Should we cull grey squirrels to save the native red?

Red squirrel

Under threat: ‘Red squirrels are one of nature’s cutest inventions. Delicate and inquisitive, I would love to have them in my garden.’ Photograph: Owen Humphreys/PA

What should we do about grey squirrels? Introduced from America in the late 19th century, the grey has made itself very much at home in Britain, with a population of around 2.5 million. The problem is that our native red squirrel suffers. And while the greys do out-compete them, the real worry is that the greys carry a disease – squirrel pox virus – that leaves the immigrants untouched but is lethal to the reds.

So what to do? The BBC reported this morning that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is planning to overhaul the advice it gives about grey squirrel control – and on the table is a legal obligation for landowners to cull. Is an attempt to eradicate this species from our shores the right solution?

I find myself conflicted. It seems that leaving grey squirrels alone will result in the population of reds diminishing even further. Red squirrels are one of nature’s cutest inventions. Delicate and inquisitive, watching them at garden bird feeders in Berlin was an utter delight. I would love to have them in my garden too.

Yet Defra’s policymakers seem to have a remarkably ropey grasp of science, if their actions on badgers, buzzards and bees are anything to go by. I worry about a response to wildlife management issues that seems to have been scripted by leader writers at the Daily Mail – so that when there is trouble we are directed to blame the illegal immigrants first before checking to see if there are any underlying societal problems.

Could individual landowners do more to undertake local control? Yes. There are areas where red squirrels are still in the ascendency. Some of these are islands – others are remote areas less affected by greys. Should the control be lethal? I believe, reluctantly, that until there is an alternative, the answer is yes. But this should be done specifically with the aim of protecting red squirrels.

Creating barriers to protect native species has been done with some success in New Zealand. There, one of the illegal aliens is the species I have studied for nearly 30 years, the hedgehog. And I have agreed in that case that killing is a legitimate form of control, as it is for mink in Britain.

As for the alternatives, there is talk of developing contraceptives for the greys, and there is a research programme looking at a squirrel pox vaccine that needs funding. Perhaps, if the real motivation is the protection of the reds, this should be reinstated. Though I wonder whether the call to cull, like the badger-madness, is more of reaction by entitled landowners wanting to go back to the way it was always done.

There is one possibility that is not being discussed, and that is to look to nature. If we were to provide our predators – pine martens, buzzards and goshawks– with proper protection, perhaps even encouragement, then squirrels would be controlled and biodiversity enhanced.

None of these alternatives would be a silver bullet – they need to be undertaken alongside habitat reclamation. While we wait, the islands need protecting.

Just stop and think about the reality if the grey-haters were to get their way and all hell and fury were unleashed on this alien rodent – what would be the result?

What non-human, wild mammal are we most likely to encounter in our daily lives? The grey squirrel. We cannot ignore the fact that they are now a part of our fauna – as are other introductions including rabbits and muntjac. We stop and watch them in the park. In many cities they are so bold as to be happy to take food from your hand. They give people – including children – an opportunity to get close to a genuinely wild mammal. This is important.

The biggest threat to the natural world is our lack of understanding – without understanding, without a connection, we simply cannot care deeply enough to make the changes needed to ensure wildlife and humanity can live together.

Article taken from: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/nov/28/cull-grey-squirrels-save-native-red

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RSPCA reports sharp spike in number of hedgehog rescues

Animal charity says that around double the usual number of hedgehogs are being brought in to be nurtured back to health
Some arrived when they were little bigger than a human thumb after becoming separated from their families, while others turned up bigger and beefier, but in desperate need of antibiotics for prickly little coughs. One creature had to be rushed in after a close encounter with a bonfire.

The animal charity the RSPCA is reporting a bumper year for hedgehog rescues with around double the usual number being brought in to be nurtured back to health before being released again into the wild.

“Nobody is sure why we have so many,” said Carol Noble, wildlife care assistant at the RSPCA’s West Hatch centre in Somerset as she carefully removed one of her charges from its bed of shredded newspaper for its daily weigh-in. “But they are certainly keeping us busy.”

Four rooms at the centre near Taunton are full of crates containing 60 snoozing, snuffling – and sometimes snapping – hogs.

A few hardier beasts are to be found in a pen outside as they acclimatise to the wind and rain before their re-release into the wild. Usually at this time of year there would be around 30 Mrs – and Mr – Tiggy-Winkles.

Noble said it might be that the reasonably mild and dry early autumn meant that hedgehogs produced extra litters. More hedgehogs mean by the law of averages that more little ones get lost. It might also simply be that interest in television programmes such as BBC Two’s Autumnwatch and awareness campaigns by organisations like the British Hedgehog Preservation Society mean that people are more tuned in to the animals. The glut of hedgehogs at West Hatch is generally being taken as a sign that it’s been a good year for the beloved mammal rather than a terrible one.

The smallest of the hedgehogs – or hoglets – need to be fed on the same sort of milk substitute that tiny kittens are given and have to be hand-fed every few hours. As they grow they are provided with little tubs full of wriggling mealworm, a powder made up of mashed-up beetles and other insects and cat and puppy food (meat, not fish).

Each hedgehog has its own detailed medical notes. The idea is to nurse them back to health and get them up to a good weight before they are released back into the wild, usually as close as possible to where they were found.

Often people who brought them in ask if they can be returned to them so they can set them free again.

The hedgehogs residing at West Hatch come from as far away as Cornwall, Hampshire, Bristol and south Wales. The hog who (just) survived a brush with a bonfire came all the way from north Devon.

Noble said he was accidentally thrown on the bonfire in a pile of leaves.

“They heard his screams and a young man dived in a grabbed him.” The rescuer suffered burns to his hands as well as singed hair and eyebrows.

The hog still has to be slathered in a cream that prevents infection around burns. “He was unlucky or lucky, depending on how you look at it,” said Noble. “But he’s doing well, he’s on the mend.”

Article taken from: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/nov/25/rspca-report-sharp-spike-number-of-hedgehog-rescues

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Paws for Thought: Do animals have emotions?

Happy dog with boy

‘Sit. Stay. Roll over. Tell me about your innermost feelings.’ Photograph: R Nelson/Getty Images/Flickr RM

In July 1932, a rhesus monkey at the recently opened Chester Zoo was seen by visitors gnawing at a length of rope. After tying one end to a branch, he made the other into a noose. He put it over his head and jumped, dying instantly.

“Monkey commits suicide!” screamed newspaper headlines, while pictures showed the animal hanging, looking horribly human. It sparked a heated debate over whether it was deliberate, whether the monkey was depressed and whether animals should be kept in captivity. Yet no one really had a clue about the monkey’s state of mind.

Nearly a century on, we still struggle to unravel the emotional lives of animals. Distress in animals can be easier to spot than happiness but rarely can there be a subject where popular views are so far removed from scientific understanding. Most pet-owners are convinced that when a cat purrs or dog wags its tail it is expressing joy. Surely it would be arrogant and anthropocentric to assume that humans are the only happy animals on the planet?

Most scientists and philosophers, however, are far more cautious. This scientific approach has been articulated by Marian Stamp Dawkins, professor of animal behaviour at Oxford University, who specialises in the study of chickens and farm animal welfare. Animal behaviourists such as Stamp Dawkins do not deny the existence of animal consciousness but say that theories about it cannot be tested in the real world. Only observable behaviour and physiology can be studied scientifically and yet Stamp Dawkins has complained about a “rising tide of anthropomorphism”.

We certainly project human motivations on to animals in clumsy and unscientific ways, as shown by the story of Anne, an extremely well-travelled fiftysomething with gammy legs who has been up the Eiffel Tower and along Blackpool Beach. Anne was the last circus elephant in England and two years ago she was taken from the circus after her owners were convicted of animal cruelty: video footage showed a groom beating her. Anne was taken in by Longleat Safari Park, but when the elderly elephant arrived she began destroying the trees in her enclosure. “The anti-animals-in-captivity campaigners would probably say that’s because of the trauma she experienced in the circus,” says Longleat’s head vet, Jonathan Cracknell. “But Anne’s not a demonic animal, she’s an elephant – she enjoys smashing stuff up because she can.”

We have no scientific understanding of whether Anne is happier freed from the circus, but Cracknell has a clue – he travels the world treating traumatised captive animals for charities including Free the Bears and International Animal Rescue. Anne is physically crippled and, unusually for an elephant, does not enjoy the company of her peers – which may be a product of past trauma. But, says Cracknell: “She’s relatively unfazed by anything and she has good days and bad days from a point of view of emotion and play. She can be a right cheeky chappie – you can see moments when she is totally enjoying being herself.”

Vets tend not to be sentimental, but Cracknell says a certain amount of empathy goes with the job. “If you don’t think animals have emotions and don’t have the ability to enjoy as well as suffer, then you’re not the person to help rescue bears,” he says. “When you’re working in zoos and rehabilitation centres, you get a gut feeling about the behaviours you’re seeing – play, antics, animals interacting maliciously but also sometimes just because they are enjoying themselves. We see mammals behaving as individuals all of the time. Even the small ones – and not just mammals.”

The thrill of being alive

Cracknell has watched crows sliding down snowy hillsides in Scotland and then returning to do it again. He can’t see the “evolutionary benefit” of such behaviour. “They are just enjoying themselves for the thrill of being alive.” Recently, at Longleat, a macaque started swimming: it wasn’t hot, there was no apparent benefit of food, territory or hierarchy. “There’s no advantage to that animal learning to swim but it has.” Is pleasure, or even happiness, the answer?

Charles Darwin wrote about animal consciousness in 1872 but for most of the 20th century we showed little inclination to scientifically explore the inner lives of animals. In recent decades, animal behaviourists have studied pain and suffering in animals but positive emotions, such as happiness, have been neglected. This is partly because negative emotions are easier to detect: fear generally produces observable behaviour while stress, for instance, can be measured through the stress hormone cortisol.

Today, however, there is a growing field of animal happiness studies, although scientists prefer the term “positive emotions”. Here, it appears easier to prove that an animal is experiencing pleasure than happiness if happiness is defined as three processes: a physiological response to certain stimuli, an expression of that emotion, and an ability to reflect upon that emotion. Studies show rats, for example, can achieve the first two processes but there is no evidence of the third.

A rat may be able to “laugh”, however, according to Jaak Panksepp, an American psychobiologist and neuroscientist, who discovered that when a rat is tickled it makes ultrasonic chirps, associated with positive ratty experiences such as finding food or sex. For Jonathan Balcombe, author of Pleasurable Kingdom: Animals and the Nature of Feeling Good, this work is proof that rats “are not just conscious, cognitive but socially adept and mirthful”. Balcombe will next year launch Animal Sentience, the first journal dedicated to the study of animal feelings.

He argues that “new technology is allowing scientists to probe aspects of animal lives that weren’t available decades ago”. Scientists have trained dogs to undergo MRI and fMRI scans. Hungarian researchers recently found that dog brains reacted similarly to human brains when exposed to voices and emotionally charged sounds, such as crying and laughter. A US study showed that the scent of a dog’s guardian is more appealing than other scents, lighting up more reward centres in the brain. “Pleasure,” explains Balcombe, “is nature’s way of encouraging ‘good’ behaviours like finding food, shelter and procreation, which are very useful from an evolutionary perspective.” He’s willing to take a step further than many scientists: “If an animal is playing or laughing, it suggests to me an animal who is more than experiencing pleasure but can be happy.”

Balcombe has been criticised by Stamp Dawkins for making untestable anthropomorphic claims and zoologist Jules Howard, author of Sex on Earth, says it remains virtually impossible to detect even an apparently simple sensation, such as whether animals experience pleasure when having sex. “How would you tell if a dolphin is enjoying sex? You can’t get it in a CT scanner and rub its erection,” says Howard. “Masturbation is an interesting behaviour. There’s no reason to do it unless it just feels a bit nice, but there’s not enough people studying that kind of thing.” Even when scanning brains to detect activity that may denote pleasure, we can only really say it is showing the “hallmarks of happiness”, cautions Howard. Nevertheless, he accepts the logic that it would be amazing if we were the only species who could be happy.

Goat apparently smiling
An optimistic goat. Possibly. Photograph: Alamy

In Britain, some intriguing work on positive emotions in animals is being undertaken by Alan McElligott and Elodie Briefer of Queen Mary’s University, working with goats in a sanctuary in Kent. They trained the animals to discriminate between a location where there was a reward and one where there was none: the goats turned left along a corridor to obtain apples and carrots but if they turned right there was never any food. When the goats were exposed to ambiguous locations – corridors leading ahead rather than left or right – the scientists discovered a surprising result. Female goats who had suffered physical abuse before they arrived at the sanctuary were quicker to explore these uncertain options, where no reward was guaranteed, than well cared-for goats. The abuse survivors were more “optimistic” and the scientists suggested this was because they were more resilient to stress. Balcombe thinks this optimistic demeanour demonstrates goats’ capacity for “happiness” but McElligott is not so happy with that term.

“It’s important for scientists working on this to be really robust and not anthropomorphic in speculating on the data,” says McElligott. “If you go down the anthropomorphic route you lose credibility. If scientists want to write about something, it should be backed up by data. There’s a lot that we can say robustly about animals. I don’t need to go further than our current knowledge.”

Wild animals are so difficult to study that the science of animal happiness only really applies to domesticated animals. Are they different from wild animals? Studies have shown that domestication enables animals such as dogs to better interpret information that is coming from humans. If animal emotions are a product of animals living with humans, have we taught animals to be happy? Are domesticated animals becoming more human? Such questions are a leap too far for scientists. “I would never say that they are becoming more human,” says McElligott. In fact, he says, despite 10,000 years of domestication, goats turn feral within a generation if released into the wild.

The implications of animal happiness studies are profound. If scientists can map out the complexity of animal emotional lives, it becomes harder to subject them to factory farming, or confinement not conducive towards their “happiness”. While some may suspect that animal emotions are not studied widely because so many industries will lose money if we must rear “happy” animals, McElligott argues there is no conflict between better animal welfare and productivity: research shows that emotionally content animals put on weight more quickly and are less likely to succumb to physical ailments.

Many of those working in the field of animal happiness are motivated by a belief that animals have rights and their studies have big implications for meat-eaters. “If you can enjoy life, then death is harmful because you’re having a life cut short,” argues Balcombe. “There is a huge disconnect between our growing understanding of animals and how we continue to treat them.”

Globally we are eating more meat but its consumption is declining in the US, and Balcombe hopes it will continue to do so as we become more aware of the inner lives of animals. “Maybe I’m the abused goat,” says Balcombe, “but I am very encouraged by some of the trends that are emerging now in the US. Ultimately I’d like to see us applying the sorts of principles of respect and compassion to animals that we generally apply to our fellow humans.”

Article taken from: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/nov/13/if-only-they-could-talk-?CMP=twt_gu

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Did You Know..?

Did You Know?

Newborn kangaroos are so improbably small that nineteenth- century British anatomist Sir Richard Owen concluded they appeared in the pouch as buds that broke off from their mother’s teats.



Move to ban wild circus in Scotland applauded

A global animal welfare charity has praised efforts by an MSP to ban wild animal circuses coming to Scotland.

MSP Kevin Stewart has been applauded by Animal Defenders International (ADI) for urging the Scottish Government to take action against a traveling circus which uses big cats.

The arrival of lions and tigers from a circus in England to Aberdeenshire – the first wild circus animals to be seen in the country for years – has caused controversy and led to a motion from the Aberdeen MSP.


ADI president Jan Creamer, who is currently leading a mission to rescue big cats and other wild animals from circuses in South America, said: “ADI applauds efforts by Kevin Stewart MSP to ban circuses from using wild animals in Scotland.

“Without action from government, the arrival of big cats in Aberdeenshire could be the first of many, making Scotland a destination for circus suffering that it has not been for years. We can’t let that happen.”

Earlier this year, the government opened a public consultation on the use of wild animals in circuses and Scottish nutritionist, presenter and author Gillian McKeith gave her support for ADI’s call for a ban.

McKeith commented on having seen wild animals in circuses when she was younger: “As I grew up I realised those few moments of entertainment came at a terrible price for the animals.

“Once I was aware of the suffering involved, I vowed never to take my children to a circus with wild animals.”

The results of the consultation have been delayed until the new year, prompting a warning from Jan Creamer that “Scotland risks being the destination for England’s wild animal acts.

“Less than two weeks later, the lions and tigers arrived in Aberdeenshire, prompting Mr Stewart’s motion.”

The big cats have been touring over the last year with one of the two circuses licensed to perform in England with wild animal acts and are set to spend the cold winter months in the north east.

Earlier this year, ADI revealed footage of the animals, which are owned and trained by Thomas Chipperfield and have been performing at Peter Jolly’s Circus, pacing up and down in their cages.

Article taken from: http://thirdforcenews.org.uk/environment-and-development/news/move-to-ban-wild-circus-in-scotland-applauded#svZT0c2PDGA89Xmv.99

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Changes to UK pet travel scheme from December

Changes to the pet travel scheme will be introduced from 29 December this year.

The pet travel scheme allows people to to take their pets (dogs, cats and ferrets) abroad and then return to the UK, or bring pets into the UK, without quarantine, as long as they meet the rules of the scheme.

photo 2

The changes are being introduced to give effect to a new European regulation and are designed to improve the security of the scheme and traceability of the pet passport. They will also help clamp down on abuse of the system.

The changes include:

  • a new minimum age of 12 weeks before a pet can be vaccinated against rabies
  • new pet passports will include laminated strips and a requirement for more contact details to be provided by the vet issuing the document and certifying the veterinary treatments
  • a new requirement for all member states in the EU to carry out checks on their borders (the UK already checks all pets coming into the country through approved routes)
  • a tighter definition of non-commercial movement which will mean owners who cannot travel with a pet when they enter the EU, must do so within 5 days; owners can still authorise another person to travel with their pet, but again the pet and authorised person must travel within 5 days of each other

All pets are still required to have a microchip which confirms the animal’s identity.

Existing passports will remain valid for the lifetime of the pet or until all treatment spaces have been filled on the document.

All pet passports issued by vets from 29 December 2014 will be in the new format.

A consultation was published earlier this year on how the changes to the scheme would be introduced. A summary of the responses received has now been published.

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