Monday, 31 October 2016

Rutting and Red Deer Conservation

It’s rutting season again! The stags are full of testosterone, chasing the ladies, and calling to warn other males of the unwelcome greeting they will receive if important antics are interfered with. Last week I had a fantastic afternoon watching the males, albeit from a very safe distance, with fascination over the tireless determination used to maintain their territories. Although not all males will successfully mate with a female this year, I am sure the herd will have no trouble this autumn and winter in surviving to produce young in the spring. Whilst the Red Deer are doing very well in Wollaton however, a little reading up on this species made it all too clear that the thriving and fruitful resilience of the our population is not uniform across the continent.
Red Deer are the most widespread large mammal across Europe, however recent genetic studies suggest a number lineages dating back to the last ice age that are both distinct from the Red Deer in other regions, and endangered.  During the peak of the last ice age, Red Deer populations became isolated whilst finding refuge from the cold and harsh conditions. Later, with the warming of the earth’s climate these isolated herds moved to different corners of the continent, creating the isolated lineages across Europe today. The Red Deer that seem so widespread across our continent are probably a number of separately divergent and evolved herds or even subspecies, unique to certain areas of Europe. It is really important to understand the extent of separate evolution between herds like these, as although the distinction between groups may seem trivial, it could have important consequences for conservation of the European Red Deer.
When two populations become isolated for a long enough time from a phenomena such as an ice age, they can evolve unique adaptations to their individual habitats. As two isolated populations may evolve separate adaptive traits through time, it could mean a hybrid between these two distinct and locally adapted populations would not be adapted to either habitat, but be a mish-mash of adaptations suited to the two different areas. When individuals move between populations, problems often arise that mean individuals such as the deer may suffer in the long run if hybrids become a frequent occurrence.
One isolated Red Deer lineage that is both endangered, and unique from any other populations across Europe is the Mesola Red Deer population from Italy. The Mesola population is not only small and suffering from a huge decline in genetic diversity, but is also the last Italian Red Deer population remaining since the retreat of the last ice age. Since monitoring of this population began, catastrophes and inbreeding through a lack of genetic diversity have been identified as important threats to the population’s survival. An option to reduce the risk of inbreeding is to introduce Red Deer from other populations into the Mesola population, to increase genetic diversity within the herd. As discussed before however, we need to be careful to try and maintain the locally adapted traits that make this population unique to any other Red Deer herd across the globe.
Whilst it seems I am approaching the thought of moving Red Deer between populations with some red hot and smoking barge pole, it has to be said that in European Red Deer conservation, translocations to date have been quite successful. In Croatia, two distinct populations have still been maintained with the help of translocations between populations to try and boost the genetic diversity within each herd. Without careful movement of the deer, the Croatian populations may have suffered from inbreeding and so an increase in susceptibility to disease through a lack of genetic diversity. It is still to be ironed out for sure if there will be any long term ecological consequences as a result of translocations, but at the moment things seem to be improved after these conservation efforts.

At the moment, new research is being undertaken to get a better understanding of the Red Deer species, and hopefully as a result we can continue to protect the distinct populations that remain across Europe. Whilst this exciting research is being undertaken on the continent however, we can still go out and enjoy trying to understand our native population thriving here. Whilst this is on a slightly different level to the population geneticists guiding conservation action in Italy, Croatia and Iberia, we can still enjoy investigating our own Red Deer all the same. If anything, I think knowing about the rich and interesting history of this species makes me appreciate the local animals’ company a little more than before.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Badgers, Bovine TB and Bad Scientific Practice

Bovine tuberculosis is a long term epidemic in the South West of England that spreads fear across cattle farmers as cattle are slaughtered in attempt to control spread of the disease. With the potential of transmission from badgers or cattle to humans the badger cull pilot scheme was launched in 2013 with the aim to reduce Bovine Tuberculosis in the British cattle herds. Since the cull however, people have found themselves stuck between articles stating the apparent success of the cull, whilst other groups are actively campaigning to stop the apparently useless and meaningless destruction of one of Britain’s most iconic species. It is a shame that given the importance of this disease and amount of conflict rising between the two parties however, that clashing beliefs are probably a result of governmental ignorance to scientific practice. Throughout the pilot cull so far, little attention has been paid to scientific evidence and because of it we are still non-the-wiser as to whether the cull could successfully help to eradicate tuberculosis or not.
The threat of bovine tuberculosis in Britain is real. Since 2008, 227,835 cattle have been slaughtered in England as a result of this disease, and at the moment protecting the cattle with a vaccine is not a legal, or viable option either. Approximately 28,500 cattle per year have to be killed after testing positive for the bovine tuberculosis disease, and shockingly many of these deaths will be the result of an inconclusive test, meaning healthy cattle are being destroyed. There is also no legal vaccine due to the interference that will follow with the test either, meaning options for freeing the country of bovine tuberculosis and this economic burden on the industry are far and few between.
After a background of scientific evidence gathered to understand the connection between badgers and bovine tuberculosis, the government sanctioned the culling of badgers in the South West of England in 2013. In Gloucestershire, Somerset and Dorset, farmers were appointed to control badger populations via both cage trapping, and free shooting. In 2016, the culling areas were then widened to seven locations in addition to these previously existing areas. The number of license holders for the disposing of badgers were later increased 2016. Culling in these new areas will be carried out over the next four years, so you would hope this expansion would be a result of the successful pilot culls surely!? Unfortunately, due to a series of irresponsible errors on the government’s part, the answer to that is no. The disorganisation that has surrounded the cull means that we don’t even know if the cull is or is not successful, and because of this, both sides of the badger cull debate are up in arms.
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Well-grounded evidence behind the cull states that the control of badger populations must follow an all or nothing approach. Heavily reducing the badger population size in our countryside would help reduce bovine tuberculosis. However, culling small numbers of badgers in patchy areas would be unlikely to have the desired effect. Whilst undisturbed badger clans remain relatively stationary so disease does not spread quickly, culling will disrupt this system. Badgers evading the cull or moving into land vacated by the cull will have a larger range that could increase the spread of the disease. To sum it up, not conducted carefully, the bovine tuberculosis problem could actually be exacerbated by the culling rather than solved.
As the badger cull was and still is such a controversial movement, it would make sense that pilot tests were conducted with precision, vigilance and careful monitoring to gain enough information to either support or neglect this as a form of disease control. Unfortunately from the moment culling targets were set, the project was not treated with nearly enough sincerity. Following Independent Expert advice, a target to reduce population size by 70% was set in the three areas for 2013. To achieve this, a range was calculated based on population estimates, to cull between 1876 and 2584 badgers. This meant that if the lower limit of 1876 badgers were killed, there would only be a 1/40 chance that 70% of the population would have been killed. Of course in attempt to cut corners the government took the 1/40 chance in order to “remain realistic” in meeting given targets, and set for 1876 badgers to be killed in these areas. Even before a single badger was shot, not enough effort was being made to ensure the highest probability of success for the badger cull.
 If it wasn’t enough that the cull used a target that was unlikely to sufficiently control the badger population, this target was then given little chance of being met or adhered to. Firstly, culling was carried out by the farmers themselves, making an extra job for workers who may not have the adequate free time to effectively undertake the badger control. It came to no surprise then that in 2013, only between 37-51% of badgers were culled in Somerset, and between 43-51% in Gloucestershire. Furthermore, in 2014, the government discarded the Independent Expert monitoring of population size methods that revealed the previous year’s failures, and left the farming marksmen to assess the population size. In 2014 no published estimates of population sizes were achieved. Lastly, as the final nail in the badger culling coffin, restrictions on maximum cull duration, cull area size and percentage of accessible land, previously considered “unduly inflexible”, were proposed for abandonment by the government, as apparently no longer fundamental guidelines to the cull. It is no wonder that the catastrophe was soon followed by an announcement declaring that “despite killing badgers, cattle slaughtered for TB continue to rise in and around the area.” (DEFRA). Anger has since boiled from both sides, where the cull was neither taken seriously, or responsibly enough to be worth it.
Whilst it seems that there is little hope for the cull, new pilot areas are being rolled out across the country in what seems to be half hearted attempt to address bovine Tuberculosis in Britain. To certain members of the public, this movement has not been conducted to help the cattle industry, but as a means of being seen to be doing. The culling could provide a reasonable means of badger control, just as it is currently conducted with other species like deer and other forms of wildlife. Given the unscientific way the piloting procedure has been conducted however, the success of the badger cull seems dubious if the current practice is not given a serious shake-up. If the cull continues to follow suit as it has in the past three years, we can’t only hope for failure of the cull, but expect that we will not know the effectiveness of the cull at all, and cannot help to guide future wildlife con

 I would like to give credit to the resources used to write this article, and I would please urge you to carry on reading to form your own opinion on the matter. Thank you for reading.

Monday, 3 October 2016

Summer Swallows!

So the summer has come to a close whether we like it or not, and with the end of the long and sunny days (sometimes!), comes an end to natures family making as well. The Swallows in particular have exploited any nooks and crannies available to nest their young. A local stables has a thriving Swallow population that comes back each summer from Africa, and this year I have been photographing the families, observing the behaviour, and intently tracking their progress as the chicks attempt to fledge the nests.

Any Swallow mother and father in these stables requires vigilance, determination, and a fierceness that will ward off the Magpies in the area looking for an easy snack. Swallow chicks are plentiful with tens of nests in these stables, and so these children provide a nice meal for any scavenger able to avoid the wrath of the swallow parents. Although the Magpie is well over twice the size of the swallows however, this proves rather difficult. The presence of a Magpie around a Swallow nest is made apparent to all, as the rippling and churring chatter of the Swallow parents changes into a sharp, shrill, and shaking screech. The doting parents immediately turn into bombers, swooping and gliding and diving on the Magpie. On one encounter a younger looking Magpie was found at the helpless and unyielding end of a Swallow attack, cowering as multiple parents joined in on protecting their chicks from the scavenger. There is no doubt that Magpies are fatal to any chick within its reach, but for the Magpie, getting so close may sometimes be all too difficult.

  If the Swallow parents are able to ward off predators, the sons and daughters will be ready to fledge the nest and clumsily explore the world outside the nest. One morning we came to the yard to be distracted by a number of siblings ready to fledge the nest. One brave individual had already ventured out of his nest, to nearly crash into us, before desperately clinging to walls, becoming entangled in a cloak of dusty cobwebs, and eventually fall onto a window ledge nearby. The parents would chatter away to their child, encouraging him and giving him every bit of available advice that may help him. Watching them fly as if learning to ride a bike that has recently had the stabilizers removed. Each flap would tilt the unstable body from one side to the other, as the fledgling would clumsily meander its way through the sky. It would not be long before the youngsters could carve their way through the sky like a knife through butter, but until then the fledglings would be very vulnerable to the Magpie who was searching for breakfast.

Should the fledglings make it this far in life, they could learn to soar through the skies, catch food, and communicate with extended family members before setting off on their treacherous voyage. The birds began to leave in early September, but this year’s fledglings have remained for around 3 weeks after their parents set off to Africa. The return journey will take about six weeks, and the final destination of the Swallow will depend on where in Europe they come from. It has been found that these birds are so good at reliably flying along a similar flight path each year from their first migration, unguided by the parents, because there are certain genes involved in determining where the bird will fly to. The Swallows will travel down through western France and eastern Spain from the UK into Morocco. The birds will then cross the Sahara desert and the Congo rainforest, finally reaching their home for the winter. Travelling 200 miles each day, let’s hope that the birds are currently well on their way to a good few months holiday in the sun.