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Bringing British wildlife to schoolchildren: badgers, foxes and 30 Days Wild

June is possibly my favourite month. Aside from being my birthday month (28 this year!), it also means 30 Days Wild — a celebration of British wildlife!

Every day for the last month, I’ve been taking on the Wildlife Trust’s challenge; to do something ‘wild’ each day in June. This has meant discovering some wonderful places; including WildlifeTrust‘s Tewin OrchardWoodland Trust‘s Heartwood Forest (Hertfordshire), Suffolk Wildlife Trust‘s Lackford Lakes and RSPB Minsmere Nature Reserve (Suffolk). I even had the honour of judging a photography competition at British Trust for Ornithology‘s Nunnery Lakes Reserve (Norfolk).

Having the chance to get outdoors, tackle any signs of the so-called ‘nature-deficit disorder‘ and photograph all manner of birds, bugs and butterflies (I’ve shared some of these findings here and on my Instagram feed), feels so good for the soul and does wonders for calming any stress or anxiety.

 

Badger watch at Tewin Orchard

I was also fortunate enough to attend my first ever badger watch at the start of June, at Tewin Orchard in Hertfordshire. Organised by my good friend Dominic Dyer, CEO of the Badger Trust, and lead by Christie Wood, Chair of the Herts & Middlesex Badger Group. What an amazing experience!

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I had never seen a live badger before, just a handful of dead creatures at the side of the road during my years of growing up in Norfolk; so to actually see badgers coming into full view, bouncing towards us and sniffing the ground, was such a treat.

I had no idea that badgers have very poor eyesight, and follow ‘scent lines‘ to find their way around. They make these lines using a scent gland under their tails, which produces a smelly liquid called musk. They then use their scent lines to locate regular feeding spots.

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During the course of the evening, we saw a total of 14 badgers (all at one time!), which were joined by a muntjac deer, 2 rabbits and 2 foxes; a timid vixen (pictured above) and a much more boisterous male. We even heard a owl hooting from nearby.

On the short drive home —  to top off such a special evening — I spotted a family of foxes feeding at the side of the road. A mother with 4 cubs! I really did feel like I’d turned into Snow White for the evening! See more of my badger watch photos at the bottom of this post.

 

East Harling Primary School assembly

It seemed a great and fitting opportunity then, in the same month, to be approached by East Harling Primary School in Norfolk and asked to give a British wildlife themed assembly.

Helping the children to think about their whole school topic: “Whose world is it anyway?“, I prepared a talk focussing on badgers and foxes specifically and enlisted the help of Badger Trust CEO and Born Free Policy Advisor Dominic Dyer to advice the children on how we can best take care of our native wildlife.

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Kate on Conservation giving an assembly about British wildlife at East Harling Primary School

Bringing the talk around to my role at National Geographic Kids magazine and my experience of blogging about wildlife and the environment, I discussed a few things I’d learnt about British wildlife.

I encouraged the children to think about the difference between native and non-native species, using grey squirrels and red squirrels as an example and we discussed the ways that grey squirrels compete with our native red squirrels. 

I asked the children whether they had seen animals in the wild, perhaps near their houses or in local woodland, and was happy to see almost all hands raised. The children listed blackbirds, pigeon and deer as creatures they had encountered, and a few had even seen foxes and hand full cited badgers. 

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We played an ‘identify the species’ game, where I read out a fact, and the children had to respond to pictures; raising their hand to the badger picture if they thought the fact was about a badger, or to the fox if they thought it was a fox fact.

  • About 90 years ago, this animal began to move into our cities. Despite often being thought of as a countryside animal, today around 150,000 of them can be found in cities such as London.  — fox
  • This animal’s babies are sometimes called kits — fox
  • This animal lives in an underground home called a ‘sett’ —badger
  •  This animals’ tail is about one third of its length — fox
  • This animal can eat over 200 earthworms in a single night  — badger
  • Traffic is a major threat to this animal, killing thousands every year. —both

I explained that sadly, 60% of foxes fall victim to road traffic collisions and 50,000 badgers are killed by cars every year – the most of any UK species. I showed them a couple of rescue stories from National Geographic Kids, about the care given to injured badgers and foxes, and how they were able to be released after being nursed back to health.

I told the children that this is why reporting any sightings of injured animals is so important, and that we also encourage readers to ask anyone they know who drives a car to slow down when driving on country roads — especially at night, as these animals are nocturnal – meaning they’re doing all their feeding and foraging at nighttime.

Slower speeds on the road means these animals are more safe, and if they do get injured, they stand a better chance at rescue and survival. 

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Dominic Dyer gives the children a chance to see and feel Boris the badger

Dominic elaborated further on this, with the help of ‘Boris the badger’ – a taxidermy badger who had himself suffered the fate of being killed by a car, years ago.

It seemed that Boris truly captured the children’s imaginations, and the buzz of excitement that came from have the chance to see and touch the figure of a real life badger was palpable.

It seemed that by the end of the morning, the children and teachers were completely on board with supporting British wildlife and National Badger Day (taking place on 6th October this year) and thinking about how they can help with raising awareness to make roads safer for badgers.

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Dominic’s exciting presentation on the work of Born Free Foundation, which encouraged the children to enjoy wildlife in the wild — through showing them the kinds of species that Born Free works with and the scenarios from which they must rescue and relocate suffering animals — was the perfect way to extend their morning’s learning by applying the “Whose world is it anyway?” topic to a wider, global viewpoint.

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I was delighted to receive after the assembly this wonderful fox drawing from Bellatrix Blades. What a fantastic confirmation that the children felt inspired by our wonderful British wildlife!

Many thanks to Dominic for his help with the assembly, and to Christie Wood for leading the badger watch. As promised, here are a few more shots from my amazing evening at Tewin Orchard to conclude a brilliant 30 Days Wild!

kate on conservation wildlife blog logo

Learn more about British wildlife

Want to hear more about badgers?

Want to learn more about foxes?

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The Great British Badger Debate

I have a confession to make. For all my pride in living in London, I’m really a countryside kid.

I don’t mean that I grew up grouse-shooting or fox-hunting — my background is nowhere near as privileged as that — but I’m countryside enough to have grown up in East Anglia, to have experienced getting stuck behind a tractor on pretty much every family drive we ever went on; to have seen muntjacs scampering through the woods on a regular basis in my childhood (usually dashing away from the dog that my nan and I would walk in Thetford Forest most weekends) and at least one of my brothers had a friend whose family ran a farm and would invite him to shoot birds of some description at one time or another.

There are plenty of fields full of cows and pigs where I grew up. We took school trips to a local farm and Harvest Festival was a big deal at school each Autumn.

Camping as a teenager

High school camping trip, as a teenager in Norfolk

At that level, the politics and welfare issues of it all fall away to whether or not the area you live in stinks of manure from the fields, or whether or not your school friend will let you feed polos to the horses when you go round there for tea. (Apparently that used to be a thing. I have no idea whether that’s still a thing. I’m not that countryside anymore.)

I suppose the plight of Britain’s badger has felt like a divisive one to delve into for me. Though I never announce it, and have certainly never mentioned it on this blog before, I haven’t eaten meat or dairy for a while now. Living in the City, it hasn’t been that hard to leave behind the immediate awareness of ‘school friends going without if their families weren’t making enough money from the farm’ to throwing myself entirely into supporting animal rights issues and decidedly detaching myself from the root cause of such appalling animal welfare conditions by changing my diet.

So I suppose I understood where author and anti-badger cull campaigner Dominic Dyer (whose background is in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food) was coming from when he told his audience at Waterstones book store in Cambridge on Thursday that he ‘is not anti-farmer’.

“I’m angry,” Dominic explained, “I wanted people to know I was angry. I’m not anti-farmer though — I didn’t want to just attack farming. I do point out that the farmers are the victims of this; the supermarket price wars [reducing the cost of milk], the movement of cattle after the foot and mouth outbreak, the spread of TB [bovine tuberculosis], etc.”

dom-and-charlie-moores

Dominic was discussing his book ‘Badgered to Death‘ in a talk with League Against Cruel Sports’ Vice-Chairman Charlie Moores. The book offers a great beginner’s guide to understanding the long history of this delicate and politically divisive subject (culling badgers as a solution to stop the spread of tuberculosis in cattle), delivered clearly, simply and passionately.

Personally, when reading his book; an in-depth exploration of the issues surrounding the spread of bovine TB and the subsequent persecution of Britain’s badgers, I found it increasingly difficult to sympathise with a campaign to slaughter (often inhumanely) Britain’s largest surviving wild carnivore, rather than vaccinate them. Especially when the evidence shows that over 95% of bovine TB infection spreads from cattle to cattle (not from badger to cattle!), and largely due to the intensity at which they are farmed (i.e. the high numbers making up the dairy herds, the limited space they are given, and the fact that they are kept indoors for longer periods of time).

Perhaps the most astonishing piece of take away information from Dominic’s book is that an annual TB testing system for cattle was put in place in Cardiff, supported by tighter movement and biosecurity controls, and a badger vaccination trial; and the result was that the number of cattle slaughtered for TB in Wales has fallen by 45% in the past five years! Today, 94% of cattle in Wales are TB-free!

I cannot understand why; when the solution is already rolled out in Wales, England doesn’t follow the same practice and stop the cull?

kate-badgered-to-death

Badgered to Death is a great introductory insight to the people, press and politics that come into play concerning Britain’s controversial culling of badgers. It feels like a complete and well-rounded view of the motivations behind the badger cull, and — as the author pointed out at the recent talk in Cambridge — it has been written as ‘a quick-moving, easy read; not a scientific journal’. An approach he says he took so that the book could be used to help those that support the anti-cull movement explain how they feel by sharing it with others and handing it over to MPs (apparently Theresa May has already been sent a copy).

The book also explores the media coverage given to the cull; and its significance and influence, as well as the role (or sometimes lack of) that non-governmental organisations (NGOs) play in fighting against the culture of culling.

While it is clearly written from a very personal stance (capturing the last three years of Dominic’s life, so he told the audience at Waterstones), this book takes care to point out the differences of position and previous conflicts that might make the author uncomfortable, rather than simply omitting them. Including the public apology he issued to the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), which was one of the points discussed with Charlie Moores.

badger-talk

For all the years I lived in East Anglia, I never saw a badger. Not even a dead one at the side of the road. I visited the Natural History Museum earlier this month, and took a walk around their mammal collection to have a look at a badger — having had my curiosity piqued after reading Badgered to Death — and I couldn’t even find a stuffed specimen there. I have no idea how a badger scales up, or what shades are present in their fur; but for some reason I feel a natural affiliation to the creature.

It seems I am not alone. I recently entered a pub in Surrey to find the bar scattered with photographs of badgers and an East Surrey Badger Protection Society newsletter on every table. I asked around and discovered that the pub’s backing of the badger was a source of pride for the regulars. How utterly refreshing, that a pub wants to support animals!

surrey-badger-pics

I have a sneaky feeling that a certain supermarket’s Christmas advert, featuring British wildlife such as badgers, foxes and hedgehogs bouncing on a trampoline will also go some way in igniting a national pride in the badger. Well done John Lewis.

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But for all the celebration, as Chris Packham writes in the foreword of Badgered to Death: “For many reasons we had come to love the badger, to cherish and admire it, to protect and celebrate it and of course many still do. But the reputation of this essential member of the UK’s ecology has been targeted by a smear campaign which has been swallowed by the gullible and fuelled by those with vested interests. You see, in spite of all the science and all the truths that it outlines, the badger has become a scapegoat.”

waterstones-dom-dyer

At the badger talk I attended, Dominic pointed out that the badger’s story is a certainly a very British one. “Britain is quite unique. Nowhere else on earth would you get people going out into fields in the middle of the night to protect an animal you rarely see.”

I asked him how he hoped the book would contribute to the ‘great badger debate’. I want it to inspire normal people to do something was his reply. “We hear the words ‘civic society’ used a lot now. Whatever it is about, animal welfare of something completely different, I want to encourage people to speak out.”

Badgered to Death is available to buy on Amazon now, visit: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Badgered-Death-People-Politics-Badger-x/dp/0993040756

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We unite, we stand and fight!

In the age of information, where choice rules and diversity divides, finding and nurturing connections made over a mutual attitude towards a cause, is something worthy of a blog post – in my humble opinion.

I mentioned in a previous post that this year’s St Albans Film Festival was of particular interest to me, when I found not one, but two festival entries related to the Born Free Foundation.

we unite

The first was Elephant in the Room, a short documentary that I was already familiar with (though nonetheless excited to find entered – and shortlisted – in my local film festival!), but the real surprise of the event was a call to arms, emotionally-charged protest song and music video documenting Born Free patron, and legendary guitarist, Brian May’s fight against the badger cull.

“It’s a salute to the 7,000 participants in the march,” filmmaker Michael Dias tells me.

Michael not only shot and edited the video – a runner up in this year’s film festival – but he also penned the ‘We Unite‘ song; which is performed by his crowd-gathering musician father, Ricky Lopez.

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The success of Michael’s protest march video (produced and edited at Chiswell Studios) saw him go on to become Brian May’s official videographer for his Save Me charity, while his father, Ricky, joined Brian May on stage at renowned music and wildlife celebration ‘Wildlife Rocks‘ at Guildford Cathedral.

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Talking to the pair, it’s clear to see the Save Me projects have been a labour of love, and one that fuses their music passions with a desire to publicly support causes that move them.

“We saw the badger cull on TV and wanted to do something,” they explain.

Michael joined the Save the Badger protesters in central London on the 1st June 2013 with camera in hand.

“I’d looked on BrianMay.com and Save Me and noticed there were no videos, so I put some of the footage together in the studio and sent it over.”

The final video was not only retweeted by Queen and May’s official Twitter pages, but it also made its way onto May’s official website.

image

“I used the song from the badger cull animation that went viral in my first compilation reel,” Michael explains, “and he liked it a lot – so I offered to film more, free of charge, just to support the cause and raise awareness of what was going on concerning the controversial cull.”

From there, the idea for ‘We Unite‘ came into fruition.

I was lucky enough to hear a live performance of the song during my interview, and I can’t wait to see what the pair come up with next.

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…And for good measure — I couldn’t not put May’s viral ‘Save the Badger Badger Badger’ video on here somewhere (Note: it’s where the soundtrack to Chiswell Studios‘ first compilation of march footage came from). 

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Culling Complications

Starting my final year of university has been hard work. Now in week 6, I’m beginning to wonder just where my time back at Hertfordshire is disappearing to, and I’m certainly missing my exchange university in Australia.

Whilst the change in wildlife is obvious (Britain’s countrysides aren’t exactly as ‘wild’ as the bush and scrubland of Shamwari, or as unique as the marsupial-inhabited outbacks of Australia), but that doesn’t mean we don’t have as many animal and conservation related ‘issues’ as elsewhere though. In fact, our reoccurring conservation debates nearly always involve culling.

This isn’t because us Brits are blood-thristy, although one could easily come to that conclusion when looking back over the history of fox-hunting with dogs (which has been banned since 2004, and enforced from 2005). But no, this time around the culling in question is to reduce the number of cases of bovine TB. The animals deemed responsible for the rise? Badgers.

The badger cull currently in question was due to take place this winter, but was postponed until next June because the number of badgers ‘needed’ to be killed is much higher than originally estimated. This is because the early figures on the population number of badgers are shown to have greatly underestimated the number of the species.

Badgers are an important part of the Eco-system here, but numbers have grown to up to 81 badgers in a 100 ha area in some parts of the UK, and in correlation, the number of bovine TB cases had risen to 3,741 new cases in 2011.

I must admit that, due largely to their nocturnal nature I expect, I have never seen a badger in the wild myself.Those against the cull say that badgers are being made an easy scapegoat for disease in livestock.

I am intrigued as to whether all subspecies of badgers carry the diseases and how it affects the local Eco-systems in other areas. I wonder if there is a more humane way to deal with the cull? I’d like to know your thoughts.

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