Tag Archives: badgers

Trail camera footage from Cornwall

One of the first things I did when I arrived at the holiday cottage a few weeks ago was to make a tour of the garden, looking for signs of wildlife. The signs were promising.

Behind an old barn was an area of, what looks from the map to be old orchard gone wild. Running through it was an animal path. On and by the path were snuffle holes, and the remains of spring flowers with the bulbs bitten off and eaten. It looked badgery to me, so I set up my trail cam in the hope of catching some footage of them passing through.

For the first few days, when the camera was set to record only at night, I didn’t get many triggers at all. I changed the setting to 24 hours, to see if anything interesting was visiting during the day (we’d spotted deer across the field). I got plenty of triggers then. All of one particular creature, but sadly not the one I was hoping for…

I’m not the world’s biggest pheasant fan. They’re strikingly handsome, but incredibly stupid, inclined to forget they can fly when faced by a car. They’re a danger to reptiles, but heavily protected by the hunting estates that release millions each into the UK wild each year for rich people to shoot.

I still think the path looked badgery, and maybe badgers do use it sometimes, just not the week I happened to stay there. Pheasants are pretty omnivorous, so it may well have been them eating the bulbs. But I’m not sure they’d make such a distinct path (whereas badgers are creatures of habit, and will follow the same path even when the obstacle it skirts around has been removed). Do pheasants make paths? Or was I just unlucky to miss whatever did make the path?

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Pilgrimage to the River and the Wild Woods

I spent last week following in the (fictional) footsteps of my heroes: the Mole, the Rat, the Otter and the Badger. I suspect The Wind in the Willows is one of the reasons that, as a child, I first fell in love with wildlife. So imagine my excitement when I realised that the holiday cottage I’d booked was half a mile away from the river that (is said to have) inspired Kenneth Grahame’s classic.

I couldn’t resist spending some of my holiday re-reading The Wind in the Willows. I’d forgotten how lyrical some of the writing about the countryside was, and the strong thread of melancholy that runs through the book, behind the more boisterous adventures of Mr Toad.

The village of Lerryn nestles on a fork of the creek that joins up with the Fowey River. From the village to the next branch of the creek, the river is bound on both sides by woodland.

Lerryn (don't ignore the signs!)
Lerryn (don’t ignore the signs!)

The river itself doesn’t look very water vole-y: the daily inundation of salt water means there’s not a lot of plantlife in the water. But it’s definitely suitable for messing about in boats on, and there are some good hidden picnic spots along the river.

While the river isn’t very suitable for Ratty, it looked perfect for the Otter. I spent my walks along the river looking for confirmation of this hunch – spraint on stones or tree trunks sticking above the edge of the river, or pawprints in the mud. I didn’t find any signs, but it just felt like there must be otters using that stretch of river – it would be a waste not to.

Further inland there were signs of Badger. A well-used animal path even went through the garden of the cottage where we stayed, so I set up my trail camera – more on what footage I caught in a few days…

It was a beautiful place to spend some time, and, once winter is over I’m sure it would be wonderful for messing about in boats (I agree with Ratty on the subject of boats). While I didn’t have as many wildlife encounters as I was hoping for, it felt like there was plenty of wildlife around, hiding in the shadows. I’m sure I’ll be back.

 

Election focus: the badger cull

If you live in the UK you’ll have noticed the political parties have started jostling for position, ready for the general election in May. As much as it would be nice to avoid the murky world of politics, who we vote (or don’t vote) for will have a big impact on our environment, as well as society and the economy. So, over the coming months, I will examine the main parties’ policies on various issues that I think are important for nature.

Since it’s something that I’ve covered a bit here before, I thought I’d start with the badger cull. (As the badger cull is only being done in England, I’m only going to look at English parties for this issue). Both the Conservatives and Labour have announced the line they will take on the badger cull in their manifestos. But since other parties are likely to play an important role in the outcome, I’ve also contacted the Lib Dems, UKIP and Green Party for their position on this issue.

The Conservatives

Speaking to the National Farmers Union, Conservative Environment Secretary Liz Truss has announced that the Tories will roll out the cull to other areas of the country, if they are elected. “We will not let up, whatever complaints we get from protesters groups. We are in it for the long haul and we will not walk away.”

The Tories see the cull as a central part of their 25 year strategy to end bovine TB. They have promised farmers to roll the cull out to other areas with high levels of TB. This is despite the pilot culls failing to reach their targets for number of badgers killed, being expensive and being found to be inhumane. When the independent committee set up to monitor the cull reported unfavourably last year, the Tory-led government disbanded the committee and carried on the cull without independent scientific oversight.

The strategy does say that any culls should (eventually) be funded privately, although the government will consider providing transitional financial support. The strategy is decidedly luke-warm on badger vaccinations, which it says should be developed, implemented and financed privately.

Labour

On the other side of the House of Commons, Labour have announced that they will scrap the “ineffective and inhumane” culls, if they are elected. Instead, they will bring in stricter measures to limit transmission between cattle, and increase both badger and cattle vaccination.

Maria Eagle, the shadow environment secretary, said this week: “Labour has consistently said that to get bovine TB under control we need to bring in stricter cattle measures and prioritise badger and cattle vaccinations, but these culls are not the answer. It’s time the Tory-led government stopped ignoring the overwhelming evidence and got together with scientists, wildlife groups and farmers to develop an alternative strategy to get the problem of bovine TB under control.”

Liberal Democrats

The Liberal Democrats have been quieter on the issue in public. When I asked them for their position, a Lib Dem spokesperson said: “We need to maintain a consistent government strategy including developing science-led ways to control this terrible disease. Badger cull trials in Gloucestershire and Somerset will continue, alongside investment in a vaccine. But we would only support further culls if they are shown to be effective, humane and safe. The TB Eradication Strategy will be fully implemented, to make England TB free within 25 years, while maintaining a viable cattle sector.”

So, it seems like, regardless of whether they are effective, humane and safe, the pilots will continue. Further culls will have to pass this test.

Perhaps their quietness on the issue is because their policy is unlikely to please the National Farmers Union, who are keen for the culls to be rolled out more widely, and also unlikely to appease the campaigners who think the cull has been a costly failure.

The commitment to implement the TB Eradication Strategy is important to note, as this document says: “The Government considers that licensed badger culling, delivered effectively, is an important bTB control measure in areas with high and persistent levels of bTB in cattle epidemiologically linked to endemic TB infection in badgers.”

UKIP

When I asked UKIP for their position on the badger cull, their press office replied: “UKIP supports the trial culling of badgers for the control of Bovine TB, if veterinary opinion substantiates it.”

This is rather more nuanced than the Tory approach (which seems to be to continue the cull regardless of what anyone else thinks). The crucial “if veterinary opinion substantiates it” is interesting. So far the British Veterinary Association (BVA) have supported the culls. However, when data from the second year of the pilot culls was released back in December, the BVA expressed some reservations “The headline data continues to raise some concerns on humaneness and reveals a mixed a picture in terms of effectiveness”, and said that they needed more time to consider the data. Presumably, if the BVA came out against the pilot culls UKIP would also oppose them…

The Green Party

Like Labour, the Green Party have come out strongly against badger culling. They have repeatedly condemned the badger cull as cruel and unnecessary, and called for an immediate end to the killing. They say it is unethical and unscientific, pointing to the Independent Expert Panel report as evidence for this.

Caroline Allen, Green Party Animals Spokesperson and vet, said:  “It is unbelievable that this Government is continuing to fund animal suffering after the shambles of last year’s pilot culls and the news so far suggests that this year is just as bad. In the meantime Wales has been doing what we suggested: concentrating on cattle. The results in Wales are impressive, the number of cattle compulsorily slaughtered as a result of TB testing having fallen by more than 50% since 2009 without a single badger being killed.”

Conclusion

If you’re really keen on culling as many badgers as possible then the Tories are the party for you. If, on the other hand, you’d like to see an end to the pilot culls immediately, and no further roll-out, then vote for Labour or the Greens. The Lib Dems and UKIP both sit somewhere in the middle, although UKIP are probably slightly closer to the Labour and Greens on this issue than the Lib Dems are.

Of course, few people will vote based solely on a single issue. Over the coming weeks I’ll explore where the parties stand on other key environmental issues. Let me know if there’s any particular topic you’d like me to investigate.

 

Weasel words (or in praise of weasels)

Weasels have a bad press. Their name has come to mean some sly, sneaky and treacherous. Their most prominent depiction in popular fiction is (together with stoats) as a gang of vicious, mean ruffians, taking advantage of poor Mr Toad’s foolishness to take over Toad Hall.

With their pointy teeth and carnivorous diet, they are certainly fearsome predators, but I think their reputation is rather unfair. If they were bigger, perhaps people would respect them more. The larger members of the mustelid family (badgers and otters) are (generally) regarded with affection. Compare how they’re portrayed in The Wind in the Willows with the poor stoats and weasels. Yet otters are no gentler than weasels.

While weasels are pretty common in the UK, and active both day and night, people are largely unaware of them. I remember being amazed how small they are, the first time I saw one. In fact, a sub-type of the common weasel is the smallest carnivore on earth. The type we get here in the UK measures just 18cm (females) or 22cm (males) in length, and weighs just 70g (females) or 125g (males).

Despite their diminutive size, weasels are effective hunters. Their diet is largely made up of small rodents (voles and mice), but they can also dispatch rabbits. A weasel can run carrying prey that weighs half their own body weight. Pretty impressive.

Last weekend I attended a fascinating course on smaller mustelids, run by the Wildwood Trust. Before now I’ve not spent much time thinking about small mustelids. I was amazed by how little we know about stoats and weasels, which are both pretty common and widespread. This lack of knowledge may partly be down to their poor reputation. The difficulties of surveying them doesn’t help, either.

The limited data we do have suggests that, while they are common, their numbers have been declining in recent decades. They’re not a protected species, so can be trapped and killed by gamekeepers. Secondary poisoning from eating poisoned rats is also a problem, along with predation by cats, foxes and birds of prey. They’re also vulnerable to parasites. Starvation is probably the biggest cause of death for weasels, and they are very dependent on the population of small rodents.

At least now, with the advent of cheaper DNA tests and camera traps, we may be able to find out a bit more about them. I’d certainly love to learn more, as they’re fascinating creatures.

Top posts from 2014

As the year draws to a close, it’s a good chance to look back over what’s happened. I’ve been going through the stats to see which posts have had the most views (per month) in 2014. Here are the top 10:

10) 10 more Christmas present ideas for wildlife enthusiasts: It seems lots of people are looking for inspiration for Christmas presents. I just hope Dr C is among them!

9) Looking for harvest mice at an airport: my (ultimately unsuccessful) attempts to see micromys minutus in the unusual setting of Gatwick Airport.

8) Fascinating wildlife fact #11: sharks don’t have bones: a short but interesting glimpse into the anatomy of sharks.

7) On the trail of wild beavers: an account of an expedition to find traces of the first beavers living wild in the UK for hundred of years, and the campaign to keep them that way.

6) Hope for the River Otter beavers: An update on the saga of whether the beavers who were discovered living wild on the River Otter will be allowed to stay free, or rehomed to a zoo. No doubt there will be more posts about this topic next year, as there’s still no definite plans.

5) Kingfishers: Another post from the River Otter (3 in the top 10!). This time it’s some of my better attempts at photographing kingfishers. Still room for improvement, but I’m getting better at it!

4) How to tell who’s been nibbling your nuts: This post outlines how to tell the difference between a nut nibbled by a squirrel, woodmouse, bank vole or dormouse. It contains close up photos to help with identification.

3) Dormouse license! I’ve finally received my dormouse license. This post reflects on what this means, and  the journey to get this far…

2) 5 more recent posts that have made me think: This post links to 5 posts by other bloggers that have made me think. It includes reintroduction of large carnivores in the UK, the hunting act, hedgehogs, flooding, and Christian’s relationship with nature.

1) Plan to cull badger cubs shows the cull’s not about bovine TB: Like the River Otter beavers, the badger cull has been a saga with many twists and turns. This post discusses the recent announcement that the timing of the culls next year will be moved forward to when cubs are first emerging from the sets.

 

Plan to cull badger cubs shows the cull’s not about bovine TB

The Guardian reported this afternoon that next year’s badger cull will start earlier, in June or July, when badger cubs will be young and inexperienced. This means they will be easier to trap and kill than cubs later in the year. This will help the cullers achieve their target numbers of badgers killed, but will not help them reduce bovine TB.

For badger culling to reduce the incidence of bovine TB in cows, the scientific evidence shows that a large proportion of badgers need to be killed. So far, the cullers have missed their targets. On the face of it, starting earlier in the year, when cubs are easier to kill, may help them. But in reality it’s likely to have little impact on the spread of the disease for two reasons:

  1. Many cubs die in their first year anyway, so shooting them will have less effect on the badger population than killing the same number of older badgers.
  2. Cubs are less likely to be infected with TB than adults, so aren’t the badgers that are most likely to spread the disease to cattle.

This provides further evidence that the cull is not really about reducing bovine TB – at best it’s about looking like they’re trying to reduce bovine TB. I realise this makes me sound like one of the crazy conspiracy theorists that abound on the internet. But, as discussed in previous posts (The badger cull: an ‘evidence to policy’ perspective; Badgering pays off at last) the cull so far has shown no signs of meeting the conditions necessary to have an impact on the disease. To carry on with it in the face of evidence from the government’s own advisory panel saying it’s neither effective nor humane, hints at the politics behind the cull. To then introduce further measures that are likely to increase the numbers of badgers culled without reducing transmission is a very cynical ploy.

Bovine TB is a big problem. But it doesn’t justify an expensive, ineffective, inhumane cull that has already cost the tax payer millions, and has little chance of making a difference. The government and National Farmers Union need to look at other ways to tackle the problem, rather than ignore or distort the scientific evidence.

British Animal Challenge: September and October update

It’s been a while since I wrote the last British Animal Challenge update – back in the long, hot days of August. Now the clocks are about to change, and there’s been a lot of rain, so spending time outdoors is less attractive.

I had hoped to see some new bats and cetaceans in September. Sadly I wasn’t able to identify any new bats, and didn’t see any dolphins or whales. My second attempt at seeing water shrews was unsuccessful. But I did see a stoat.

As the Scots voted ‘no’ to independence, my list hasn’t reduced, but the Jersey Toad has been a small addition.

Other animals I have seen in September and October:

In November I’m hoping to see some harvest mice, and maybe some other small mammals.

Scrumping badgers?

My parents have recently moved from south Devon to the Lizard peninsula deep in Cornwall. While, as a patriotic Devonian, I was a little sad I’ll no longer be able to visit them in that beautiful part of the country, I’ve been quite excited by the possibilities of a new territory. I didn’t even wait for them to unpack before coming for a visit.

My first day there I had a quick recce of the garden, to see what wildlife signs I could spot. Apart from the Rookery, there weren’t obvious signs of anything exciting. But night transforms things, so I set up my camera trap in a promising spot, and, once it was dark, headed out with my bat detector. Once again I picked up a species I couldn’t identify, and some more pipistrelles.

While we were out bat detecting, Dr C heard a snuffling sound, and, expecting to see a hedgehog, turned his torch onto the front lawn. In fact, it was a badger.

I haven’t seen a badger for years, so it was very exciting. We were only a few metres away, but it didn’t seem too concerned, and finished its snuffling before disappearing up the road. This made my day.

The next night we got back late, driving past a badger on the road, then spotting another under the apple tree in the back garden. The night after, coming back from the village, we disturbed 3 badgers, who dashed off from under the apple tree.

Sadly, despite all the sightings, I haven’t managed to get a photo of them. I had packed light and not brought my flash with me, and while they did trigger my trail camera, the infrared seems to have broken, as all the clips are black. This is very frustrating, but at least I have had good views of them.

It seems like badgers are regular visitors at the moment. I am not sure what they are eating there, as there are no signs of them digging up the lawn for leatherjackets, and the ground was dry, so it can’t be earthworms. Are they scrumping the windfall apples?

Badgering pays off at last!

Good news – the government has finally decided to listen to the  evidence and put a stop to plans to roll out the badger cull.
The pilot culls in Somerset and Gloucestershire aimed to see:
  • if culling using free shooting could kill enough badgers 70%) to reduce bovine TB
  • if it was a humane way of killing badgers
  • if it was safe
My previous blog post on the evidence for and against the cull discusses this. Suffice it to say, the pilot culls failed miserably on the first two criteria. It’s only success was that no-one was hurt.
Despite the overwhelming evidence on the failure of the pilot culls, the high costs and widespread public and political opposition to them, it was by no means certain that the government would pull the plug on the idea of rolling them out. The National Farmers Union have continued to push for them. But we now know they won’t be expanded to new areas.
The government have also announced a programme of vaccinating badgers around the edges of areas with high levels of bovine TB.
Badger
It’s not all good news for badgers, though.  Culling of badgers in the pilot cull zones will be allowed to continue, with no monitoring.  This seems bizarre, given the pilots found that closely scrutinised free shooting was inhumane. Unmonitored killing is hardly likely to be more humane. Obviously that no longer matters…
The culls have, from the start, been more about politics than evidence. I have no doubt that the decision not to expand the cull is mainly due to the campaigns against it, rather than whether the cull was likely to reduce bovine TB. Well done to all who campaigned against the cull, and the activists who monitored the cull.