Post-Truth in Conservation: Reflections on 2016 and aims for 2017

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2016 in a nutshell (Image: Ron Bury)

Whatever you read or hear, the public consensus is that 2016 has been as warmly received as someone redecorating your wallpaper with cat faeces. Of course like all things in life, nothing’s clearly good or evil. On a personal level I had a rather good year, bar some dissertation stress in March/April and a bit of middling near the end, but overall it treated me well, and it’s not what I’m going to go on about here. This is, after all, a nature blog.

And as such, you could argue that nature conservation has been set off to an even more uncertain, divisive start to the new year than has been seen for a long time. The rise of the far-right, driven by the un-predicted victories of Breakfast and Dump (as I think we’ve all heard their venomous names often enough now), has created a world in which these previously blurred ‘your-side, their-side’ divisions are growing clearer.

Unsurprisingly, the conservation sector is not really considered part of the picture in the mainstream. But similar things are going on there. Directly, mistrust ranging from disregard to outright hatred of experts and scientists, fuelled by the new alt-right leaders, has set us off into the much discussed post-truth era, with among others things, climate change going straight to the centre of the dartboard. Wildlife conservation isn’t safe from this either. Continue reading

Scottish Beavers are here to stay – and we’re finally showing some ambition in UK conservation.

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Beaver on the River Otter, Devon (Image: Nick Upton)

“What’s this idea you’ve got then?” asked the CEO to his colleague. He raised his eyebrow intently – he’d heard on the grapevine his new assistant conservation director didn’t necessarily follow the rulebook, which was part of the reason they’d been hired in the first place.

 “Well, if we’re to really show some ambition,” said the new assistant director, trying their best to stamp out the nerves that threatened to crush the pitch, “to restore habitat in a way we couldn’t think was possible – and gain public awareness with a charismatic animal to boot – there’s some good research from the continent that suggests we should start seriously considering the reintroduction of the, uh, the reintroduction of the beaver.”

There was silence, followed by laughter, followed by words from the CEO as to how that should never be considered as a serious proposal. That it was make-believe, better suited to over-ambitious undergraduates who romanticise the reality of wildlife conservation. The stakeholders would be aghast, the funding wasn’t there, and anyway: not only was this animal extinct, but so was the Britain it lived in. The beaver would never be a native again.

Thirty years later, Scottish Natural Heritage declared the beaver was officially a native once again, and was here to stay. Continue reading

So long, and thanks for not caring – Extinction in the Modern Age

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Photo: Atlanta Zoo

This article was originally published on the website of The Falmouth Anchor, the student newspaper of University of Exeter Penryn Campus and Falmouth University. Read the original piece here.

Did you know an entire species went extinct just over a month ago? A perfect product of millions of years worth of evolutionary moulding via natural selection, now vanished to the abyss of non-existence never to be seen in the cosmos again? Something far more precious than any great temple or artwork for the simple fact it couldn’t be recreated, no matter how hard we tried?

To be honest, I didn’t until this week. And that’s speaking as a lifelong zoologist who generally has more interest in the affairs of the natural world than anything our species gets up to.

Ecnomiohyla rabborum (or Rabb’s fringe-limbed treefrog if you want to speak a mouthful in English), we hardly knew ye. Discovered by science in 2005, first described in 2007. At the same time the last one was heard calling in the wild, the entirety of the species was taken into captivity.

It was a safety measure in the face of its isolated distribution and the subsequent apocalyptic threat of chytrid fungus. This fast-spreading organism has already plummeted the numbers of other amphibians; sometimes wiping them out completely. Conservationists hoped this same fate wouldn’t befall the Rabbs, but they showed about as much sexual interest in each other as Celestine monks. By the time the last female of the species died at the hoped-for restoration population at Atlanta Zoo, their fate was sealed.

On the 26th September this year, the last male perished. And barely anyone seemed to know. Continue reading

State of Nature 2: Still not in a good state

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Look at that above image – isn’t it exciting? If you’re a conservation NGO in the UK, you’re more than likely to be under the State of Nature partnership. The popular kids like the RSPB and Wildlife Trusts rub shoulders with the niche but equally wonderful smaller groups such as the Conchological Society and Froglife. The international students, big hitters like WWF, ZSL and (the legacy of my own particular role model) Durrell contributing to the fight on our doorstep. Not to mention an organisation I sit on the leading committee for, the UK’S youth network A Focus on Nature, is sitting up there. As someone who’s only just started a Master’s and isn’t even working in conservation, that makes me feel rather giddy to know the work we’re doing is represented on such a stage.

It should be the dream team. Like a wildlife Avengers Assemble, the State of Nature network should be spearheading real, direct action to set up new policy and put in more effective practice. Under this umbrella unit, we should be seeing some clarity to Mark Avery’s ‘Tangled Bank’ of NGOs, where the huge array of organisations becomes as confusing to negotiate as the craft ale selection in a pretentious hipster bar.

Sadly, the State of Nature partnership has returned in a sequel that bares about as much optimism as ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ (nb: if for some reason you aren’t familiar with Star Wars, that means not good.) The State of Nature 2 report was launched today, and only 3 years after the first one. It all seems a bit soon, and might make one think we’ve had an apocalyptic decline of wildlife in that time (surely Brexit didn’t result in all our songbirds dying off as well?). Maybe not quite, but certainly in the last few decades. But then isn’t that what the one in 2013 said? And I definitely remember going to the launch of the ‘Response for Nature’ report last year too. Continue reading

Martian Cats & Living Pinecones: Saving Vietnam’s Pangolins & Carnivores

It’s nearly 3am, and the local crickets and cicadas are probably feeling rather put-off by the fact their regular chorus at this time – a continuous buzz and fizz like a convention of sewing machines and buzz saws gone haywire – is for once being overshadowed by the holler of humans up way past their bedtime. The porch lights at the gates of the centre illuminated a lazy gold-orange glow on proceedings, which was beginning to resemble something like a nature conservationist Dunkirk. The barks of requests for ID, water and a microchip bounce around the warm night air of the Forest, wooden crates lie scattered across the gravel where one by one they are hauled onto a battered old bus waiting in the gateway, and only two or three of the team of 15 or so people seem to stay fixed to one spot.

Though my body was used to being in deep sleep by now, the rush of the moment kept my mind as active as if I had received shots of espresso to my bloodstream. I went from crate to crate with a rapidly decreasing load of water in a plastic bottle, pouring it into cups hooked to the inside of the boxes, and then going back to crates waiting to be loaded to double-check they’d received water in the midst of the rush. Occasionally I’d find myself called over, and sent to delicately lift out the occupants of these boxes for one last health check. In between my hands, a football-like sphere of brown scales that could be mistaken for a giant seed-pod or other earthy product, until from the centre a naked, elongated, almost canine face and a pair of tiny stumpy feet ending in heavy curled claws unravels itself. Tonight, we’re giving 20 Sunda pangolins a second chance.

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A Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica) about to undergo a vet check.

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What is Rewilding, anyway? Why identity is stalling progress.

Rewilding – everyone with an interest in conservation is talking about it. Even those who aren’t particularly aware or invested in wildlife matters will at least have heard something along the lines of “they want to bring wolves back to Scotland” at some point in their lives.

Is this lynx the first thing that pops into your head when you hear the word ‘Rewilding’?

While many are aware of rewilding, actually defining it appears to be a complex puzzle few can solve. Generally, it’s thought to mean returning nature to a largely self-willed state, with the ‘missing links’ restored, and this is about as clear cut as you’ll get. Its meaning has been mashed, contradicted and redefined as much as the ecological landscape of Britain. Are we talking about reintroducing extinct species into forested landscapes with no human influence, or simply putting out some Dexter cattle to graze the reeds on the reserve rather than having volunteers cut it?

Finding the true meaning of rewilding is so difficult in fact, that it was the subject of an entire paper. Published a few months back in Current Biology, ‘Rewilding is the new Pandora’s Box in Conservation’ by David Nogués-Bravo et al [1] could be summed up with one word – ‘caution’. Confusion over how we define rewilding may have consequences beyond a simple etymological puzzle – it could affect the outcome of conservation projects, and have wider consequences if things are done incorrectly or oversimplified. Continue reading

Are Badgers over-protected?

IMG_5615“We asked some the other farms round here what to do about these badgers.” The estate keeper told me as I secured the camera trap to a post, in a thick ‘Hampshire-hog’ accent. “But they just tell us to gas the setts, or shoot ‘em as they come out into the fields and dump the bodies on the road.” He paused to take a puff on his cigarette, smoke melding indistinctly with his condensed breath on this crisp January morning. “But we don’t want to work like that. I mean it’s illegal and all, but the badgers have got just as much right to be here as we have. Just gotta work round ‘em .”

That was just over three years ago, when I had been called out to assist in a badger problem at a local fishing estate back home. Each night, the animals had been visiting the picturesque front lawn of the house, and in their quest for caddis fly larvae, had created a scene that could quite comfortably win an Oscar for set-design of the Somme. Even I thought it was feral pigs or boar at first, until I noted the tell-tale kidney shaped prints among the destruction. So it was a surprisingly refreshing stay-of-execution to hear from the keeper, despite the trouble. He was one that some would describe as ‘true country folk’ (not that I am fond of the phrase) – worked on the land since his teens, fingers hardened and earthy from decades of practical jobs in all weathers, and certainly not a glad sufferer of fools. Yet he lacked one trait I have found extremely common in this demographic, which is the desire to kill badgers. Continue reading

Reintroduction Conundrum: Highs and lows of bringing back British beasts

I burrowed my hands through layers of straw and wood shavings in what was the most exciting game of lucky dip I’d ever played. The recipient of my hoped-for catch bubbled and gurgled, consistently and indifferently as it has for millennia, but right now I could almost imagine that the sound of it’s flow was bursting with expectation, like a child at Christmas, eager to receive that which had been lost from it.

Sure enough, my finger caught hold of what felt like a leathery shoelace, and without hesitation, I withdrew its proprietor with the same triumph (in fact, probably more triumph) of Arthur withdrawing the sword from the stone.

The first two water voles were extracted from their temporary lab-cage digs more or less immediately after each other. The third, like a student unwilling to graduate and face reality, made more of an effort to bury himself away from my liberating hand, but sure enough he too soon found himself sitting on the banks of the River Meon, gazing at his new chalk river home with the updated status of official wild animal.

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Water vole prior to release, using the tried and tested, perfect method of pringle tube transportation.

This was my first water vole release during the three days I spent assisting a reintroduction of these animals last month. Despite its more famous neighbours, the Itchen and Test, supporting nationally important and locally important populations of water voles respectively, the Meon had been sterilised of the rodent some years ago by mink. But following eradication programmes, three years ago it was considered safe to start bringing Ratty back to its banks.

This is crucial on so many ecological levels; water voles are the base of the food web for many predators of riparian ecosystems, which is why so many are released in one go (320 in this particular week), as only about 1 in 10 will survive the year (This does not go down well when they are told beforehand, lined up military style in their nice clean uniforms, that many of them will die. ‘But it’s for the survival of your species!’ Announces the general triumphantly, and they all give high-pitched cheers anyway.) And while there is currently little in the literature to affirm this, it seems likely that water voles are important ecosystem engineers through their burrowing and foraging activity. They’re the rabbits of our waterways, and we need them back. Continue reading

Welfare not Warfare: The core reasons behind the fox hunting ban

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There are many reasons a new, all-tory government is bad news for wildlife and the environment; badger culls, land privatisation, fracking, and umpteen other reasons that trickle off the priority of ‘protecting(sic) hunting, shooting and fishing for all the benefits to individuals, the environment and the rural economy that these activities bring’ that this government considers essential in this department. It would demand a series of blogs, or a new blog entirely to cover it any justifiable depth.

But one clear elephant in the room that has been looming uglily for the last five years, and is now likely to be set loose without the staying hand of the Lib Dems, is the repeal of the fox hunting ban. Cameron has not hidden his disdain for the ban – “I have always been a strong supporter of country sports. It is my firm belief that people should have the freedom to hunt, so I share the frustration that many people feel about the Hunting Act and the way it was brought in by the last government”. While any repeal will be granted through free vote, and there are still a significant majority in favour of the ban, the possibility that this out-dated blood sport will return to hunting foxes rather than scent-trails in our countryside is by no means out of the picture, especially when one considers the influence its supporters maintain.

Whatever the outcome, the debate between ‘pros and antis’ is set to become increasingly virulent over the next few years. In this blog, I’ll be positing frequently-spoken justifications by those in support of the ‘sport’ – and in reply, the rebuttals of myself and I’m sure many others. Sentimentality and overly-emotive comments can dilute debate on both sides of the argument, so I’ve tried to be as evidence minded and ‘as it is’ with my views. I don’t expect most pro-hunt types to change their views whether they read this or I speak to them in person – but I do want to make clear that ultimately, any reasoning for fox hunting comes from the self-centred benefit to the individual, rather than being a holy bastion so desperately required in our countryside as is oft claimed.

“There are too many foxes, and they’re evil creatures – they killed all my chickens despite not eating them. They have to be controlled.”

 Yes, there are a lot of foxes. It’s estimated there may be between 256,000-260,000 of them in the UK (of which many are urban), and it’s likely that the extinction of large predators in Britain may well have lead to an effect of ‘mesopredator release’ as had been recorded in Sweden, in addition to the large number of rabbits in our countryside. However, outbreaks of mange do regularly keep populations in check.

Regardless, foxes can take large numbers of poultry, often killing all in one go. This may appear barbaric, but by applying such anthropomorphic tendencies to the fox, pro-hunts can apply just as much judgement-clouding sentimentality that they accuse antis of having. In reality, this ‘cacheing’ behaviour is common among carnivores wanting to ensure a larder of food is available to go back to – a much more energetically economical solution than constantly being on the hunt.

Is this enough reason to control foxes though? Indirectly, foxes probably provide £7 million annually to farmers through rabbit control. Yet this still provides little consolation to the farmer who’s just lost an entire chicken coop twice in a row – if all security defences have failed, ‘problem animals’ are present or the density of foxes in the area is high, then lethal control may be a suitable option. This is not reserved to farmers though, as conservationists trying to protect rare ground-nesting birds will also resolve to this in similar scenarios – NGOs such as the RSPB and WWT do not hide the fact they do this.

The key matter here though is welfare – if you have to kill a fox, do it stealthily, quickly and humanely. If this has to be done in the breeding season, then take out the cubs as well as the mother under the same circumstances so they do not starve – given the difficulty of this, it’s even better if you don’t kill mothers with cubs at all. Why fox hunting simply has no place here, regardless of how much of a problem foxes are, is chasing down an animal over a huge distance, exhausting them to the sound of horns and baying hounds, and finally ripping it limb from limb can never, ever be considered humane. You would not wish farm animals to suffer when their time comes at the abattoir, and foxes are no different.

 “But the dogs and horses love it. You’re just depriving them of a good life!”

 I’m sure the dogs do benefit from the thrill of the hunt. But does that mean the many dog owners across the UK with breeds originally bred for hunting are depriving their companions of such an important factor to their quality of life? Hounds may not get to rip something to shreds after a trail hunt, but if it’s all about the chase why is this so different?

And I’m not a rider so can’t judge for horses, but as a grazing herd animal that gets just as much benefit from a canter out in the country, you’re not going to convince me on that point.

 “But it’s tradition! You’ll just tear down the rural communities in ways you lefty urban Guardian readers can’t understand!”

 So was badger baiting round the back of the pub and public hanging in the square. I wouldn’t be surprised if many hunt supporters show disdain of bull fighting in Spain either. Whatever the case, we’re intelligent enough to realise that eradicating suffering should always be priority over preserving tradition. This is nothing to do with my political standing or where I live (which is in the countryside, funnily enough), it’s a matter of judging right from wrong.

 “You just don’t understand the ways of the countryside.”

 A highly offensive statement every time I hear it, as someone born and raised in it. A naturalist is as much country-folk as the farmer, the fisher, the gamekeeper or the B&B owner. The notion that in order to be ‘proper country folk’, you have to enjoy or at least positively support killing some of it’s inhabitants – largely those that don’t fit inside the ‘pretty’ model of songbirds, butterflies and the like – baffles me, and I think comes from an innate mindset of keeping the countryside a predominantly industrial landscape, as ‘manscaped’ as any urban area despite the disdain shown by many rural dwellers for such places. The countryside never required a band of red-coated persons on horses galloping after foxes to tear them to pieces.

“Well, it’s all about class at the end of the day, isn’t it. Bringing down those more well off than you.”

 No. I don’t give a damn if it’s the Prime Minister or a Bin-Man riding atop that horse. This is clearly, undeniably, about animal welfare, not class warfare.

 

The Devon Beavers: Brave New World?

Copyright David Plummer

Copyright David Plummer

Three weeks ago, a historic decision in UK conservation was made by Natural England. Having escaped or been released some years ago, the first family of wild English beavers Castor fiber since the species’ extirpation from our shores in the 16th century were allowed to remain swimming, gnawing and damming away to their hearts content on the River Otter in Devon, rather than being trapped by DEFRA’s equivalent of the child catcher from Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang and subjected to captivity (not that any of the zoos wanted them). In order not to starve the bureaucrats of some management and paperwork to let them pretend they were still in charge of things, this is all part of a five-year trial akin to the Scottish beaver trial (currently over and under review) after which they could theoretically be removed if they don’t ‘behave’.

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