that effect with the journal (which is standard, as any published scientist would know). The NE authors work in a team that has been involved in the culling policy, so of course their background is relevant: this gave them the expertise to input to the work.
To conclude, the accusation that the methods were changed between report and published paper is false, while the one that BTO scientists have colluded with NE to falsify research results is an egregious insult. I had never heard of him before and am unaware of his work, but passion in pursuit of the anti-culling cause seems, regrettably, to have trumped Dominic Woodfield’s better judgement in many of his comments. I would not claim that our paper is an exemplar of the best science or a definitive test of the effects of Badger removal; it is an attempt to extract the best information possible from imperfect sources and is limited, but it is robust, was improved by independent peer-review and I stand by it. My role, and that of other BTO scientists, includes using the extensive long-term datasets held by BTO to deliver robust, honest science with the oversight of peer-review. This is what we have done here.
The Badger cull is, of course, currently still ongoing. I will not get into the details of the ecology here, but Dominic Woodfield’s picture of the possible effects of the cull is one-sided: in truth, the impact of removing a generalist omnivore from a complex community is hard to predict and we simply don’t know what will happen. Monitoring therefore remains critical and we will continue to investigate the cull’s effects on birds where we can. Indeed, we plan to publish a repeat study to the one at issue here, with additional years of data and coverage, later this year. It is quite possible that effects that were undetectable in the original study will subsequently emerge, not least because the structure of culling activity was less than ideal from an analytical perspective and sample sizes were small.
I completely agree that the best way to study issues like Badger removal is with properly controlled, landscape-scale experiments, noting that these would still involve culling, would take several years (at least) apiece and would be expensive for taxpayers. However, I reiterate that, in the absence of such experiments, we need to make the best of the data that we have available. Our work is objective and contributes constructively to the evidence base, enabling decision-making processes to be based on the best available evidence. Conspiracy theories and insults are unhelpful and do a disservice to the important scientific and moral debate around issues like this.
Gavin – thanks for your long comment which contains much useful clarification, but not quite enough for my liking, although that clarification should probably come from elsewhere in the BTO and also from Natural England.
As a BTO member through choice (not necessity) and a BBS surveyor through choice too, I am concerned about the following.
1. A BTO report which was used for public policy making, and was cited as such by NE, was not released by Natural England – that is totally unacceptable. Public bodies should not make secret decisions on the basis of science that is kept secret from the public – that’s just totally wrong.
2. The BTO agreed to this (I was told by Andy Clements). That is not commensurate with what should be the BTO’s scientific standards. This makes me wonder on how many other occasions does this happen. Was this a one-off or is it commonplace? Remember, I am a donor of data to the BTO.
3. It took a long time, even by the standards of scientific publication, for this information to reach the public domain (your comment is relevant to that, thank you).
4. When the study was published, it had significantly different fndings from that original report which was until very recently kept secret.
These four points do not add up to a fine example of science being used in public policy making, in my opinion.
The fact that Andy Clements was working for NE (as a paid Board member) and working for the BTO (as a fine CEO) at the time when this happened is not a good look, as I’ve said before.
I welcome Gavin Siriwardena’s reply to my blog, in the first instance because it is the first we’ve actually heard directly from BTO on the matter beyond ‘no, you can’t see/have it’. I also welcome his clear acknowledgement that changes in badger numbers are, as he says, “certain to have some effect on some other animals and plants, some of which may be biologically significant”. This is precisely why the terms of reference of BTO’s study, the secrecy around it, and whether the conclusions it reached offer any robust answers, are matters of importance. What is interesting is that Mr Siriwardena’s certainty that there are risks of ecosystem-level effects from removal of badgers – a common sense view – stands very starkly apart from the dismissive statements to the courts and elsewhere on the same issue advanced by the two NE authors. This is precisely why I and others had concerns over the original report’s secrecy.
Accusing me of resorting to conspiracy theories is therefore a somewhat lazy deprecation that conveniently ignores these matters. Mr Siriwardena offers no good explanation as to why BTO and NE were not prepared to be open and transparent about what they were doing with these volunteer data either in 2018, 2019 or 2020, and indeed right up to the publication of the paper in Bird Study in February 2021. In the course of that time, and as he acknowledges, policy and licensing decisions were being made about predator removal interventions across huge areas of British countryside – an activity posing a clear risk to populations of rare and vulnerable bird species. As Mr Siriwardena acknowledges that risk, I find it odd that he doesn’t appear to agree that greater transparency was desirable and/or called for.
I would have been prepared to accept some coyness about releasing its results before publication if the paper, as eventually published, contained novel science or breakthrough revelations. That might also have lent greater credibility to the excuses for the peer review process taking so long. But by Mr Siriwardena’s own admission, the study a) shows pretty much nothing and b) was never likely to. He doesn’t say which journal it was that first rejected the paper, but the fact that it did so, seemingly for precisely these reasons, doesn’t surprise me one bit. Frankly I find it a bit strange that BTO’s own Bird Study didn’t reject it too.
That NE would approach BTO with this brief was predictable and understandable: it had promised a judge that it would look into this, so it had to do something, but it didn’t want to design, pay for and wait on what Mr Siriwardena appears to agree would have been a more useful “properly controlled, landscape-scale experiment”, so it went for something cheap and cheerful. Analyses of off the shelf BBS data held by the BTO was the obvious candidate. But the original question remains: why did the BTO, with its reputation for robust science, agree to be involved in such a meaningless exercise and why did it then comply with the intense secrecy NE chose to wrap around it?
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