The first was reporting on the huge decline in the number of British hedgehogs. These lovable creatures, favourites among children's cartoons and Green Cross Code adverts, are an integral part of our culture. But they have suffered a huge decline from their number of around 30 million in the 1950's to less than a million today. They are declining at a rapid rate and Micheala Strachen has warned that they could be extinct within 10 years. However, the treasure of British children's wildlife TV is over blowing the reality of the situation. But just because they wont be extinct within a decade doesn't mean nothing should be done. The habitat of these nocturnal foragers has become highly fragmented, making it difficult for them to search for food. Decreasing pockets of habitat are never good for a species, as smaller areas can support fewer individuals and if dispersal is difficult it can lead to reduced genetic diversity. Smaller populations are also more vulnerable to stochastic events that can lead to local extinctions. All-in-all, not great.
But hopefully a bit of publicity will do the hedgehog some good. People don't tend to like it when cute, charismatic species are doing badly. With this one on our door step, it should be easy to encourage people to make the minor alterations to their gardens, such as cutting small holes in fences, that can de-fragment their habitat. But hedgehogs might be the victim of the perceived dullness of British nature, and people caring more about animals in distant corners of the globe than declining species like starlings and cuckoos that live within our shores. I'm a victim of this, I went of to South Africa to study exotic species rather than any one of the plethora of our native fauna. In South Africa everyone wants to study their native species and are intensely interested in their conservation, they take pride in their local biodiversity. This is starting here in the UK, with the growth of programmes like Spring and Autumn Watch, but we need to do more to educate and engage.
The second story was about badgers...oh the poor badgers. I wont write too much as I have written stuff about badgers before (and sadly not much has changed!). The Times ran two stories, one about DEFRA ignoring the British Veterinary Associations calls to stop the cull because it's not been shown to be an effective or humane way of killing bagders (LINK £). The second was an opinion piece by the Deputy President of the National Farmers Union, Minette Batters (LINK £). Ms Batters' piece argues that culling badgers is the same as culling any other species of animal, but this misses the point. Deer are culled because they damage vegetation and prevent the growth of trees, by culling deer there are less of them and so less damage is caused. The number of deer killed is probably (I'm not an expert on deer ecology, so this is with pinch of salt) highly correlated to the amount of damage caused to vegetation. Badger are a completely different kettle of fish. They are culled to reduce the spread of bovine TB, and a very extensive, long-term and well carried out study looked into the effect of culling badgers on the spread of TB. If you cull but not to a high enough level then you actually make the spread of bTB worse. All of the evidence that has been gathered points to this course of action being one that will not achieve its aim. So the argument put forward doesn't work: one type of culling we know works and the other we know doesn't.
The argument made by people like the NFU's deputy president assumes that the opposition to the badger cull is an emotive, bunny hugging, tree-hugging hippie one. It's not. It's one based on the science and evidence. All the major scientists have said that it won't work and have huge problems with the way the cull is being evaluated (no longer independent and with marksmen collecting their own data). I just hope that someone, somewhere in DEFRA decides to look at the evidence, because this course of action could make the problem of TB in cattle worse.