It’s about TB

After the decision to delay the badger-cull pilot study it might be that badgers are breathing a sigh of relief.  Except they won’t be because we don’t have in place effective measures to limit the spread of bovine TB in badgers and cattle and from one to the other (both ways!).

One huge problem with the whole ‘badger thing’ is that it is seen as a ‘badger thing’ when it should be seen as a ‘TB thing’.  And it’s quite a thing – bovine TB is a big problem for cattle, farmers and, because we end up paying for most of it one way or another (eg research, pilot studies, compensation), for you and me.

Bovine TB is spreading and we need to stop that spread and begin to reduce its incidence.

Successive governments have failed to invest fully enough in vaccination as a solution to the TB problem and I have now spent well over 15 years being told that ‘vaccination isn’t the answer – it’s about 4-5 years away and we need something now!‘.  Well, we didn’t get ‘something now’ and we haven’t yet got vaccination.

The farming community deserves to take quite a lot of the blame for where we are.  They have focussed on badgers to a ridiculous extent.  Yes badgers are part of the problem, I agree, but it is the farming community, through the NFU and through individual farmers, who have been most insistent on badger-culling almost to the exclusion of anything else.

If we killed all the badgers in infected counties, that would be tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of badgers, I believe we would see the incidence of bovine TB fall.  It would fall, but it wouldn’t disappear, and my understanding is that it wouldn’t fall very much.  So badger culling probably isn’t the whole answer.  So what is?

Much better testing of cattle, to remove false positives (thinking a cow has TB when she doesn’t) and false negatives (thinking a cow is clean when she is infected) is essential.  Reducing movements of cattle from infected to clean areas is important – all the more so when the accuracy of testing is poor.  And better biosecurity so that badgers and cattle don’t mix as freely (which might be as simple as better gates and fences) is also important.

But, if we did all that would the incidence of bovine TB fall – I think it would?  Would it fall very quickly and dramatically – it just might but I’m not an expert and I’m not promising anything?  Might it be that if we did all that there would still be a problem and by now badgers would be a bigger proportion of that problem – I think they might be?

The long term solution to all this does seem to be vaccination.  Vaccination of badgers and vaccination of cattle.  Neither is easy, and neither is cheap – but then we aren’t in any easy place now and it certainly isn’t a cheap one either.

One of the arguments always advanced against vaccination of cattle is that the EU won’t let us – apparently, if you are prepared to believe Brian May and the Daily Mail, they will.

Government needs to heed the science and come up with a solution to bovine TB that will work.  It won’t be cheap and it won’t be cheerful – there is plenty of pain ahead. However, I for one, would stomach some badger-culling if it were a necessary part of a well worked out solution to bovine TB.  I am not yet convinced that badger culling will be necessary.

Some things to read if you want more on bovine TB and badgers:

Some important but heavy science

And something much lighter.

30 scientists call the badger cull ‘a costly distraction’

Interesting views of more scientists

Good Guardian coverage

Scientist who led 10-year cull study blames cattle movements


Five years on…

By Kositoes (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

On the evening of 24 October 2007 I was on the train to London and received a phone call from one of my staff.  He told me that he had received a report from a Natural England staff member who had just seen two hen harriers shot out of the air on or near the Sandringham Estate.

Chapter 11 of Fighting for Birds gives a fuller account of what was said and written about whatever happened that evening.

My remaining view is that I believe that someone shot two hen harriers five years ago but I really don’t know who that was.

I often think of the ‘Sandringham harrier affair’ – whenever I drive through that part of Norfolk, whenever I see a hen harrier and sometimes it just pops into my head.  But I was reminded of it in the ‘police are plebs’ affair a few weeks ago.  Basically we are expected to believe the Chief Whip when he doesn’t quite say that he didn’t say what he was said to have said because – why, because he’s an ‘important’ man.  As was said in that case, it slightly beggars belief that the policemen involved would be standing around Downing Street thinking up ways to try to get a government whip into trouble.  Maybe they misheard – but maybe they didn’t.

And similarly, it beggars belief that a Natural England employee, and, as I understand it, other witnesses, would make up a story of two hen harriers being gunned down.  Why, just for one thing, decide that two birds rather than one was shot?

As far as I’m concerned, the Sandringham harrier affair remains a ‘whodunnit?’ not a ‘didn’t do it’ – but I might be wrong.


Flocking to Snettisham

By Ewa Dryjanska (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Last Friday I was up early, even for me, so as to be at Snettisham RSPB nature reserve by 0730 to see one of the UK’s finest wildlife spectacles.  And I wasn’t alone as the car park was almost full, even at this early hour.

There were around 200 of us wrapped up against the cold – which never arrived as it was a mild and completely wind-less morning – and with our binoculars, telescopes and cameras, heading to the sea wall and then along to the southern end of the pits to look out across the vastness of The Wash.  Looking west across The Wash the grey of the incoming tide merged with the grey of the sky.  The mudflats to our left were dotted with birds in some places – curlews, redshanks and the occasional grey plover – and crowded with birds in others – massed ranks of knot, oystercatcher and bar-tailed godwits.

This was a day of flocks.  There were a few desultory groups of starlings heading away from their night-time roosts but they weren’t going to be the stars of the show this morning; skeins of pink-footed geese moved inland from their roosts and called down to us as they travelled to feed on harvested sugar beet fields; birdwatchers milled around talking and chatting about the scene unfolding in front of them.

We knew, or at least we hoped we knew, what was about to happen.  As the tide moved left covering more and more of the mudflats the waders would be pushed into a smaller and smaller area and then eventually they would lift off in their thousands and fly over our heads to sit out the top of the tide on the banks and islands in the pits behind us.

The knots were to be the stars of the show.  A large flock, thousands strong, flew in from the right as their earlier roosting spot was inundated by the slow-moving but inexorable tide.  The flock was dense but strung out over a large area as the birds flew in a long stream in perfect coordination to join thousands more of their species on the mudflats.    Individually these are, at this time of year at least, grey birds.  Grey on top and grey underneath, and when they fly they show their grey wings with a grey wing-bar.  Maybe there were 50,000 shades of grey out there with a few black-and-white oystercatchers too.

By User Dbuehler on en.wikipedia [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

These knot have been breeding in the high Arctic of Greenland and Russia and some will stay with us all winter but most are heading south to places like the Banc d’Arguin in Mauritania.  It’s silly of me, but I wonder how those knot think of the mess of beach huts along the side of The Wash at Snettisham compared with the icy coast of Greenland or the sweltering heat of West Africa.  But maybe The Wash is one of their favourite places in the world.  The huge areas of mudflats are full of food for these migrants to feast upon – and that feeding is only interrupted by the tides covering up the feeding grounds.  Then for a few hours the waders need safe roosting places and we were waiting for the moment when those massed ranks of grey would switch from the mudflats to their high-tide roosts.

Watching the knot in the distance it looked impossible to fit any more into their dense flocks but that was nonsense as occasionally hundreds more would join the birds on the mudflats.  The rising waters ate up the mudflats and the flock moved, as one; thousands of individuals walking a few paces at a time looked like a solid grey sheet moving smoothly across the darker mud.

The knot were showmen.  They bided their time and we waited for the show.  Large flocks of oystercatchers were already pouring into the pits with occasional dunlin, redshank, barwits – and some knot mixed in with them too.  It was so still that the sound of wader calls and the beating of thousands of wings were the loudest noises.

The flock of birdwatchers was not as numerous as that of the knot.  We were 200 shades of mostly green (green wellies, green jackets, green jumpers) and I wondered whether we all looked the same to the knot.  An expert knot would have noticed, as he or she flew over us that there were all ages of birdwatcher from about four years to certainly into the seventies.  There were experts and beginners, expensive optics and some who had come without binoculars.  We were a bit of a straggly flock and I gathered that our flock had members from all over East Anglia (down to Essex and Cambridgeshire as well as Norfolk and Suffolk) but also from Northants (that was me), Gloucestershire and even north Wales. We had flocked here with different amounts of knowledge and different expectations of the morning but we were waiting for lift off.

And then the knot start to come in their numbers – right over our heads in their thousands and thousands.  As the masses lifted off from the mudflats we could hear their wings and see a grey cloud rise into the air.  For about ten minutes the air was full of waders – mostly knot.  There were many flocks, some of hundreds but some of thousands of birds in the air at once.  Some headed over our heads and straight from the mudflats into the shelter of the pits.  Even these birds did a bit of wheeling around as they swooped down into the pits and then rose and swirled before some more swooping and settling to roost.

Other flocks put on a fantastic show.  Some headed out over The Wash and banked and flashed dark and light, but mostly grey, in perfect coordination.  We didn’t know which way to look as there were flocks wheeling and performing behind us, in front, to the left and right and above our heads.  It was an amazing natural show and we ‘ooohed’ and ‘ahhhed’ as the birds performed as they have done for thousands of years at this stage on their cycle of tropics-Arctic migration.

Photo: Chris Gomersall

There were still waders on the mudflats and some gradually added their numbers to the birds in their crowded roost but the peak of the show was over now.  We talked with pleasure of how amazing it was and there were lots of smiles all round.  Our flock now became a rabble.  Some went to the hides to get a closer look at the roosting birds, some continued to look out at the mudflats, some thoughts began to turn to breakfast or maybe even getting back to work.

I took a quick look at the ranks of waders roosting on the bank of the pits.  There was a black mass of oystercatchers divided by a thin bright green strip of vegetation next to a grey track- except on closer looking, the grey track was the knot in their masses.

Heading back to the car park, my mind was full of flocks, although there had been a few individual highlights too.  A single bonxie had been sitting out on the water and a single swallow flew south which most people appeared to have missed.  And then there was the slightly odd sight of a single immature gannet flying inland towards Sandringham.  A single avocet looked ill and miserable near the edge of the mud.  And there was the young (ish) single lady from Essex whom I remembered seeing at RSPB events in the past who was having a birding break in Norfolk.

But the flocks were what the day was all about.

Your next chance to see this spectacle at dawn (when the geese fly out of their roosts) and with a suitably high tide is on 17 November at 0635 – it’ll be colder that day but the spectacle will fill you with a warm feeling.  I still have my warm feeling – knot!




A while ago the results of a poll on this website suggested that the RSPB should not change its name, but it was only a few hundred people and the reasons for not changing were varied and contradictory.

Then at the RSPB AGM there was a question about whether the RSPB was going to change its name where Mike Clarke’s answer was along the lines of ‘not at the moment but we wouldn’t rule anything out’.  That seems to me to be the right answer informed by the right thinking.

Now, it isn’t the name that matters most – it’s what the RSPB does and how well it does it and what it stands for – I think.  But once you have sorted all that out then you need a name that works.

In the current issue of BIRDS magazine (might that be SAVING NATURE magazine in a few years time?) Adrian Pitches interviews Mike Clarke about the RSPB’s  ‘Saving Nature’ strategy.  It’s well worth a read.

By Ilias81 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

But it is a bit confusing, I think.  The wording of this article isn’t very clear – at least to me.  It appears that the RSPB is adopting ‘a wider nature remit’ but ‘Nothing’s changing apart from our reference points’ and ‘birds remain at the forefront of what we do’.

The RSPB needs ‘to build a wider understanding of our work’ and ‘look beyond our traditional supporters and reach out for more public support, beyond the environmental sector to the business community. We need to influence them.’. Does that mean get into bed with Tesco or does it mean campaigning for businesses to do better – is it their money or their actions that the RSPB wants? It really isn’t clear.

Is the RSPB working to protect nature or environmental services or to give people a better life. Maybe it’s all of these but the phrase ‘We need to build a wider understanding of our work – that we want to make people’s quality of life better’ is pulled out in large letters.  That doesn’t sound quite the same as ‘Saving Nature’ to me, and the RSPB’s work with tropical rainforests and peatlands is ‘all about the carbon cycle: reducing emissions.’

The article is clear about whether the RSPB might ‘ditch the avocet logo, even change its name’ and the answer is that ‘these things are under consideration’.

I think that I am, perhaps, too keen on things being clear (and, yes, I know, I could be clearer myself at times).  It seems that the RSPB is still thinking about where it’s going, why and with whom and that is obviously fine.  I’ll almost certainly be going with it whatever is the answer.

What seems to emerge is that the RSPB is moving (has moved?) to an all-nature ticket but doesn’t want anyone to think that it has forgotten birds.  It’s still going to do the whole range of conservation actions from practical conservation work to campaigning, and it’s still going to strive to increase the proportion of its money spent abroad on international conservation action.

If that’s what is happening then I am, as a member, very pleased. If you are an RSPB member is that how you understand pages 6 and 7 in the current BIRDS magazine? And are you happy too?



Guest Blog – One year on – Jennifer Avery

Jennifer Avery has recently worked for the RSPB in northwest England and will soon start work for the RSPB in southwest England.  She has been blogging for a year and this blog appeared on her blog in late September. Follow Jennifer on Twitter as @jennifercavery.

I’ve always loved wildlife and I was lucky enough to grow up in a pretty green-minded family but I can pinpoint the exact moment when I really “got” environmentalism. It was after a family visit to the RSPB Titchwell reserve in Norfolk when I was 17 and I’d picked up Your Step-By-Step Guide To Climate Bliss, a very small book about climate change produced by the icount group. There were loads of easy ways to lower your carbon footprint (grabbing a jumper rather than turning on the heating, cooking with the lid on and even sharing a shower!) and also a campaigning ask, to send off the back cover which was a postcard to the then Prime Minister Tony Blair asking him to stop climate change by creating a new law. It was the first time I realised that I could actually do something to affect this thing “climate change” that was on the news and in science lessons and there were so many easy things that you could do to make the world better. The book was short, simple and entertaining and within minutes of buying it I was hooked, and by the end of the two hour journey home I was planning a petition signing at my local market the next week.

Since then I’ve been lucky enough to get involved in many, many different projects. I’ve remade paths after floods on nature reserves, I’ve sorted post in campaigns offices, I was even lucky enough to be the RSPB representative for handing in that icount petition I signed, visiting the cabinet office and meeting Tony Blair. My MP got to know my name as I sent e-petitions to tell him about issues and ask what he would do to represent me, and I learnt how complicated environmental issues, laws and policies are, as well as how many little things we can do to help in our everyday lives.
But as with many new things as time goes by the momentum is lost and you do less and less. That’s one of the reasons I started this blog, a whole year ago now, as a way to motivate me to refocus on what impact my life is having, and how I can make a better, not worse, impact on the world. It’s definitely made me think more about green issues, and notice the world around me more. I’ve tried cleaning with vinegar, started getting a local, organic veg box, learnt all about cycling safety and taken a closer look at my local wildlife. It’s had an impact on friends and family too with comments about recent posts or suggestions for future blogs. I can’t believe it’s been a year since I started, but already I can see myself slipping out of habits and losing momentum again. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the problems facing the world and even easier to think that one small person can’t make a difference. But as the quote goes

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.

Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

and all I really needed was a injection of motivation again to lift my spirits and that’s just what I got this week from another green book. Advice from parents is often very good advice (sometimes grudgingly and annoyingly)  but it doesn’t often come in the form of print. Proudly reading my Dad’s new book  Fighting for Birds I enjoyed often-told family stories and hearing his thoughts on conservation issues but the Climate Chapter really hit home. Again I had a moment when I realised the only thing that will create a better future climate is us, doing something, and the only thing that’s stopping us (as a world population) is our own inaction. When I think about it like that I feel really excited about writing to my MP, MEPs and councillors, motivated to try new green ideas and guilt tripped into avoiding bad consumer choices.
So, fully motivated again, I’ve set myself a few new green challenges:
  • Have at least one veggie day a week. (The boyfriend’s joining in this one too)
  • Break the habit of driving to the local shop. It’s close enough to walk and I could do with the exercise!
  • Write to my MP regularly asking about green policies and issues. Because you can’t presume someone else will be explaining or highlighting them.
Let’s see how the next year goes!