Rural Notes 13



It finally looks as if winter has retreated to recharge her considerable batteries (which must have been pretty flat by the middle of May) and there are at last leaves unfurled on most of the trees and songbirds filling the hedgerows with their melodious chorus.  Butterflies are now evident dancing around early blossoms and even the little lamented wasp has judged it warm enough to put in appearances around the sunnier, wind shaded corners.  The delayed start of spring has been as close as our climate gets to an ‘extreme event’. Gardeners and nature watchers will have marvelled at the simultaneous displays of snowdrops and daffodils- unusual itself in recent years, but unprecedented at the end of April.

However, the cycle of life, even if delayed, must continue and the last few weeks have brought an observable rise in the wildlife movements around the county. I spent a few hours last Saturday walking an untried route from North Berwick to Gullane. With the railway line, the A198 main coastal road, and the smaller Kingston to Fenton Barns road all within vision, and often within earshot, it was a revelation totting up the wildlife I encountered. The ground I covered was wholly arable. This was sad news for the vet, but good news for the walker.

The land on this strip is exceptional , and obviously lends itself to cereal production, but there were vestiges of old stock fences and stock proof hedging and only twenty five years ago there was stock which  the practice looked after on half of the farms I walked over. Sadly modern farming is so technical that there is little scope nowadays for mixed enterprises- the county being increasingly split into arable and stock, where rarely the twain shall meet. However, diminished stock numbers appear to have been replaced wholesale by nature’s bounty. I encountered, at close hand sixteen roe deer, nine hares, two rabbits, a stoat and a healthy smattering of wild pheasants and mallard. I suspect the rabbit to hare ratio is a symptom of disease in the rabbit population, with Viral Haemorrhagic Diarrhoea exacting a heavy toll- much as it was designed to do when it was introduced deliberately some years ago.  Any doubting the demise of the rabbit should ask a golfer; the perennial bane of British golf due to the rabbit’s love of the lush grass on the course, every hole used to bear the scars of constant burrowing ‘new builds’ by rabbits seeking la Dolce Vita. Rules on the various permutations occasioned by rabbit activity interfering with play were known in detail by every amateur hacker. Nowadays, it is all a distant memory, and younger golfers will not have these details at their fingertips.

We have a slightly crude barometer for monitoring wildlife movements as a consequence of being brought victims of road traffic accidents. Concerned members of the public bring in all manner of creatures great and small who have fallen victim to their driving. Deer top the list but a surprising number of duck and hens seem to fall fowl (!) on our bye-ways, and the list we are called to attend ranges from horses to hamsters; (only one of the aforementioned survived). Last week was our busiest of the year in terms of accident attendance. On one night alone, my colleague Sharon Brown was called out to two deer accidents, and one badger. As is often the case, the deer were beyond help. There are lots of reasons for this, and perhaps surprisingly, the economics are not the major factor. Indeed, I recall His Grace, the late Duke of Hamilton offering to fly an injured deer down to Redwings sanctuary in Devon in his private plane after it had been hit close to his home. Had the deer sustained repairable injuries, the generosity of all parties would have seen the creature receive every veterinary attention it needed. In this case, the poor thing had a broken back and was humanely destroyed.

Sharon’s badger however was a triumph. This unfortunate beast benefitted from early intervention as the driver immediately called the police, who were quickly on the scene. They in turn immediately moved the badger (Barry, as they had by now christened home) and thus he was at our hospital in Haddington within minutes of being struck. Sharon diagnosed a head wound, which would be consistent with the tendency for cars to now have faring below the bumpers. Doubtlessly beneficial to aerodynamics, they have led to a lot of low standing animals receiving impact traumas whereas previously they might have slipped beneath the chassis- clearly shocked but unharmed. At any rate, Barry was given treatment to reduce any swelling within the skull and to stabilise blood pressure. He was X-rayed and happily had no skull fractures, so was put into an isolation kennel and sedated to make comfortable for the night. By the morning, he was more in control of his senses and we were able to pass responsibility for his care and future rehabilitation to the SSPCA, who came and collected him.  A recent update suggests he is virtually recovered.

If this tale had a happy ending, it also highlighted a paradox of the sort which infuriate all people of common sense. Most readers will be aware that there is an ugly division of communities in the South West of England where there is acknowledged a severe problem with Tuberculosis in cattle. Cattle farmers there are cursed by TB and a large and lengthy governmental study has been running for many years to establish whether a link exists with badger populations who are suspected of incubating the disease and transmitting it to cattle when they leave their setts and hunt for food. The trial has been expensive and divisive and has resulted in a licenced badger cull being given the go-ahead in specific parishes. Scotland pities the plight of the South West, but somewhat smugly declares itself TB free. Wildlife does not respect boundaries- parish or national. On the basis that the poor badger has taken the blame for the TB down South, I imagined that there would be a robust government policy put in place by Holyrood for TB surveillance amongst our own badgers; badgers who must surely mix with neighbouring badgers in a long chain of potential contact all the way down to Gloucester.  I was staggered to learn that there is no such policy. It seems that Scotland is TB free, and that is that. Is that arrogant, mad or both?


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Glen Watson
Partner at Links Vet Group