Trying and Testing Times – attempting to understand what we should be doing

I don’t know about you but I have lost the track and any sense of time …. I’ve just looked at my phone – today is Thursday – lockdown day 9 (counted it on my fingers). Nevertheless, over the last ‘couple’ of days the Daily Briefing, my Twitter feed and the numerous articles I have read have been full of the following words.

‘Test, test, test’, ‘Anti-gen’, Anti-body, ‘PCR machines’, ‘Chemical re-agents’ and ‘Ramping up’

All these words are set against a backdrop of targets, expectations, jargon, obfuscation and a distinct lack of clarity. For me, this is not a time for tribal politics, it is a period where I desperately want to understand the strategy. It is a moment where I want all the ‘experts’ to come together and say ‘yes’ – as a country we are doing what we should be doing.

For me, three issues are dominating the UK’s COVID19 narrative at the moment: the appalling death rate, the lack of PPE for front line staff and testing. This piece focuses on the latter.

If you remember back to the beginning of this pandemic outbreak a ‘few’ weeks ago we were following the so-called ‘mitigation’ strategy. This aimed to slow the spread of COVID19 but not necessarily stop it. It involved testing people who appeared to have contracted the virus to see if they were infected, quarantining them and then attempting to trace and test those who have been in contact with those who had COVID19. This is the test and trace strategy. This is the strategy deployed, it would appear in China and South Korea for example. It enabled China to restrict the spread of the to predominantly one district – Wuhan, in the case of South Korea the epidemic was contained and eradicated in just two out of their 18 regions.

In the UK the mitigation strategy was replaced rather quickly by the ‘suppression’ strategy following the publication of the Imperial College model which stated that unless we shielded the vulnerable, self-isolated, closed schools and universities (i.e. lockdown) at least 250,000 people would die. However, it is now becoming clear that there was another reason that we switched from mitigation to suppression – the UK’s lack of capacity to carry out the requisite number of tests. Johnson at one of the early briefings stated that we were going to ramp up testing from 10,000 a day to 25,000 and then up to 250,000. Days and days later we have barely got about 12,000 tests a day. Indeed, a couple of days ago Gove suggested that one of the problems with testing was a shortage of ‘chemical reagents’, a claim successful be-bunked by ITV’s Robert Peston.

So, the question is, why can Germany test 500,000 people a week and the UK is struggling to carry 100,000 over the same period? If you are interested in a detailed answer to this question, this article by Jack Dickens provides it. In essence in England we have closed regional testing centres over the past decade or so and centralised the process at one location, in mid February the decision was taken to re-open 12 regional centres. England was not prepared for a viral pandemic and as a result we have been caught short when it comes to the capability to carry out the necessary number of tests.

By contrast Germany appears better prepared, it had a plan in place to utilise testing facilities in the public, private and university sectors – thus it is able to test 5x as many people a day compared to England.

It is important to be clear about what the testing is aiming to achieve. What I had written already refers to a test to determine whether you are currently infected – the so-called anti-gen test. Such a test is carried out on a Polymerase Chain Reaction machine or PCR for short and requires specific chemical reagents to test for COVID19, obtained via a nasal swab sample. As I understand it, in England we are using PCR machines in the 12 / 13 Regional NHS testing centres and as a result there is a capacity issue.

Whilst I have never heard of a PCR before, by all accounts it is a standard piece of equipment used in research. Dr. Mark D’Arcy, a microbiologist and university lecturer wrote this on Twitter today ‘I dont understand the delay in testing. PCR is used to test. Every uni in the country, and thousands of biology labs have PCR machines, and ppl who know how to use them. I spent half my PhD running PCR’s. We have the facilities & ppl, we just dont have the organisation.’ The issue is one of a lack of preparedness and a future logistics challenge. I will return to anti-gen testing a little later.

That neatly brings us to the second test, the anti-body test, this is the one that was discussed at one of the daily briefings by the Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Dr Harries, the pin prick blood test, the one we were going to be able to order on Amazon. The anti-gen test will tell you whether you have already had COVID19 and have recovered. Despite what Robert Peston asserted during the Q&A at yesterday’s Daily Briefing this test cannot tell whether you are currently infected. There is a video I watched earlier where a Consultant Epidemologist puts Peston straight on this point and tells him to desist from making such a claim as it was misleading, wrong and dangerous! We have 1 million of these testing kits already (purchased from China) and they are currently being evaluated thus the oft repeated line that we need to be sure they work properly as an inaccurate test is worse than no test.

It seems to me that the anti-body test could bring three benefits (along with some important caveats)

  1. If you knew you had recovered from the disease you could ‘safely’ return to work, useful if you are twiddling your thumbs in lockdown and majorly reassuring if you are a front-line medical employee (caveat to follow)
  2. Getting a community wide perspective on the percentage of the population who have already had COVID19 would help improve the quality of the mathematical models. Have 10% or 60% of the population been infected and have subsequently recovered? It would also provide us with greater clarity on the percentage of asymptomatic COVID19 ‘patients’. Anti-body testing therefore gives the modellers their ‘p’ value and gives some indication of the degree of ‘herd immunity’. (Caveat to follow)
  3. People who have successfully survived a bout of COVID19 (as identified from an anti-body test) have a degree of immunity to the virus. Blood from such people can then be centrifuged, which separates the plamsa from the red blood cells, the plasma can then be transfused in those who suffering from an infection – potential clinical plasma immunotherapy for COVID19. I read that such an approach was being trialled in New York last week and I suspect such an approach is being used in the UK. (Caveat to follow)

And so, to the caveats, there is considerable uncertainty in academic circles about degree of immunity afforded to people who have recovered from COVID19, I have read that there are currently 5 clades (strains?) of the virus and that further mutations are possible. It is currently unclear what the implications of this are. Additionally, it is unclear what the longevity of immunity to coronaviruses is, previous epidemics have found that immunity deteriorates over time. This being a novel coronavirus, the research required to answer these questions is currently being undertaken – work in progress. Finally a single anti-body test on its own will not be enough to determine whether an individual has a continuous high anti-body level and therefore would not identify the best donors for use in plasma immunotherapy treatments. It is because of these caveats and no doubt others, that this pandemic will not be over until an effective vaccine is produced, thus the 12-18 month timeline.

All of which brings us back to the ‘ramping up’ the testing message and the ‘test, test, test’ mantra. Getting the strategy right going forwards will be vital. With regards to the anti-gen test (have you got COVID19 now), this needs to be prioritised now at front-line NHS staff and other key workers (as the Government has stated). Widespread community anti-gen testing at this point will not achieve a great deal, the virus in many areas is now far too widespread to enable a successful ‘test and trace’ strategy.

The implementation of anti-body testing programme, especially if it can be self-administered in the home will provide a lot of useful data and perhaps assist a gradual return to work and potentially help those suffering from COVID19 receive plasma therapy.

We are told that in the next 2-3 weeks the number of new daily cases will plateau and if we stick to the ‘rules’ the number of new cases will then decline exponentially. At this point it is anticipated that the lockdown measures will start to be relaxed. Of course, that will not be the end of the matter, the scientists expect that there will then be another COVID19 viral outbreak later in the year. By then we have all got to hope that the necessary preparations are in place – viz a viz, sorting out the logistics so that widespread anti-gen testing can be carried out – this will surely require expanding the existing NHS capacity by utilising the PCR machines and personnel located in the country’s Universities and ensuring the procedures, personnel and facilities are in place so that we can conduct an effective ‘mitigation’ strategy second time around consisting of an aggressive ‘test and trace’ policy.

I would like to thank Francois Balloux, Professor of the Genetics Institute at UCL , and an expert on viral pandemics, for taking the time to help me to understand the testing issue, via his Twitter feed (@BallouxFrancois).

Finally, I am certain that Government policy consists of, an albeit much more complex version or variant of the above, it would just be useful for them and for us if they clearly articulated their current thinking.




In other News: Spring is here

During the winter, nature goes into lockdown. Trees have shed their leaves and stand to attention …. birds scrabble around desperately searching for their next meal ….. insects live as eggs, larvae or cocoons. Waiting … patiently waiting for longer and warmer days.

And now spring is here! Birds are singing their heads off in anticipation of imminent breeding and the raising of a new family, butterflies are pursuing the same goal but rather than singing they are flittering. Trees are beginning to come into bud, leaves are magically beginning to appear.

But this is not a normal spring, we are part of nature, whether we think so or not, yet we now find ourselves in lockdown when the rest of nature is not. I am reminded of a poem …. The Waste Lands by T.S. Eliot, written in a different century about a far bigger catastrophe – World War One. Two of the most famous lines spring to mind ‘April is the cruellest month’ and ‘I will show you fear in a handful of dust’. The next few weeks are going to be difficult and traumatic for us, but, and I don’t want to sound trite, as a nation, we will get through this and life will go on, as The Waste Lands shows us.

Of course, elsewhere life is going on and watching it unfold is my favourite hobby, because whilst I think I know what is going to happen nature doesn’t always read my script. For many years now, I have been looking at the oak and ash trees in my garden, prompted by the old country expression ‘oak before ash – we are in for a splash and ash before oak – we are in for a soak’, I want to see who wins the race to be the first species to come into leaf.

In reality oak pretty much always comes into leaf before ash. In the last fifty years oak has always leafed before ash. It has not always been this way – in the 18th century when it was less mild ash did often produce leaves before oak – thus the quote.

Climate change has changed all of this – usually oak comes into leaf in late March-May which is about two weeks earlier than 30 years ago. Ash usually comes into leaf during April and May, about 7-10 days earlier than 30 years ago.

However, first in 2017 and now again this year, it is pretty much a dead heat – the ash is early. I’ve got 5 different oak trees in the garden and one big ash (seriously affected now by ash dieback). The oaks appear genetically different so I think they have come from different parent trees as the come into leaf at strikingly different times. One is way ahead of the others – the same happens every year. This particular oak has ‘beaten’ the ash, but the ash is ahead of the other four. I can’t really explain this as it has been a very mild winter in a warming world so oak should have beaten the ash by quite a distance.

When this pandemic madness has passed, at least for now, and we begin to reconstruct our lives and rebuild the economy, we need to remember that the global climate and biodiversity crises have not gone away and still need to be urgently addressed. If we learn one thing from all of this, it is that we live in a very connected world, and actions taken in one place can impact detrimentally elsewhere. Who would have thought three months ago that fruit bats and pangolins (the presumed original source of COVID-19) would play such a key role in our lives but we also need to remember that in reality they are the victims and not the villains in this whole saga.

The haunting ….

I use this quote in all my talks these days ….

“Conservationists see the conservation of living diversity as a moral necessity, something that is self-evidently right and just has to be done. In the language of conservation biology, conservation is a ‘mission’. Anything that detracts from that mission, or contextualises it as just one among other competing ideas or interests is therefore inherently suspicious.”

(Bill Adams, 2015, The political ecology of conservation conflicts)

Simon Phelps, a conservationist who works for Butterfly Conservation has just published this piece written in response to a talk I gave at the back end of last year where I quoted the above…..

Worth a look – you can read it here.

Thanks Simon – nice to get name checked and realise someone was paying attention!


Should Dartmoor be a temperate Rain Forest or a cultural landscape? Discuss ..

I gave a 20 minute talk yesterday at Butterfly Conservation’s conference on the future of the south west’s uplands where I very briefly summarised the findings of my PhD research. I’m interested in why people disagree about the way that Dartmoor is managed and grazed and I’m looking at it from the perspective of the various stakeholder narratives. Is Dartmoor overgrazed or undergrazed? Should it be richer in wildlife? Should much of it be rewilded? Should the blanket bog, valley mires and wet heath be re-wetted? What about the historical landscape – should it be re-grazed so that the monuments become visible again within the landscape? What is to be done about the Molinia (Purple Moor Grass) jungle and the Western Gorse encroachment? What about the hill-farmers’ narratives? Lots of questions, lots of viewpoints and lots of disagreement.

My talk prompted this exchange on Twitter today following an initial tweet from Farming Wilder.

Followed by a response from George Monbiot – arguing that a temperate rain forest should be re-established.

But what of the existing wildlife interest?

A comparison of Dartmoor to the Amazon ….

The case for a varied but cultural landscape….

Is this the beginning of a compromise?

Nobody is actually happy with the status quo but …

Not all Dartmoor hill-farmers will agree with this but some evidently do …

An interesting social enterprise …

With the parlous state of hill-farm economics, the spectre of Brexit, continuing climate change and atmospheric nitrogen pollution, the status quo is untenable and change and new ideas are needed. This exchange suggests a possible alternative, there are of course many others such as a 21st century return to ‘Levancy and Couchancy’ (only keeping the number of animals on the Commons that you can feed over winter from the meadows on your home farm –  growing hay and silage organically) and a new Transhumance (summering of animals on the Commons and then ‘finishing’ of them in the lowlands).

To be continued ……



Hill-farm economics in 2018-19

In 2017 I wrote a piece about the 2016/17 Farm Business Income figures and how they related to farming on Dartmoor. Two years on, the 2018/19 figures have been published and they make for grim reading.

As a result of the cold late spring in 2018 followed by the very hot, dry summer hill-farmers faced increased feed costs. Additionally they received lower prices for store cattle, ewes and ewe hoggs at market. This resulted in a doubling of agricultural losses and a halving of their incomes despite subsidy levels remaining the same compared to 2016/17.

Upland hill-farming is categorised as ‘Grazing livestock (LFA)’

Here are the 2016/17 and 2018/19 figures for comparison.

In 2016/17 the agricultural elements of the hill-farming businesses made on average a loss of -£9400, by 2018/19 this had increased by £12100 to -£21,500. Farm incomes dropped by £11,800 from £27,000 to £15,500.

The final column in the above table shows that in 2016/17 without an subsidy the average hill-farm in England would have lost -£7000, by 2018/19 this had risen to -£18,800.

We are about to enter the third phase of agricultural policy since World War 2: ‘public money for public goods’, following on after the productivist era driven by the 1947 Agricultural Act and the era of ‘environmentalism’ underpinned by the agri-environmental schemes.

The new Public Money for Public Goods policy will see the Basic Payment Scheme and the agri-environment payments phased out and replaced by a new Environmental Land Management Scheme.

Even if all upland hill-farms received on average £34,300 (i.e. the subsidy level paid in 2018/19) for providing ‘public goods’ (carbon storage, water supply, wildlife, archaeology, access and landscape) we will be expecting hill-farmers to live on £15,500 per annum and that’s unsustainable surely?

I’m not sure our policy makers understand this …… but perhaps they do ….. and I won’t even mention the B word and possibility of a ‘no-trade deal’.


Hill-farming in a time of change. Stories from Dartmoor

Here is my paper from the Exmoor Society Conference in April recently published in the Exmoor Review – the text below is what I actually wrote …..

Hill-farming in a time of change. Stories from Dartmoor

Schemes, atmospheric pollution, climate change and Brexit

Adrian Colston PhD Researcher,

The Centre for Rural Policy Research, The University of Exeter

 I am a practitioner turned researcher – trying to understand why people disagree about upland management and grazing. I’ve had a 35-year career in conservation for the Wildlife Trusts and the National Trust – most recently 12 years as the General Manager for the NT on Dartmoor. I decided to undertake this research because I couldn’t understand what was happening on Dartmoor’s Commons – the reality didn’t seem to fit the narrative. Are the current problems on Dartmoor really caused by overgrazing?

I am now working as a rural social scientist and I’ve interviewed hill-farmers, conservationists, archaeologists, academics, landowners and representatives of relevant statutory bodies.

The quotes that follow are from various Dartmoor hill-farmers who were interviewed as part of this research.

During the headage payment era there is unanimous agreement that there was too much stock on Dartmoor’s Commons.

When were on headage payments it did get to the point where we were overgrazing, there is no doubt about it, but it wasn’t because we were bad farmers it was because we were following policy.  And it became stock or be stocked so you either stocked up to keep the other people’s animals out or you got swallowed up and your lear [1] was totally trashed.

The headage era was replaced with agri-environment schemes – the Environmentally Sensitive Area (ESA) scheme on Dartmoor was introduced in 1995. They resulted in the almost instant halving of sheep and cattle numbers and total removal of cattle in winter, under highly prescriptive management regimes with farmers being fined (or threatened with fines) for failure to comply.

Yes, there has been overgrazing, but I think when the environmentalists came in and said stop grazing, it should have been a managed withdrawal – not that we stopped overnight, because the Molinia [2] has taken over and it has drowned out more than we had lost, the environmentalists have lost more than we ever did.

 Whilst the agri-environment schemes paid farmers to reduce stock numbers it led to many acrimonious arguments amongst neighbours about how the monies were to be split.

 There are villages here that farmers won’t help when they used to calf a cow, because the environmental agreements have caused such a rift between the haves and the have-nots.  The ones that feel that some have received more money than they should have; there’s ones that have taken environmental scheme money and are not doing what they were asked to do because there isn’t the staff to police it.

 The prescriptive nature of the schemes also disempowered farmers.

 “.. they never gave us any credence that we had any knowledge whatsoever.  We felt, we were treated as second class citizens, basically unintelligent and had to be shown what we had to do at every whip and turn.”

 The prescriptions detailed by the ESA changed the behavior and hardiness of the cattle.

 All these animals (i.e. cattle) that are used to their lear, majority haven’t got a lear anymore because they are taken away from November until 15th April and then they’ve been indoors and they aren’t hill animals anymore, they’ve been brainwashed into being indoors and to expect them then to go out on Hangingstone [3] and live out there, well that’s not going to happen.

As a result, cattle and sheep often congregate in the lower parts of the moor in places where the sweeter grasses grow – these areas are then heavily grazed.

 I am going to tell you something from personal experience.  The quickest way to overgraze 30-40% of a Common, is to undergraze 60%

 The reduction in stock numbers saw a huge rise in the area of Molinia (which becomes tinder dry in the autumn, if ungrazed) and Western Gorse (Ulex gallii). The prescriptions saw restrictions on swaling [4]practices. Burning was prohibited from areas of blanket bog and the areas of dry heath which could be burnt were reduced in extent. As a result, in large parts of the moor there are huge areas of vegetation which are at risk from wild fires.

 It becomes almost impossible to burn on the Commons now there’s so much fuel load there, it is frightening, no-one wants to be responsible because we know we’ll be fined if we get it wrong.

 The huge rise in Molinia and gorse has impacted on access too, in order to walk on the Commons you frequently now need to follow the well-trodden tracks or the quad bike trails to get around.  The increase in vegetation has also impacted on the historic environment – smothering, for example stone rows and stone circles – 60% of all stone rows in England are on Dartmoor.

The overgrazing narrative however is hard to shift – it is still the dominant narrative for many conservationists. As a result, there are still calls to reduce stocking numbers.

In addition, atmospheric pollution from nitrogen causes acidification, fertilises Molinia, makes heather shoots more palatable to sheep and causes increasingly frequent and severe heather beetle attacks thus exacerbating the problems of Molinia dominant-heather depleted Commons. A problem that is poorly understood by conservationists and hill-farmers. Climate change is also reconfiguring habitats and species and the enhanced carbon dioxide levels are encouraging the growth of Molinia

However, the Molinia problem can be reduced, as has been shown at Molland Moor on Exmoor. Natural England have granted a derogation which permits all year round grazing by a herd of Galloway cattle which are supplementary fed in the winter. The Molinia has been dramatically reduced and the heather is returning. A similar trial at Gidleigh Common on Dartmoor is now underway.

However, increasing the number of cattle is not without its problems and will take time, if permitted.

Interviewer:   A lot of people tell me now that it’s not so easy upping the numbers of cattle back to what it was?

 Hill-farmer: No of course you can’t.  Because we have to breed our own, keep our own heifers and our own new lambs, because you can’t go Exeter (Market) on a Friday when you live here and buy your replacements because they won’t last here 2 minutes

In the uplands 91% of income comes from the basic payment scheme and 131% from subsidies as a whole.  Brexit means that we may need to re-design subsidies intelligently, and we may only have 7 years to do it.

Brexit could mean that agriculture becomes unsustainable, if the support isn’t there. So, if Brexit kicks in like they say it is going to kick in and there is no support then agriculture could be decimated for livestock producers, which will have a big effect up here. 

Initiatives like Dartmoor Farming Futures are attempting to give power and responsibility back to the hill-farmer but to date progress and uptake has been limited.

So, after listening to that for 30 years there are many farmers who will not make decisions on their own now. We’ve had this, since the 90s, that is a whole generation.  So, the new generation have lost some of the old ways because were not allowed to do it, so the next generation hasn’t really got the knowledge unfortunately, even under the Farming Futures in the Forest because for so many years we have been stopped doing things, people just aren’t coming out with what they want to do.  They can’t seem to grasp that we can come forward with things it’s been so long. They just haven’t grasped that there is some empowerment there for the farmer

If you get the narratives wrong you will get the solutions wrong too. This is really important as we head towards a new era of public money for public goods, payment by results and an outcomes approach. Particularly at a time when hill-farm incomes are hard pressed and the future agricultural support schemes are unclear.

The new Schemes need to resolve how to undo the undergrazing of extensive areas of the Dartmoor’s Commons – cattle grazing needs to be encouraged and made financially viable.

If we need and want a pastoral landscape we have to re-empower farmers to take responsibility for managing their land to produce the outcomes society wants and nature needs.  We need to rediscover local knowledge and find solutions that work locally, not those that are imposed

[1] A lear (or heft) is an area where a flock or herd of animals is shepherded – it becomes home to those animals and they remain in that place.

[2] Molinia is the scientific name of Purple Moor Grass and is the word used by hill-farmers to describe the species.

[3] Hangingstone Hill is on the high North moor in the Forest of Dartmoor Common.

[4] Swaling is the traditional Dartmoor practice of managing vegetation by controlled burning.

Glover’s Landscape Review and Cultural Landscapes

The Review commissioned by Michael Gove and led by Julian Glover has just published its final report and it is entitled ‘Landscapes Review’. It can be downloaded from the Defra website here.

This isn’t a full review of the report but highlights a few of the comments in it that relate to ‘cultural landscapes’ and IUCN Category V protected areas.

They are places which are lived in and farmed, as well as places full of nature, known by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as ‘Category V’: “areas where the interaction of people and nature over time has produced an area of distinct character with significant ecological, biological, cultural and scenic value”.

The 2016 report from the IUCN, Putting nature on the map, is a useful starting point because it recognises that our national landscapes are different from many others elsewhere in the world.

It states that landscape designation in England is based on “a clearly defined geographical space, recognised, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long‐term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values”. These ‘Category V’ designations, which the UK led the way with, recognise the importance of protecting lived‐in landscapes. “In the case of conflict, nature conservation will be the priority,” it adds.  (p25)

To do this, we need people and nature to work together. We should encourage creative harmony.

They should do this through management which protects and enhances their special qualities as landscapes shaped by human and natural activity.

They should become exemplars of the IUCN’s Category V landscapes, supporting the very best in nature and natural beauty.  (p36)

Revised National Park Purpose and Duty No. 1

A revised statutory purpose that combines natural beauty and cultural heritage with the delivery of biodiversity and natural capital would be very significant. It would be a new statement of the national importance of our national landscapes in providing vital, life supporting ecosystem services, to be placed alongside their established role in protecting landscape and nature of national importance. It would also help enshrine the essential link between people and nature.  (p38)

The Glover Review Team have strongly sided with Cultural Landscapes – an article I wrote in 2017 about the designation of the Lake District as a World Heritage Site and cultural landscape gives some indication of the controversy around such a notion – see here. This second piece also shows how the cultural environment  and natural environment can collide – see here.

That said, the Review team are also very strong in saying that National Parks and AONBs, to be called in future National Landscapes, need a ‘renewed mission to recover and enhance nature’.

Any hill-farmers reading this will no doubt be very relieved – the rewilders  may not be

I suspect in the coming days we may hear more about this ……. as I haven’t seen anything yet …..