Suffolk Mammal Conference brings top naturalists together
- Credit: Archant
Ipswich event explores challenges faced by wildlife
From the tiny pygmy shrew that weighs about the same as a 1p coin to the mighty red deer that can approach 200kg, and from pioneering polecat to the occasional wandering whale, Suffolk’s mammals may be diverse in character but they share a common right to be allowed to live their lives alongside their fellow mammalian county resident – us humans.
How they are doing so was explored in a major naturalists’ conference. And prominent county mammal champion Martin Hancock, who chaired part of the event, struck a chord with the delegates gathered at Wherstead Park, near Ipswich, with a passionate and eloquent address in which a key word was “harmony”.
The Suffolk Naturalists’ Society and the Suffolk Mammal Group’s joint event, sponsored by the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management, had been given the title “Of Mammals and Men – Challenges facing mammals today”. Some of Britain’s leading authorities on species and issues ranging from water voles to Brexit and deer to dormice – and even drones – gave presentations on the theme, with Mr Hancock providing a thought-provoking overview.
He cited situations where harmony existed between Man and our wild mammalian cousins – and situations where it patently does not.
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As competition for space and food increased, conflict between Man and mammals had the potential to increase, he said, and yet some solutions were easy.
As an example, the simple act of providing suitable holes in fences would allow urban hedgehogs their much-needed rights to roam, he said.
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He also had personal experience of a simple solution to the potential problem of maize crop depletion by badgers. Any such conflict was resolved by the provision of electric netting around the maize field – “with a little maize left out for the badgers, because they love it,” said Mr Hancock.
Mammalian predators played a “key role in regulating ecosystems” and yet sometimes suffered from persecution. He had recently learned that some anglers were demanding action against otters – predators they saw as the “aquatic equivalent of the urban fox” - and he asked if the polecat, now re-colonising Suffolk after local extermination through persecution, would soon be looked upon in the same way.
Mr Hancock was especially impassioned when he referred to badgers and the “emotive and politicised issue” of the highly contentious badger cull that is said by some to be necessary to stop the spread of bovine TB.
He acknowledged that TB was a “real problem” in some dairy cattle herds and some farmers had to quit dairy production as a result of it. But, he asked: “Is culling the appropriate action? Are we leading to the annihilation of the badger, which is our largest remaining carnivore in the UK and which was here long before humans?”
Last autumn, he said, 20,000 badgers had been culled, nearly half of which were “free-shot” despite the British Veterinary Association branding such a method of killing as “inhumane”. Culling inevitably led to the dispersal of badgers – moving away from a cull area was a natural response and “if a badger did have TB when it disappeared from an area then it takes it with it.”
None of the 20,000 culled badgers were tested for bovine TB. “I cannot see the sense in that,” said Mr Hancock. In 2016, 29,000 cattle were prematurely slaughtered after being tested for TB – “that is going to have an effect on the measurement of TB but that is never mentioned,” he added.
He found Defra’s bovine TB strategy “totally confusing” and said it currently appeared “ill-conceived and ineffective.”
Later in the conference, Mr Hancock made a forceful case for the importance of sound, evidence-based research and the value of meticulous recording of mammals, which could well have also applied to his views on badger culling.
“We need to understand mammal ecology. Data leads to information, information leads to knowledge and knowledge leads to wisdom – and that is something we all need to have in our hearts,” he said.