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Professor David W Macdonald, Director, Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, Oxford University A Brush with Foxes and other Carnivore Tales 18 June 2007 at the Royal Society of Edinburgh From the intimate to the epic these were tales that swept from life among a single family of foxes to the fates of whole species. Professor David W Macdonalds RSE lecture provided a close encounter with wildlife from Britain to Africa. In each case he highlighted how long-term scientific study is the most effective way to understand the problems animals face and provide effective solutions. Conservation projects have seen the Professor and his colleagues carry out detailed studies of the lives and habits of many carnivore species from love-cheat she wolves in Ethiopia to sheepstealing cheetahs in Namibia. One factor tends to remain constant: when humans and animals come into conflict it is the latter which lose out. This is true whether it is through direct action by farmers to protect livestock or as a side-effect of global warming. As a pioneer of pure and applied techniques for the study of animal behaviour, Professor Macdonalds work has helped to redress the balance by finding ways of tackling the problems, which will protect the interests of animals and people. It is an article of faith that each animal and its interaction with human society must be researched in depth and over time, in order to be properly understood. In some cases the results have offered hope for creatures on the verge of extinction. By the early 1990s the elegant Ethiopian wolf was rarer than the giant panda and its future looked bleak. Contact with domestic dogs brought successive rabies epidemics, with one in 1992 wiping out 77% of the population. Sophisticated modelling of the wolves behaviour meant that when the disease struck again, the scientists were ready. By using a carefully targeted vaccination programme they created a cordon sanitaire which prevented widespread destruction. Behind the emergency measures lay a new appreciation of the complexity of life among the wolves. While the female in the Alpha pair - the breeding couple in each pack - appeared the model of fidelity on her home ground, she would regularly stray and mate with many of the males she encountered in neighbouring territories. Despite this, because reproduction was limited to one pair per pack, wolf numbers were slow to recover after epidemics. By working with local people and founding the EWCP (Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme) the Professor and his colleagues have attempted to transform the animals prospects. This has been done by changing the perception of them from a threat to livestock into an economic asset. The EWCP is now the areas biggest employer and public education means tourists are keen to take wolf-watching holidays. The challenge of rabies, and other diseases, has become a familiar theme in the work of Oxfords Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU). Investigations into British badgers (which involved some of the earliest use of infra red technology to study them at night) have profound implications for arguments about whether culls help stop the spread of bovine TB. The results suggested that such culls were counter-productive. While TB dropped on farms in the immediate area, it increased among their neighbours as survivors moved elsewhere. Again, the years of study of the badgers, involving the monitoring of 1,000 individuals including a veteran 16-year-old named No Ears, brought insights that were by turns endearing and alarming. They revealed a society where more than half the young are sired by outsiders, where males outdo each other by digging the biggest holes, and where mutual grooming may be of immense importance but sometimes the temptation to bite the other badgers backside is simply irresistible. According to Professor Macdonald there is also evidence that global warming is affecting numbers in the study area at Wytham Woods. There was an initial doubling in the population as the badgers could continue catching their staple diet of earthworms for longer due to wetter, warmer winters.

However, this was followed by a dramatic decline as the death toll from road accidents outstripped their ability to breed. Namibia, home to a third of the worlds remaining cheetahs, provided a superb example of how research combined with imagination can help overcome major challenges. Herdsmen had killed thousands of the predators in retaliation for the loss of a couple of hundred sheep a year. Once the problem was understood, an initiative was launched to introduce powerful Anatolian Shepherd dogs to guard flocks. These helped remove the perceived need to kill cheetahs as annual sheep losses plummeted from a reported 29 to three per farmer. Further east in Zimbabwe, the Professor and his colleagues have been involved in efforts to stop the decline of the lion. While Lions enjoyed total protection in the Hwange National Park, the authorities took the controversial step of allowing limited hunting outside the area. The aim was to discourage indiscriminate killing by making them economically valuable as an attraction for wealthy foreign big game hunters. Research showed that the lions tended to wander beyond the limits of the park, meaning that almost the entire population was vulnerable to hunters. Most of the animals were killed within 1km of the park boundary. Even more concerning was that as time went on, the older males were disappearing, so younger males and females were being shot. Firm evidence for what was happening to the lion population resulted in a moratorium on licensed hunting in the region. Back in Europe, WildCRU has been involved in research into the effect of the spread of the American mink. Beautiful to look at, these highly efficient predators have had a devastating effect on the British water vole population and on the smaller European mink in places like Russia. In the UK they bred after escaping fur farms, and in the east they were actively encouraged as something for trappers to catch. However, WildCRU findings vividly illustrated that even where there is a seemingly simple case of cause and effect, the reality is often rather different. According to Professor Macdonald, the use of agricultural chemicals had severely undermined the UKs water voles before the mink turned up. They were already on a tightrope. Mink may have pulled the trigger but agriculture had cocked the pistol. More optimistically, research is ongoing to discover the most effective strategies for reviving the water vole population. Part of the answer may be in allowing nature to take its course. The spread of the mink followed the sharp decline of the native otter population. Now however cleaner rivers mean the otters are returning and, as the larger predator, wherever they appear the American mink go into retreat. Similarly, a breeding programme on the Estonian island of Hiiumaa could restore the fortunes of the European mink and there are indications that nature is responding simultaneously. In what the Professor said may be evolution in action there is evidence from the teams study area in Belarus that remaining wild European mink are getting bigger - perhaps better able to fend off the invaders. There are instances where projects have brought widespread benefits to human health and society. The Professor founded WildCRU - the first research unit of its kind - in 1986 at a point when there was growing worry about rabies in Europe. By developing a close understanding of fox behaviour, the unit gained insights into one of the key avenues through which the disease could spread, potentially infecting domestic animals and people. The results played an important role in the introduction of the oral vaccination programme that proved such an effective response. At the same time it allowed the researchers to appreciate the sophistication of fox family behaviour. This included witnessing how a vixen, known as Big Ears, climbed the social order to replace another called White Paws as top female. In a remarkable scene the scientists witnessed White Paws submit to her rival and then become wet nurse to her cubs. Nowadays WildCRU is firmly established north of the border in Professor Macdonalds native Scotland where it is involved in the problematic issue of protecting the last remaining wildcats. Despite being legally protected, there has been little consensus on how gamekeepers should distinguish them from feral or domestic cats that are regarded as vermin on grouse moors. The issue is now critical as advanced genetic testing and related evidence suggests their numbers could be precariously low one estimate being as low as 400. The Professors team, including

collaborators in the museum in Edinburgh, have identified a straightforward list of pelt characteristics that should help make sure the law is workable. Yet, as ever, nature refuses to allow matters to be quite that simple. Of all the animals studied, the one with the most powerful genetic wildcat characteristics looked like an everyday moggy. The cat which was furthest from domestic actually wore a domestic coat. So the issue is, should it be cherished for its genes or eradicated because of its coat?

Following the lecture there was a vote of thanks and an open question and answer session. Asked if equipment such as collars used for tracking animals, affected their behaviour, Professor Macdonald responded that a series of studies had been carried out. In some circumstances there was evidence of an effect, but mostly they could be shown to be neutral. The Professor was also asked if research similar to that of WildCRU was being conducted by Scottish Institutions. He said that while Oxford had been first, wildlife conservation and related subjects are now taken seriously by many Universities. The Professor pointed to exemplary work in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen amongst others.

Matthew Shelley