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Back to Environment Homepage

15 April 2003

Conservation and the Misuse of Science

Hedgehogs, Bats and Badgers

Dr James Irvine

FRSE, DSc, FInstBiol, FRCPath, FRCPEd

Teviot Scientific Consultancy, Edinburgh
Teviot Agriculture, Cultybraggan Farm, Comrie, Perthshire

(Filed 15 April 03)
www.land-care.org.uk

The manner in which Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) is handling the problem of the multiplying, egg-eating hedgehogs that threaten waders and other birds in North Uist (1, 2) raises serious concerns about how science is being applied by Government Departments or their agencies involved in conservation. These same concerns also pertain to the problems of bats transmitting rabies to man (3) and badgers transmitting tuberculosis to cattle (4).

 

Uist Hedgehogs and Waders

Protracted, expensive and inappropriately detailed research would appear to have taken over from common sense. Instead of constructively helping to solve such problems, the delays that occur before applying a predictable remedy have been highly damaging. Surely a better balance needs to be struck between ultimate political correctness and competent management.

The problem with hedgehogs in Uist was recognised as long ago as 1985 following the introduction of four of the creatures to the Uists by private individuals in 1974 to keep pests down in a garden. There were not any hedgehogs there before. It has long been known that hedgehogs eat birds’ eggs and that the numbers of hedgehogs on Uist was escalating, being essentially unchallenged in the presence of an abundant food supply. Experienced observers noted that bird numbers (including waders) were declining. Normal conservation practice would be to cull the hedgehogs before their numbers got seriously out of hand (5). There are now stated to be some 5000 hedgehogs in the Uists. But what did SNH do? They set about proving “categorically” that hedgehogs were to blame (2). That took them to the year 2000, according to the SNH spokeswoman quoted in the article by John Ross (2). This was followed by a three-year Uist Wader Project to look at ways of tackling the problem. In 2003 SNH decided that the hedgehogs needed to be culled (which must surely be no great surprise) and that there was no other acceptable way of doing it in their opinion other than by trapping them and administering a lethal injection. Others, while understanding the need to reduce the number of hedgehogs, wanted alternative methods to be available such as transferring them to the mainland. The matter was the subject of a Petition to the Scottish Parliament (6). To my knowledge the total cost of this eight-year SNH saga has so far not been made readily available to the public, but must be horrendous. But then SNH has over 700 staff (7) many of whom are sulking as they do not want to shift out of their multiple offices in Edinburgh to relocate in Inverness (8).

Gamekeepers have been keeping the balance between predators and prey for generations. In spite of the odium poured upon them by SNH and RSPB in the event of any indiscretion, it is the gamekeepers who have been the ones mainly responsible for the good state of much of Scotland’s wildlife. That their advice has been ignored by SNH is the subject of a further Petition to the Scottish Parliament with regard to birds of prey (9) that is currently ongoing. It could equally apply to Uist hedgehogs. Ian Mitchell’s letter (Scotsman April 15, 2003) admirably summarises the situation with the experience of Uist crofters on the one hand and the so-called ‘science’ of RSPB and SNH on the other (10). There is a lack of integration between crofters and conservationists.

 

Bats and Rabies

Writing in SNH’s magazine (11) on the subject of bats and rabies, the Director of SNH Scientific and Advisory Services, Professor Colin Galbraith, is at the same game. His article is reproduced in full HERE. The following comments are based on that article.

It is manifestly obvious that rabies-related virus (European Bat Lyssavirus) is in the Scottish bat population because a bat handler working under their own direction in Angus in Scotland died of rabies on 24th November 2003 in Ninewells Hospital, Dundee (3). That the virus came from a bat was unequivocally proven by typing the virus in the victim. It is an established fact, well known to SNH, that rabies-related virus has been present for at least some years in bats in Continental Europe (10), and indeed DEFRA issued a warning that rabies-related virus had been detected in Lancashire, England earlier in the year (12), but still SNH did not insist that their bat handlers must be vaccinated against rabies - a simple procedure with minimal complications recommended to travellers going to certain countries where rabies-infected bats are well recognised and are now the main cause of death from rabies in man (13, 14). To illustrate, a member of my staff who went earlier this year to work in Mexico as a VSO required, as standard practice, to be vaccinated for rabies before departure. Not so with SNH registered bat handlers when rabies was known to be in bats in neighbouring countries (including England and Northern Continental Europe) and it was known that bats can migrate or be transported such distances without too much difficulty (15, 16). It had to take a fatality to bring SNH to see commonsense.

SNH is disingenuous when it says anyone worried about bats and rabies should ring the bat helpline number, when they (SNH) are uncertain whether or not they can maintain what they refer to as the Bat Team (11). So just what advice is the Bat Helpline going to be able to provide to those who phone to express their understandable and well documented concerns when they have bats in their homes (17, 18). It is well known that under such circumstances bats may come into the bedrooms during the night where there may be young babies or elderly or sick persons in the house. SNH need not research the world literature much further than using GOOGLE on the Internet and find that the Center for Infectious Diseases has a wealth of information on the subject, including convincing evidence that persons can indeed be bitten by rabies-infected bats without knowing and with disastrous consequences (13, 14). Such a quick literature search would also lead them to an article on that very subject in the Lancet in 2001 (19).

It frankly does not require a three year study by SNH or anyone else to reveal the essence of the problem, the hazard involved and the need to urgently reduce the risk. The commonsense action would be to eradicate bats from homes. People come before bats, however rare any particular type of bat might be (18). According to the Bat Conservation Trust to refer to rabies-infected bats in people’s homes as vermin is to be “emotive” (20), but of course that is just what potentially rabies-infected bats are. The emergency arrangements for protecting persons from potentially rabies-infected bats can subsequently be adjusted in the unlikely event that the findings of further research turn out to be sufficiently reassuring.

The following statement was on the Bat Conservation Trust (BCT) website in November 2002 (21), but seemingly has since been withdrawn:

“The treatment of people bitten by bats infected with EBL 1 and 2 in the UK and Europe has been completely effective. For example, 180 people bitten by EBL bats in the Netherlands have been treated with 100% success over the past two decades.”

www.bats.org.uk (20th November 2002)

It is not surprising that the BCT withdrew this information. Not that its validity is in doubt, but it does spell out that in neighbouring Netherlands plenty of people were being bitten by EBL-infected bats such as to cause major concern. Apparently they all knew they had been bitten and so they all presented as such for vaccination, and the statistic was derived accordingly. Those that did not know they had been bitten (21), and the bat happened to be carrying EBL, would be likely to present with bizarre symptoms many months afterwards which are notoriously difficult to diagnose clinically - the attendant physicians may not even consider rabies in the differential diagnosis (13). The statistic such persons would contribute to is death from a neurological cause that was obscure and somewhat empirically labelled as best guess.

SNH with its narrowly focused dedication to conservation and biodiversity is unlikely to give objective unbiased advice to the Department of Health regarding any species they feel may be endangered, or at possible risk of becoming endangered. Under present legislation bats of any type cannot be killed or their roosts disturbed unless under very special circumstances. Some types of bats in Scotland are not under any risk of being endangered (22). Those persons who are unfortunate enough to have bats in their houses, and invading their living quarters, just have to make adjustments to live with the bats - that is what the helpline will say. The so-called Bat Team will not remove the bats, even when their members are appropriately vaccinated. It is possible that SNH may use the opportunity of the distressed person’s call to further their own research project. In his article Professor Galbraith makes no reference whatever to bats in peoples houses, especially where vulnerable persons sleep. It is not good enough to simply say “do not handle bats”.

With regard to “developing in detail field methodology for sampling bats” (9), are we to believe, with rabies-related infection in bats being so well known in many countries, that such technology does not already exist? Is it a matter of reinventing the wheel? Why should the technology be any different for Scottish bats compared to any others? Have we not suffered enough in other areas from organisations insisting on validation of methodology that has been available for years but over which pedants with other vested interests cannot agree - e,g, diagnostic tests used in the management of Foot and Mouth Disease in livestock (23).

A review of the literature taking perhaps a morning spent on the Internet, and perhaps another in one or more of Edinburgh’s excellent reference libraries, will reveal that others have found that in their countries there is no evidence that the rabies related virus has a predisposition for any particular species of bat, and that the incidence of rabies in bats can change quite quickly from time to time with a marked tendency in the Americas for it to be increasing alarmingly (11, 16). Diseased bats may behave more aggressively than healthy bats.

Certainly lets have the Scottish situation kept under continuous review, but let’s not wait (a further three years in the first instance according to SNH) for this review to be completed before taking action to protect ourselves through adjusting the bat conservation laws.

What should be happening is that conservation orders regarding bats that can or might gain access to living quarters of humans should be rescinded, until such time as SNH or others have done their research and shown that there is no risk of transmission of rabies to man under such circumstances. Commonsense in the light of present knowledge tells us that no matter how long they extend their research projects they will not be able to achieve such an assurance. What would bring SNH to its senses would be another fatality - this time perhaps a baby unknowingly bitten during sleep by a bat carrying rabies-related virus. It is an event waiting to happen. When it does it will not only be tragic for the family, but would have devastating consequences for SNH on account of their negligence through poor advice to the public (24) and other Government Departments. They would face the charge of putting their obsession with conservation and biodiversity before the welfare of people.

 

Tuberculous Badgers

The same problem of prolonged procrastination on the grounds of scientific “correctness” is manifest with regard to tuberculosis in badgers, contributing as they surely do to the marked rise in the incidence of tuberculosis in cattle. There are conservation orders on badgers (25), as there are with bats.

As long ago as 1980 Lord Zuckerman was commissioned by the Government of the day to write a report on the problem. He did so with exemplary efficiency, professionalism and promptness (26, 27). He recommended that, along with other measures, sets of tuberculous infected badgers should be culled. This amounted to good commonsense. Instead, increased legislation, achieved by lobby groups interested in the conservation of badgers, succeeded in extending badger conservation orders (25).

The subject was revisited by Professor Krebs in 1997 (28) on account of the fact that the problem was getting worse. He stated that in all probability badgers were contributing to the problem of the increasing incidence of TB in cattle and the risk of its spreading to man. He recommended a cull of TB infected badgers, but said that he did not have absolute proof that badgers were involved in the causation trail.

That resulted in the Independent Scientific Review Group on Cattle TB (ISG) being set up in 1998 which still has not finally reported (29). While esoteric trials (in which few people have confidence) are conducted, the problem of TB in cattle has now reached very serious levels (30) with great economic consequences. There is also a risk to human health in the form of bovine tuberculosis, that was previously almost eradicated in the UK. Commonsense that was articulated so well in 1980, and again in 1997, still has not been allowed to operate (31). The costs to the taxpayer are horrendous. There can be little doubt that the culling of sets of tuberculous badgers will eventually have to happen, but the endless delays will have made the problem much worse than it need have been - as with hedgehogs, as with bats.

When New Zealand observed a rise in TB in its cattle, it found that possums were carrying TB and were thought to be a reservoir of infection - just like the badgers in the UK. It appeared probable that the possums were at least partly responsible for the problem. There was no endless prevarication as in the UK. The infected possums were culled. That measure, along with others implemented at the same time, sorted the problem of TB in their cattle (26). Cattle are important to the economy of New Zealand. They are also important to the economy of the UK, and in particular Scotland. Scotland’s economy is presently in dire straits (32, 33). It can ill afford to endlessly prevaricate over what to do with TB infected badgers.

 

Conclusion

Whether it be hedgehogs, bats or badgers it would appear that SNH and others are happy to”fiddle” at taxpayers expense “while Rome burns” in terms of damage to human and animal health and to the economy. It is time that a stop was put to this form of self-indulgent and extravagant pseudo science.

Dr James Irvine FRSE
© Teviot Scientific Consultancy

 

References

1. Mitchell, Ian (2003). Hedgehog Problem is not new. The Scotsman, 11 April 2003.
(Filed 11 April 2003, www.land-care.org.uk, click here to view).

2. Ross, John (2003). New doubts raised on cull of hedgehogs. The Scotsman, 12th April 2003.
(Filed 14 April 2003, www.land-care.org.uk, click here to view).

3. Irvine, James (2002). Bats and Rabies, No. 1. First Death from Rabies in the UK for 100 years.
(Filed 12 December 2002, www.land-care.org.uk, click here to view).

4. Badgers and TB in Cattle: the view of a dairy farmer.
(Filed 27 February 2003, www.land-care.org.uk, click here to view).

5. Gamekeepers’ Association Official Joins Growing Row over Hedgehogs. Oban Times, 9th January 2003.
(Filed 13 January 2003, www.land-care.org.uk, click here to view).

6. Land-Care Editorial (2003). SNH told to think again. This time about hedgehogs
(Filed 29 January 2003, www.land-care.org.uk, click here to view).

7. Scottish Natural Heritage Annual Report 2001/2002.
Link: http://www.snh.org.uk/pdfs/publics/1853973335.pdf

8. SNH’s New Hielan’ Hame. Quango moves out of Edinburgh 'to get closer to its Customers'.
Fresh Air http://www.ileach.co.uk/freshair/two.html
(Reproduced with permission on Land-Care, click here to view).

9. Land-Care Editorial (2003). Scottish Gamekeepers Association Petition to Scottish Parliament. The Impact of Predatory Birds, January 2002.
(Filed 25 March 2003, www.land-care.org.uk, click here to view).

10. Mitchell, Ian (2003). Crofters ignored. Letters Scotsman April 15, 2003
(filed 15th April 2003, www.land-care.org.uk, click here to view).

11. Galbraith, Colin A. (2003). Bats and Rabies. Scotland’s Natural Heritage Magazine Issue 22 Spring 2003, page 5.
(Filed 15 April 2003, www.land-care.org.uk, click here to view).

12. DEFRA News Release. Confirmed case of bat rabies in Lancashire. 1st October 2002.
(http://www.defra.gov.uk/news/2002/021001d.htm).

13. National Center for Infectious Diseases, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (USA) (2001). Bats and Rabies. (http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dvrd/rabies/bats_&_rabies/bats&.htm).

14. Twelve Common Questions About Human Rabies and Its Prevention. National Center for Infectious Diseases. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (USA) (Download [pdf]).

15. www.bats.org.uk/batinfo

16. Irvine, James (2002). Bats and Rabies; No 2.
(Filed 16 December 2002, www.land-care.org.uk, click here to view).

17. Land-Care (2002). Letters reproduced from the Dundee Courier regarding rabies in bats.
(Filed 12 December 2002, www.land-care.org.uk, click here to view).

18. Macleod, Kirsty (2002). Bat advice from SNH - Letter published in Oban Times. Reproduced on Land-Care under "Further concern about SNH advice re Rabid Bats"
(Filed 23 December 2002, www.land-care.org.uk, click here to view).

19. Jackson, Alan C and Brock, Fenton M. (2001). Human Rabies and Bat Bites. The Lancet, 357: 1714.
(Reproduced with permission Filed 22 January 2003, www.land-care.org.uk, click here to view).

20. Land-Care (2003). Rabies and Bats: Correspondence with Dr Colin Catto, Director - National Bat Monitoring Programme, 20 November 2002
(Filed 15 April 2003, www.land-care.org.uk, click here to view).

21. Irvine, James (2002). Bats and Rabies, No. 3.
How can Rabies be transmitted from Bats to People?
(Filed 18 December 2002, www.land-care.org.uk, click here to view).

22. Haddow, Jon F. & Hereman, Jeremy S. (2000). Scottish Bats. Volume 5, ISBN 0 9520182 4 1 (http://www.abdn.ac.uk/~nhy031).

23. Irvine, James (2003). Commission proposes improved Directive to control outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease. Comments on the Use of Vaccination and Rapid Serological Diagnostic Tests.
(Filed 11 February 2003, www.land-care.org.uk, click here to view).

24. Irvine, James (2003). Bats and Rabies. Poor Advice from Prof Colin Galbraith, SNH Chief Scientist, on Landward Programme.
(Filed 10 February 2003, www.land-care.org.uk, click here to view).

25. National Federation of Badger Groups (2002). Badgers and the Law.
http://www.badger.org.uk/questions/index.html
(Filed 15 April 2003, www.land-care.org.uk, click here to view).

26. Lord Zuckerman (1980). Badgers, Cattle and Tuberculosis. Report to the Right Honorable Peter Walker, Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Her Majesty's Stationary Office, London.

27. Irvine, James (2003). TB in Cattle and Badgers: Zuckerman Report (1980) Revisited.
(Filed 10 March 2003, www.land-care.org.uk, click here to view).

28. The Krebs Report (1997) and the Independent Scientific Review Group
(Filed 27 February 2003, www.land-care.org.uk, click here to view).

29. Editorial, Land-Care (2003). Independent Scientific Group (ISG) on Cattle TB. From 1998 to the present
(Filed 27 February 2003, www.land-care.org.uk, click here to view).

30. Irvine, James (2003). Just how bad is the TB problem in UK Cattle?
(Filed 25 February 2003, www.land-care.org.uk, click here to view).

31. Tuberculosis in Cattle: DEFRA in no hurry to review Strategy
(Filed 10 March 2003, www.land-care.org.uk, click here to view).

32. Beach, Andrew (2003). A Profile of Professor Derek Reid. The Scotsman 11th April 2003.
Reproduced with permission in Land-Care
(Filed 14th April 2003, www.land-care.org.uk, click here to view).

33. The Scotsman leader (2003). Growing the economy - instead of milking it. The Scotsman 15th April 2003. Reproduced in Land-Care with permission.
(Filed 15th April 2003, www.land-care.org.uk, click here to view).