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#222  Dung Beetles, People and helping the Keystone Species with Claire Whittle, the Regenerative Vet

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Our guest this week is Claire Whittle, the Regenerative Vet. As you’ll hear, Claire went into veterinary medicine intending to work with small animals – which is to say dogs, cats, and other household pets… but working on a dairy farm as part of the requirements for her degree led her to fall in love with cattle and when she qualified, she became a farm vet.

In the conversation you’re about to hear, she talks movingly and with deep authenticity about her journey from traditional large animal practitioner to the place now where she’s a passionate advocate for the human capacity to engage with the natural world, for our ability to become a positive keystone species and for farming to become a lower stressed, lower input, far more wholistic experience than it generally is. And she’s a completely compelling source of endlessly fascinating information, particularly about dung beetles. We’ve never had a podcast where we discussed dung in quite so much depth or detail – and it’s all good. Whether you’re farming acres of land or have a single trough on a balcony, and wherever you are in the world, learning to step into our birthright of deep rooted connection to the land – to the soil – is one step on our journey towards being what the world needs of us. This was such a fun, sparkling conversation, with so much to learn.

In Conversation

Manda: Hey people, welcome to Accidental Gods. To the podcast where we believe that another world is still possible and that if we all work together, there is time to create a future that we would be proud to leave to the generations that come after us. I’m Manda Scott, your guide and fellow traveller on this journey into possibility. And as you may know, a long, long way back in my own timeline I was a vet, which in the UK is short for Veterinary Surgeon and in the US is translated as veterinarian because vet means something different. So I was the animal doctor kind. I made the transition to being a full time writer at the turn of the millennium, and now obviously podcasting is also a part of the mix. And I’m a regenerative smallholder, a fact for which I am daily extraordinarily grateful. And the combination of these, the smallholding, the podcast, writing thrutopian novels – I have just handed in the edited proofs of Any Human Power – I am an extremely happy bunny. Anyway, the combination of these has led me deeper and deeper into what does regenerative farming actually mean? And in this particular instance, I’m talking about the kind where we don’t plough and we don’t spray and we don’t fertilise.

Manda: In fact, we have no inputs to the land other than what we can create by encouraging really good biodiversity on the land, with domestic animals and with also a huge range of other species. We’re trying always to find ways to live harmoniously with the rest of the web of life. And so knowing that, thinking that, exploring that, it was with great joy and not a little envy that I learned of the work of Claire Whittle, the regenerative vet. As you’ll hear, Claire went into veterinary medicine intending to work with small animals, which is to say, dogs and cats and other household pets. But working on a dairy farm as part of the requirements for her degree led her to fall in love with cattle, and when she qualified, she became a farm vet. And then in the conversation you’re about to hear, she talks movingly and with deep authenticity about her journey from traditional large animal practitioner to a place where she’s a passionate advocate for the human capacity to engage with the natural world, for our ability to become a positive keystone species, and for farming to become a lower stressed, lower input, far more holistic experience than it often is in the 21st century.

Manda: And she’s a completely compelling source of fascinating information, particularly about dung beetles. We have never had a podcast where we discuss dung in quite so much detail or depth, and it’s all good, actually. It’s all completely inspiring. I want to go out and start counting dung beetles now, but we’re in the middle of a storm and it’s February, and that might not be the time. But I will be counting them by the spring. And for you, wherever you are in the world, whether you’re farming acres of land or have a single pot or a trough on a balcony, learning to step into our birthright of deep rooted connection to the land, to the actual soil, is one step on our journey towards being what the world needs of us; towards being a positive keystone species. So Claire is here to encourage and inspire and enlighten us. This was such a fun, sparkling conversation with so much to learn. So people of the podcast, please do welcome Claire Whittle, the regenerative vet.

Manda: Claire, fellow vet, welcome to the Accidental Gods podcast. How are you and where are you this rather lovely February morning?

Claire: Hi Manda, thanks for having me. It’s nice to be here. I’m currently sat in my office, which only actually came about a couple of weeks ago, so I have a real life office. Yay! So I’m actually in Glyn Ceiriog, which is not too far from Llangollen in North Wales, in my house. So I set up my business a year ago and finally have an office to sit and work in, which is nice, so I don’t have to be at the kitchen table.

Manda: Actually, you’re not too far from here. I thought somehow you were up near Liverpool, but actually, you’re just basically due west. Lovely. Thank you. So you’re a vet, which of course is where I started and since veered off. But you have gone down a very different route from certainly the average vet when I qualified. Tell us a little bit about how you got to be where you are now, because it’s a whole career path that I would never have imagined until I met you. And then I thought, God, yes, I wish I’d done that. So tell us how you came to be who you are.

Claire: Right. So I’m a farm vet. I work three days a week as what I would call a conventional farm vet. I’m not from a farming background, so I did grow up in Liverpool, which is where the Liverpool thing has come from. And the slight twang I think you can probably get. So not from a farming background. I went to university with the intention of doing small animal work because I’d never even been near a cow. So I went in my first year, as we all did, to do various different types of work experience. For those who are non vets listening in, you have to do work experience in almost every area, so you qualify as a vet that can do small animal, large animal and equine.

Manda: And pigs and poultry and everything.

Claire: Yeah, everything. So you have to go and do those. I went to work at a stables and I went to work in a dog kennels and various other things, did a bit of lambing. Then I went to work on a dairy farm in my first year. And Dad’s always been terrified of cows, so I had that sort of inbuilt terror of cows. And I was very surprised when I went there and I just completely and utterly fell in love with them. And that was that, really. There was a really lovely farm manager there called John. And interestingly, after this podcast, I’m going to go and see him, because he retires this year, next month. And he said, it’s been 20 years. It’s gone so fast. And I said, I can’t believe that. And he said, well, I actually met you 15 years ago, Claire. Which was a bit scary when I think about it. And he was just so good. He had so much time and patience for me and for my non farming-ness. Without him I wouldn’t be doing farm vetting, basically. He was absolutely brilliant. I mean, he taught me the difference between hay and straw, very, very basic things. And just, I mean I broke so many things on that farm. I broke everything that could possibly break. And he just was like, well, if you don’t do it, you’ll never learn. So he was amazing.

Manda: What an amazing guy.

Claire: I went back every year to that farm to do work experience. I did night milking there at the weekends. So I night milked three weekends a month. And then the last month I would DJ to pay my way through university. So I went as a mature student. I didn’t go to uni until I was 24, so I didn’t graduate till I was 29. Then when I left, that’s all I wanted to do was cows. So I moved to Dorset. I spent two years down in Dorset, which was just a beautiful part of the world. And then I came back home for various reasons. And the closest I can be to Liverpool, where there’s cows is, well, North Wales, Shropshire sort of way. Cheshire. So I work mainly in dairy practice as I say, three days a week. And a few years into my learning, as you’ll know Manda, the first few years of vetting are basically just getting to know what you’re actually doing. 

Manda: Yes. Making more mistakes and breaking things.

Claire: So yeah, I did that for a few years and was learning and I loved it. And obviously not knowing any different about farming, everything was new to me. And then I think a few years in, I started to be a bit more concerned about some of the environmental impacts surrounding farming. And they became a bit more precedent in the media and things, and things were coming out. And I thought, how can this wonderful thing that I’m completely in love with have any possible bad side to it. So that was like a bit of an inkling, that I’d always kind of seen farming in nature as two separate things, I guess would be the way I put it. And I wanted to understand why and how that had happened. And basically a lovely client of mine recommended the book Wilding by Isabella Tree about the Knepp estate in Sussex where they in a way, rewilded the land. There’s some cattle there and all of the nature that had come back as a result of it. And in that book I read that not only did we have dung beetles in the UK, but that the drugs that I prescribed as a vet had these hugely detrimental impacts on dung beetles, and I didn’t know either of those things.

Claire: And I started to wonder why nobody had ever told me that. So I hadn’t learned it at a university. You wouldn’t have done either. We didn’t learn about the unintended consequences of some of these products that we prescribe on a daily basis. And I wanted to look for more information and it wasn’t really there. So in the end, I was contacted by a lovely farmer, James Allen, who farms down near the Cotswolds, and he said he was hoping to try and put something together for farmers. So myself, James, another farmer Bruce Thompson from Ireland, a dairy farmer who says he now farms dung beetles, not cows. And two entomologists, Sally-ann Spence and Max Anderson, who was a student at the time. We basically set up an online resource, called dung beetles for farmers, which hopefully does exactly what it says on the tin and tries to improve the conservation status of dung beetles throughout the UK. And that, for me, was the start of something. To think that this tiny little beetle that spends its entire life in poo would change the direction of my entire career is pretty phenomenal, really. But that’s kind of what’s happened. And it was a bit of an inroad into, well there’s dung beetles that do this job on farms and then there’s all of these other creatures that also have these little jobs. And then they rely on the livestock and then the livestock rely on them.

Claire: And my job I think as a farm vet up to that point, had been very much livestock centric. So it had been looking at the animals in front of me and treating them or looking at them from a sort of herd health perspective. And then I think the change then came around in terms of thinking, okay, what are the other impacts that my job could possibly have? And I did a postgraduate certificate in conservation medicine just because this really appealed to me. And it was great, but it was very broad. I mean, we looked at everything from like canned lion hunting to fennoscandian populations of Arctic foxes. And for me it was great, but it wasn’t farming and farming was what I was interested in.So then I applied for a Nuffield scholarship to look at whether regenerative agriculture could improve the health and welfare of livestock. Got very interested in regen, as we all do, and went down the rabbit hole. Took the red pill, if you like. 

Manda: Or the green pill.

Claire: Yeah. And it’s just kind of been a whirlwind from there. It’s escalated from that point. I did holistic management training, and that was a bit of a pivotal moment. I did a lot of crying, finding out both about myself and what I thought about the world and also about this holistic view. So looking at things in wholes.

Manda: Tell us more about holistic management training. I want to unpick some of the previous stuff, but just while we’re here, what is it, who does it and if you can, what was it that triggered in you the emotional stuff? Because you’ve already described a really big emotional journey, and yet this is taking you deeper. Tell us a little bit more about that. 

Claire: So holistic management, well, lots of people do it for different reasons. And I kind of thought it was training just for farmers.It’s based on work by Allan Savoury, and I did my training course with Sheila Cook. And I did some of it at Farm Ed, and in fact James Allan, who I mentioned previously, the farmer, James and Katie were doing it for their farm. So they were having it done at their farm and I basically joined the party. So I went there and actually there was four of us. So there was myself, Katie and James and George who was working for them at the time. And all four of us did it together. Which was actually really nice because it was a small group. It’s basically split up into four parts. So the first part was sort of designing your context. So by your context it’s like what you want your life to look like. Your whole life. So it’s not just about a farm, it’s about designing your own, what’s the word? It’s like a mission statement maybe in a way.

Manda: Right. Yes. Because we tend to default into how we want our life to be. And then you sit down and you actually think about it and plan it, which is not a usual behaviour for most of us in this world.

Claire: And it’s all very ecocentric, if you like. So it’s very much about putting nature at the heart of it and that’s all I think we really are destined to want to do. We don’t realise it, but kind of it’s all within us, those sort of foundations, aren’t they? And that was a bit of a tipping point for me, I think, because I realised that what I was doing in my day to day wasn’t really aligned necessarily with who I wanted to be and what I wanted to put into the world. So I think that’s where the tears came from, was that realisation that there was this whole other world that I wasn’t necessarily focusing on. So I came up with my context, I can’t remember the entirety of it, but  it’s basically that I advocate for healthy livestock as part of healthy ecosystems that benefit people and planet. And that was a bit of a moment for me, really.

Claire: I think the most important thing to say about that one is you can just do that part of the course if you want to. So that was the first part. And it’s applicable to everyone, whether you are a farmer, whether you are a hairdresser, whether you are a vet, whatever you want to do, to come up with that idea and to really sit down and delve into it was pretty profound, really. And then the second bits follow up into grazing planning, financial planning, and then the fourth part which I really enjoyed. I mean it was slightly harder for me with the grazing and financial planning because I don’t have a farm, but hopefully some of what I’ve learned there I can apply to this current business which I do in my other two days a week. So the holistic management, the grazing planning, financials and then the fourth part is like ecological outcomes. And that was fascinating as well. It was very much kind of like the stuff you do in school, like minibeast hunting and putting out quadrats and measuring what’s in those quadrats. And I really enjoyed that. And that’s something that hopefully I can help other farms set up as well in the future and maybe even my own one day.

Manda: We’ll talk about that later.

Claire: For me, it wasn’t just about putting myself or the livestock at the centre of the picture.

Manda: And it seems also to be inherent within this the concept that humanity can be a good keystone species. Which is something that Chris Smage talks about quite a lot, that we have as our default belief that humanity is destructive. If we think at all, I think that’s the assumption that we take in. And yet, if I’ve understood what you’re saying correctly and and extrapolating it to Chris Smage and other people, the idea that there is still room for people to be of benefit to the whole of the web of life, if we just take the agency that we’re given and work out how to do it. And it doesn’t mean that we’re going to all end up living in straw bale huts in the west of Wales, off grid. You can be of benefit within a system that is endeavouring to be of benefit. And then you can step in as a vet. You have huge agency because you must be talking to farmers all the time. How do your two types of work, your standard vet practice and your two days a week of being a regenerative vet, do they overlap? Are you able to have regenerative conversations with your ordinary clients? Or are the people who go, you know, I know you do this weird stuff, but I just don’t want to hear about it. Just tell me how to maximise yield from my dairy cows.

Claire: Yeah, that’s a really interesting question. So at the point where I was when we did the holistic management, that was my job. I was doing that five days a week. So that was all I did. So I was like I need to be able to try and take steps to make this something I don’t do all the time. So I ended up setting up the Regenerative Vets last year. I thought, we’ll give it a go. Doesn’t matter if it’s small, because I’ll still get my income from the three days a week. And I think that’s really important as well, one of the things maybe we can discuss a bit further, but jumping into something straight in cold turkey, doesn’t necessarily always make sense from a financial perspective, and it certainly wouldn’t have made sense for me. Whereas the benefit now is I can just earn a little bit doing the regenerative vet side. I still know I have my bread and butter,safe. I’m not much of a risk taker sometimes. And build that slowly. And I think biomimicry comes into that as well. But yeah, in answer to your question, it’s hard sometimes, the two things can be both very separate but also very together. So they’re all farming, whichever way you look at it. I do have some interesting conversations with some of my dairy clients. I hope that people feel they can talk to me about it, and even things about the SFI and things and knowing what things people can apply for, from a nature perspective, I love that.

Claire: But yeah, I feel sometimes like I do have my feet in two very different camps, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I work with a team of 14 vets at the practice I work at, which, you know, there’s a lot of us that for me is a nice thing, to have that team around me. Whereas I feel sometimes I can be a bit on my own on the other stuff. And yeah, there’s definitely an increasing overlap between the two sides. I hate to use the word sides, but sometimes it does feel a bit like that, doesn’t it, that you have one side and the other. But yeah, both types of farms need help, I would say. Whether you’re an intensive dairy, there’s definitely things I can still do there to try and help improve that business, regardless of whether I feel that they’re doing the right thing. And there’s so many reasons why people do things the way they do. Oftentimes we’ll talk about debt. You know, some of these farms are up to their eyeballs in debt. And what do you do about that, when you’ve just put in a brand new rotary parlour and put up huge sheds, they need to be used. The bank isn’t going to say, oh, well, it’s all right actually your cows can just produce 15l a day and you’ll be all right. The whole system needs to change, it’s not the farms. I think sometimes the blame gets put there, and that’s not where it should be.

Manda: Yes. And I remember looking at figures from the US where the average farmer, they rounded them around. But let’s say they had an income of $100,000 a year, but they owed 85,000 of those dollars. So it just flowed straight through. They were just basically creating income for the death cult of predatory capitalism. And they were working for less than the minimum wage. And until they can get their heads around that and service the debt some other way, then the whole system is going to continue. And somebody associated with holistic management said, I get the phrase right, profit is sanity and throughput is vanity? Or was it the other way around? That it’s not the total amount you make that matters, it’s actually how much you get to keep. And if all of your money is just going off servicing your debt and paying for the machines and paying for the stuff that you’re pouring on the land, then then basically you’re still going to be feeling very constrained within a system that values people by how much money they make. If you’re aware of the dung beetles, so I want to talk about dung beetles a bit more. I’m wondering, how do you how do you manage if you know now that some of the pharmaceuticals that we throw around are intensely damaging to natural systems, and yet you have someone who’s got an 80 cow parlour that has to keep rotating all the time, and those cows are going to be super stressed, and you’re going to need to give them. Well, we could we could unpick the verb need. They are going to expect you to give them pharmaceuticals that you know are damaging. How do you square that? Or do you just end up feeling difficult inside and having to do something to let that go?

Claire: Yeah, it’s an interesting one. So I think one of the first things I would say is that most adult cattle don’t need worming. So as long as they’ve had two grazing seasons on the farm, eight month grazing seasons, and they were born on that farm, they should build up some resilience to gut worm. Fluke in cattle is definitely a different story. But from a worming perspective, for me there’s stages. So just like I said to you earlier, sometimes going cold turkey isn’t the best thing and the best thing for the welfare of those animals either. But if farmers are doing some diagnostics, at the moment for me that’s actually a massive step. Because some people aren’t even at that point. It’s easy to grab a bottle, isn’t it? And it’s actually relatively cheap to grab a bottle and use it, without doing those diagnostics. So if you can decide actually whether or not your animals need worming in the first place, then that to me is a great first step. 

Manda: Big win. 

Claire: Yeah. Exactly. And then it’ll escalate from there. So that’s my general starting point and I would say that to most farms. As an interesting one, Ireland have gone prescription only on their worming products. So for people listening that don’t know, worming products can be prescribed by a vet or by a specially or suitably qualified person, I think that’s the word and SQP. So that means that that vet might not have any conversation with that farmer about worming products whatsoever. So actually, if we can just get farmers to engage with their vets about worming products, and what and when they should be using them. Again, that’s a great first step for me. So actually, what’s going on on your farm? What’s going on in your animals? Do these animals actually need worming? Can we just at least get to a point where we understand that to start with and then whether or not you need to use products? Because these products do cost money and it costs somebody time to apply them, so we should be finding out whether or not we need them.

Claire: So Bruce Thompson, who I mentioned earlier, he always says to use as little as possible, but as much as is necessary. And I think one of the things people don’t talk about enough is worm resistance, anthelmintic resistance in livestock. I think sheep farmers are very good at it, they’ve been battling with it for years. Basically worm resistance is the lack of sensitivity to a product that was previously sensitive. So it’s the worms themselves that become resistant, not the animals, I think that’s always an important one. And once the resistance is in those worms, that’s there to stay. It’s not going to go away. And we don’t have any new products coming to market. So even if you don’t give a poop about a dung beetle, everybody should be more concerned that these products are not going to work if we use them badly or we just continually use them on the same cycle. So protecting them as much as anything is important. Definitely.

Manda: Is there any conversation happening around the impact on the gut biome? Because I know in horses, again, resistance to worms is huge because everyone has just been given this, this and this. Give it every three months, do it regardless. And now we’re taking worm egg counts and wondering, do we actually need this? But also, my pony got laminitis last year. My self-education on the horse gut biome was basically a vertical curve. And realising that a lot of the anthelmintics that we use also annihilate certain species within the gut biome, and that this is not a good thing when you’re wanting your horse to have a healthy gut biome, because that’s what keeps their feet intact. Is that a thing within the cattle and farming industry, or is that just too esoteric at the moment?

Claire: No, I think it’s coming. I mean, it’s interesting, talking about anthelmintics, but also antibiotics, you know basically to feed cattle you’re kind of feeding their bacteria in their gut.  So every time we use an antibiotic in them, we will have an effect won’t we. And the problem I think we forget with these products, is it doesn’t just take out the bad stuff, they take out the good stuff. We know that in humans as well. So trying to use antibiotics as little as possible. And you know there’s so many knock on impacts of that as well. One of the best ways a farmer can reduce their carbon footprint is to reduce their antibiotic use. Having healthy animals just means more production. So if your’re production focussed, actually just keeping those animals healthy and not using those products, I think is important. There’s a question I often think about when it comes to wormers; so these products, we didn’t have them before. It was really the 1960s when they became more prevalent. So what happened before? We probably had a similar amount of livestock, but on smaller farms, potentially more spread out. A shepherd would go up into the hills with those sheep and be with them 24 seven. That doesn’t happen now. So they could have got checked more regularly, but also potentially they would have died. So  I’m not suggesting that we leave animals to die, but what I am suggesting is maybe if we’re having to treat those animals in our flocks and our herds, whether or not they should stay. What resilience have we lost in our herds and flocks by these products becoming available? And also the fact that it’s humans that have created resistant worms, I mean, we’ve done that. These worms wouldn’t have existed if we hadn’t used those products so heavily in the first place, basically. So all of those things, I think, play a role. But yeah, in terms of gut biome, I think there’s really interesting stuff to come there. I think we’re probably early on in that research, from a ruminant perspective, I wouldn’t pertain to know much about it really. 

Manda: Exciting though. There’s so much to be done there. It feels like one of those doors that has just newly opened. It’s a bit like epigenetics, it wasn’t a thing ten years ago, and now we’re all going, oh, look, this these things happen in real time. The genetic structure of an animal can change in its lifetime. And we didn’t know that before. It’s a fascinating area. And I’m wondering also, we’re talking about the animal biome. And dung beetles have their own biome. And then the soil has its own biome. And if I’ve understood regenerative farming at all it’s that if we can restore the soil biome to what it was when we had a really good diverse land, then we also enhanced the health of everything that lives on it, and we increase the biodiversity of all of the animal species around it. So presumably what Bruce Thompson in Ireland is saying, when he’s farming for dung beetles, is similar to a local organic farmer here who says he’s basically a worm farmer, is we’re farming for healthy soil. And healthy soil can sequester carbon. So I know there was an article in the Financial Times last week saying that we’re all overstating the carbon sequestration, but that’s because greenwashing is happening and people are going, okay, we’re going to plant trees, and then we’re going to sequester carbon, and then we can carry on with business as usual, and everything is fine, which is clearly insane. But that doesn’t stop us from understanding that if we create healthy soil and if we can replace some of the topsoil that we have been busy destroying for the last 50 or 60 years, then everything is healthier. First of all, is that true? Second, to what extent are you finding within your regenerative practice that people are able to increase soil biodiversity? And what results are they seeing?

Claire: Yeah, so I would agree with all of what you said. I feel like healthy soils lead to healthy everything. Part of my Northfield travels I went up to the Lake District, which I wouldn’t have done if it wasn’t during Covid, I went to a farm in the Lake District, and I remember having a bit of a light bulb moment when I walked into the bedroom I was staying in, and there was a Maggie Lim poster and it said “the answer lies in the soil”. And I was like, wow, that is amazing. So I do believe and dung beetles, just to give as an example of what you’ve just said, dung beetles are nature’s own dung removal service. In theory, all of that dung that sits on top of the pasture, we want that under the ground. We want those nutrients mixed into the soil. And dung beetles do that for free. So there’s not only the livestock that are in front of us, the cows and the sheep for example, there’s all of the other livestock on the farm, and some of that’s underground livestock, whether that’s your worms, your dung beetles. Some of it’s above ground, you know, birds, things like that. Swallows eat a thousand flies a day. If you’ve got them around your cattle, if you can encourage them onto your farm, all the better. So there’s all of this other livestock that’s working for us, and they’re not even considered in most farming systems as being part of that system.

Claire: In terms of farms I work with, that’s what they’re trying to achieve. They want to farm alongside nature as much as possible and bring those things in. So the dung beetle thing, it blows my mind because they do that for free and yet we use these products that then kill them. It doesn’t make sense. I can’t ever really get my head around how that ever happened. And I know, knowledge was different then and what people actually considered. But it’s just going back to that. It was very anthropocentric, wasn’t it, our views. And I think that’s the main thing that has to change and I think that’s what’s happening with the farms that I work with. You know, there’s ways of monitoring it. So even on the dung Beetles for farmers web page, you can download a citizen science survey basically. How to do basic surveys on your farm. So you can look at what you’ve got now. You can compare it year on year to see what’s happening. People using things like Soil Mentor. I mean, I just love the fact that people are comparing how many birds they’ve got versus how many litres of milk their cow can produce. That to me is like, that’s such yay! Why aren’t we doing that more?  And yeah, I think that’s all people are trying to achieve. And what I find the most fascinating is just what people observe, what people are actually looking at on their farm. And the same things might have happened every single year, but they’re really just like, oh, we had an orchid. You know, that’s such an amazing thing to actually see and to be able to name it and to feel that that’s part of you and your farm and that sort of link between yourself and the land, I think is basically what’s the change for a lot of the farmers that I work with now in a consultancy role.

Manda: And so they’re beginning to get excited by the orchid or by the number of dung beetles or presumably different species of dung beetles. And to watch them returning, I think. We’ve been on this land now for six years and two winters ago on Christmas Day, I turned over one of the pony poos, and there was a dung beetle in it, a big shiny dung beetle. And first of all, I’m not sure they’re meant to be out in Christmas Day, this is probably a bit of a sign of climate chaos and catastrophe, but even so, dung beetles are here! This is so exciting. And then a lot of the narrative around, particularly with horses around, you have to remove every single article of faeces and put it somewhere safe, just begins to be different. And yes, if you’re keeping your ponies on six square metres of land, you probably do, because otherwise the dung beetle is going to be a bit overwhelmed. But we’ve got 28 acres and two ponies, it’s okay. So are you seeing with your farmers that level of excitement and the it doesn’t matter if we’re only getting however many litres from our cows, because we’re changing our business model and maybe selling directly, or doing something to create more value from our milk than we will get from a supermarket, which is going to pay us less than the cost of production. Because that seems to me what you were saying about don’t go cold turkey, it matters that we still live within a predatory capitalist system. We still need money to survive, and we can’t get to the point where we have amazing land and no income, or we won’t have the land anymore. Somebody will buy it and turn it into a mega farm. How are your farmers adjusting to changed priorities? What are they doing so that they can prioritise dung beetles and worms and swallows?

Claire: I think that’s where the difference in thinking comes in, doesn’t it? And there’s going to be people on both sides of the coin. Very much so. And hopefully more people going more towards that way of thinking, or I hope so. I think always there’s a toss up isn’t there. So you’re never going to be able to get 70l of milk out of a cow a day if you just feed it on grass, that’s not going to happen. So that’s your mindset shift I think right there. But you might get 15l to 20l out of a cow a day with a lot less inputs. And that comes back to that profit yield thing, doesn’t it? So if you start focusing on the profit over the yield, then in effect I think that’s when you can start really seeing changes. But those systems are going to be lower output. You know, the lower the input, the lower the output, no matter what way you look at it really. And I think some people are happy with that. And that’s really that’s a really nice thing that they’re happy with that. It’s not easy to farm, I don’t think, whichever way you look at it, but I think it’s a more maybe satisfying way of life.

Manda: It’s more spiritually engaged.

Claire: Yeah, exactly.

Manda: It’s kind of hard to be spiritually engaged with your 70l a day cow that is basically a living machine. And you’re going to break it and throw it away quite fast because no cow can produce 70l a day for very long. Whereas certainly in the pasture for life groups that I’m in, they’re looking at breeds that don’t produce that much, that are able to live on the land 100% and just eat grass, because that’s what cows are for. And, you know, everyone’s talking about how can we change our power use from 19 rolling terawatts around the planet to five, which is what all the smart people say is where we need to. And we have these amazing little solar arrays called grass leaves that the cows can just graze on. And then we don’t need to have all of the high carbon input stuff to keep them going. I listened to a fantastic podcast with Ffinlo Costain, it was someone in Germany, and they were getting 3000l a year from their cows, and they were really happy because they had almost no inputs at all.

Manda: And the cows were happy and they had good feet and they weren’t needing antibiotics because they weren’t stressed all the time. And they told the guy who taught agriculture at the local university wherever in Germany. And he laughed and said that’s not an output. That’s not production. You know, we’re not even interested in talking about that, because it’s not anywhere close to what we consider to be financially viable. And so I’m wondering, where do you find the nexuses of conversation? Because there are going to be people where that is their worldview, and unless they have a light bulb moment where they walk into a room and it says ‘the answer is in the soil’, they’re not going to change, because all of their worldview and their emotional alignment is in the high productivity, linear, reductive mindset. And a lot of farmers went through farming college, and all of their companions are like that. And it must be really hard to begin to step against the tide. What is it that helps people to change? What is the light bulb moment that gets people to begin to think outside the box?

Claire: I think that’s other people. I think that’s other farmers and I think that’s what we always see, isn’t it? Is you have those farmers that take the first steps and they start to see the benefit, and that will be the same for anything. You have the change makers to start with, and then you hope that 80% of people will follow them. Or that they will at least make some changes or even just start a question in their mind. I think that’s the important thing. I think that’s probably what happened for me; there was a niggling question about farming overall and at first I was very defensive of it. I think that was the other thing; you go through those stages, don’t you, where you are. I was like, no, this can’t possibly be right…This is great and it’s everything. But if you have an open mind to all of the possibilities, even if you’re not there yet, you will get there. And there’s lots of reasons, isn’t there, why people don’t change or why people do. And it’s very different. But I hope it would start slowly and you get like the groundswell of movement towards it. But I do think it’s other people. Other people in an open mind.

Manda: Yeah. And having people like you going ‘there are answers and we can help you on the way’. So everybody’s not having to redesign their own wheel from scratch. So again you’re there leading. Are you finding other vets are referring farmers to you? These guys are asking questions and I know you have the answers and I haven’t got them yet. Please will you take them on? Is that a thing?

Claire: I would say I have more and more conversations with vets. There’s two things going on at the moment. So I recently did some training for vet practices in the South. So we had like seven different vet practices turn up and talk to them. So they came as sort of CPD, which yeah, I got massive imposter syndrome.

Manda: But I bet they loved it.

Claire: And those conversations I think are really important throughout the vet world and beyond. And yeah, talking to farmers as great, isn’t it? But we need to get the vets on board with this as well. And I think for me, there’s more and more conversation around it. Whether I get referred directly from vets or not, I definitely get phone calls from them about it, and I think that’s a good thing. I did hear the other day I forget which university it was, I want to say it was Surrey, but I believe they had a day at university where they learnt all about dung beetles. Now for me that’s amazing. Like that’s where it needs to start in vet schools. It certainly didn’t start there for me. So if that’s happening, amazing. Like that should happen everywhere. Like we should learn more about the natural biodiversity for animal health really. There’s all of those benefits, but a lot of it has been around sales. And the vet practice model is still based around sales, unfortunately. Whichever way I think you want to look at it, it’s sales of product. And a lot of that product will provide other things, you know, some of the diagnostics and that kind of thing.

Claire: But it’s one of those slightly weird jobs, isn’t it? It’s not like the NHS because you have to pay for that service. But then that service is provided generally by sales. The whole model almost needs looking at. And that’s what I’m trying to do here. But I’m selling time. And a lot of people would see vets as the cost in terms of time. You know, you’re someone that comes on the farm with this problem. So how can we make it more proactive? And I think generally the veterinary profession has got better at that over the years in terms of preventative health, from a small animal perspective and a large animal perspective. But yeah, I like to think it’s changing for the good. And doing those training sessions, I really enjoy actually. Because parasitology in university for me was quite boring.

Manda: Yeah, totally. Look at this worm under the microscope and tell us what it was.

Claire: I if someone had said, you know, there’s these dung beetles, I’d have been really interested in it. But it didn’t inspire me quite so much. So hopefully I can try and inspire other people. And the work I do as the regenerative vet is very much about trying to work with the vets that are on the farm. So I did a consultancy visit the other day. I went up in the north and interestingly, parasite control on a fell type situation, or on a common land is quite tricky for lots of reasons, because you need farmers to collaborate together on that. But their vet came along to the farm as well, so they could be there and listen in to what I was saying. And I’m really, really open to that. I don’t want to be like, well, I’m the consultant and therefore I know best. Let’s get everyone involved on that farm. And some of the best conversations I actually have are when you’re sat down around a table and there’s the farmer, there’s the nutritionist…

Manda: And I am thinking also with common land, one of the core narratives of the death cult is that the tragedy of the commons is tragic, that it is impossible for people to get together and have a commonality of anything without destroying it, which quite evidently isn’t true. And Elinor Ostrom demonstrated that very effectively decades ago, but it’s still a narrative. If you have someone on common land, as you’ve just described, who wants to begin to be more regenerative, to use fewer products, which is going to piss off the agricultural consultant, presumably. But in the end, you can provide a narrative, a story about healthier animals and I’m thinking also happier farmers. And that must be a really big thing, because almost all the farmers I know are super stressed. They lie awake at night wondering how they’re going to service their debt, because they depend on weather and things, and they exist in a mechanistic system that that doesn’t allow for differences in rainfall. How does that pan out, or have you not seen enough yet? Do other farmers come and listen? Or does that one farmer then have to be an advocate for everything? Go, hey guys, look, it could be much different if we all embraced a different worldview. That’s a hard thing to be that trailblazer. How does it go?

Claire: Yeah that’s a really tricky question and I haven’t got the answer. All I can say is one of the conversations we had that day was how to get all the farmers together. And that might not be best coming from the farmer, but actually maybe that’s where the vet has a role. So if the vet has a meeting around parasite control on common land, actually, and you can get most of the farmers or ideally every single farmer that’s involved in that bit of common land together, to talk about those decisions, we can facilitate those discussions. And that’s a really good first step in just getting people to start thinking about working together. Because it’s really hard if you’ve got, say, sheep scab on common land and one person treats, then those animals will just get reinfected by another on the fell and another, you know, and it’s just a constant going round. So everybody needs to work together to do things at the same time. And I think that collaboration, if it can start even from just a parasite perspective, then the vets help that happen. So for me that’s a win.

Manda: Yes. So if you’re holding conversations like that with big groups of farmers, have you taken training in how to facilitate non-confrontational conversation? Because that seems to me to be one of the keys to creating a regenerative future is finding different ways to talk to each other. But even that can be a hard conversation to have. Is it somewhere that you go, or is that just too off the edge?

Claire: No, I haven’t done any training. Maybe I should actually, maybe that’s not a bad thing to do, but I also don’t mind being the middle person, I think that’s a good thing. I think having that middle ground isn’t a bad thing. And if I’m the person that ends up being that facilitator, for whatever reason, of those conversations, that’s fine. And I think it’s years of talking to farmers. I mean, you just get such a cross-section of people in the farming industry and you have to learn to listen. And I think, coming back to vet school and stuff, we get these really high achievers that are doing exceptionally well in exams, but actually in communication can fall down a little bit. So I think communication, in terms of what we’re looking for in our future generation of vets, should be a really, really high priority. Those softer skills aren’t taught to us at all, are they? They’re not ever really taught to us, whether we’re at school for farmers or for anyone else.

Claire: We don’t get taught communication. We don’t get taught how to listen. One of the things I really struggle with is how we’re taught to deal with emotions. Like happiness is a great thing, isn’t it? Because we want everyone to be happy. But then when people have grief or sadness or anger, all of those things are sort of seen as bad emotions, and we shouldn’t talk about them and definitely don’t be sad, because that’s a terrible thing. But actually all people have all of these. All they are is emotions. Happiness is still an emotion, it comes and it goes. Sadness is emotion, it comes and it goes. And we’re not taught how to deal with them. So yeah, maybe if we can introduce communication better in schools, in general, we might get somewhere.

Manda: And possibly select differently. Because certainly in my day, the competition to get into vet school was higher than getting into medicine. It was the highest of any competition anywhere. And so you self-select for the people who are very good at passing exams. And those of us who are very good at passing exams tend to be quite far along the spectrum, away from the capacity to communicate. It took me decades to learn how to talk to anybody, and I had to want to do that. And so selecting for people who are going to be capable of conversation or helping them to find the ways to be capable of conversation seems to be quite key. And then, exactly as you’re saying, it seems to me that those of us who are interested in a regenerative future go through a pretty classic and predictable set of emotional curves. Where we start off with curiosity and possibly quite a lot of denial, and then we slam into a brick wall of grief because we are part of a system that is destroying the things that we love, and everyone is going to hit that. And finding ways to help people navigate that and come out the other side to a place where we understand that we still have agency, that humanity as a positive keystone species is still a possibility, and there are routes to get there.

Manda: And you mentioned biomimicry and and even understanding that the web of life could be a model for us, that we could deliberately embrace and step forward into a world where we engage differently with the natural world. It’s a huge conversation to have for people. In your navigating of the conversations, what is it that carries the leading edge farmers forward? What is it that gives them the impetus to get up in the morning and do things differently? Is it that they’ll feel better? Is it that they’ve gone through the grief and they can see light at the end of the tunnel? Is it a fascination with dung beetles and understanding how they how they do their stuff? I want you to talk a little bit more about dung beetles in a moment, because they’re so exciting. Is it that sort of thing? What is it that gets them up in the morning and and gets them stepping outside the box?

Claire: I think it’s different for every single person. So whatever it is that’s interested them, that’s caused them to come into this is going to be completely different for every single person. So mine is dung beetles, which is crazy, in a weird way. It is those little beetles. For somebody it might be, I remember a conversation with an arable farmer who was spraying his fields, and a hare ran under the sprayer, and then it went up on the headland and he saw it licking himself. And that was his sort of moment that this didn’t feel right. And that was all that it took. And I think for me, one of the biggest things that I’ve realised through all of this journey, is that every single farm is its unique self. It’s your own unique ecosystem and they’re all very different. So everything that we ever learned about this sort of general prescription for all farms, about what should go ahead, just doesn’t stack up anymore. So you know what I was talking about working  up in the North the other day on that common ground, is completely different to a farmer working down in the southwest on permanent pasture. Every single farm is different. Every single farmer is different. And therefore that requires you to just take a completely different approach to your farm. It’s the same as what I was taught at vet school, it’s one size fits all and it just doesn’t exist anymore. And one of the first questions I now ask farms, when I go out and do my consultancy visit is, what are you trying to achieve? That’s what I want to know. What do they want from their life? What do they want from their business? What do they want for their future or for their children? All of that kind of stuff. What is that farm trying to achieve? And it’s not necessarily a question I would ask in my day to day vet role.

Manda: No, but it’s the first question of that first module of the holistic planned grazing training that you did. And for you, that was a really emotional moment. Do you find that with the farmers asking them that takes them through a similar emotional cycle, or are they coming to you because they’ve already asked themselves that and they’ve been through that emotional cycle?

Claire: I’ve had both. So I’ve had people be a bit shocked at the question, and then I’ve had people be like, oh, well, actually, would you want to hear our context? And it just very much depends on where they are on their journey. My favourite ones are the ones where people go, oh, what are we trying to achieve? And then you kind of help try and unpick that a little bit. I quite enjoy that. Because often we don’t think about it, do we? What is it we’re trying to achieve. And not just from a business perspective but from everything. 

Manda: Yeah, as a Human being.

Claire: If I want to talk about how we’re going to do some grazing planning, from a worming perspective, if somebody actually doesn’t want to be working at certain hours of the day or isn’t able to move their cows on one day or another, that kind of thing really helps. Because, you know, they’re taking the kids to rugby or whatever.

Manda: Yeah, yeah. Fascinating. I can feel a whole rabbit hole we could go down there, but because I’ve heard you talk about dung beetles and it’s just so inspiring. And I think that’s one of the things that you bring to this is you’ve got such energy around the ‘guys, dung beetles. They’re so much fun. And look, you could you could be looking after dung beetles and not killing them. This would be a good thing’. So tell us a little bit about the life cycle of a dung beetle and, and how it does what it does so that we can get everyone excited.

Claire: Yeah. Okay, I love that. I could talk about them all day, so do feel free to just interject. So I am a vet, not an entomologist; I’m a dung beetle enthusiast more than a dung beetle expert. In the UK, as I said earlier, we’ve got about 60 species. So 60 species, of which nearly half of them are endangered in one way or another and there’s various reasons for that. We’ve got two types of dung beetle. We have dwellers which do exactly what they say, they dwell in in the pat, and their entire life cycle is completed in that poo pat. And then we’ve got tunnellers. So tunnellers tunnel down underneath the dung and as they tunnel down they basically are mining. So they make like a central mineshaft and then they have these little side shafts that come off and they pull the poo down under the soil into these little side shafts, little tiny poo balls. And into each poo ball they lay an egg, and then that egg reproduces in the ground and then they come up the following year and that cycle continues. So we’ve got dwellers and tunnelers. We don’t have those big rolling beetles that they have on David Attenborough movies.

Manda: Where do they live? Are they in kind of desert areas do I remember?

Claire: Yeah, South Africa, big sort of African rolling dung beetles. And the reason we don’t have those dung beetles is we don’t have the same competition for poo. So basically in the UK, there’s so much poo everywhere that they don’t need to physically come pick the poo up in a ball.

Manda: Steal it and roll it away.

Claire: And steal it away from everybody else, yeah, and try and hide it away. So basically it’s a good thing we’ve got lots of poo and our dung beetles are smaller in comparison. So if we’re going to talk about dung beetles, I think the most important thing is that we talk about poo. So poo gets a really bad rep in terms of the problems that it causes and the pollution in the UK, but actually it’s really, really important. There’s loads of things that rely on poo, and there are so many things going on in there in a single poo pat. I often describe it as a night out in Liverpool. So if we think of our poo as a night out in Liverpool, you’ve got your sort of creepy guys hanging out on the street corners, so they will be like your parasitic worms and your flies all causing a bit of a problem, being a bit weird. And then you’ve got your big guys who are walking down the street and they’re all up for a bit of a fight. And so they’ll be things like your predatory beetles and your predatory spiders, and they are literally just scrapping with each other, just trying to eat everything that’s in there, fighting over other bugs. Everyone’s trying to eat each other. And then we’ve got dung beetles who are literally going from bar to bar and getting drunk on liquid dung. That’s what they want to do. So they’re just our lovely guys having a nice time, having a nice little night out in Liverpool. And then you’ve got your things like your dung flies that are just having sex all over it.

Claire: So there’s basically this huge night out in a city inside this single poo pat. And there was a chap in the 50s who figured out that a single cow pat could support up to a thousand developing insects. Now, if you think about that in terms of sort of amounts of bugs, a single cow could then potentially support over 2 million insects per year. So suddenly poo goes from being this negative thing that is just contaminating the environment, to suddenly when we’re talking about global biodiversity loss of 70%, this huge sort of living, breathing mass of life.

Manda: And this is a dung pat that’s on the land, because it seems to me that a lot of the ‘pollution’ partly is diverting our attention away from the fact that what we’re spraying and dusting on the land is running straight off into the rivers and is actually the cause of most of the pollution. But we can say, oh no, look at these bad cows. And those are the ones that are in concrete. And then you’ve got slurry lagoons, which isn’t doing any of this useful stuff, presumably. So it’s when the cattle or the sheep or the horses or the goats or whatever, the ruminant or the animals that digest grass, are on the land and dropping their dung and their urine on the land. And I’ve also noticed here that the crows turn up a lot. Presumably the crows are turning up because they’re feasting off the amazing amount of life that the dung pat is creating. And then the swallows are scooping across the top, and then the bats come out in the evening and they’re scooping across as well. So we’re creating a whole hierarchies of amazing and brilliant biodiversity. Yay. So we have our tunnellers and our dwellers. What do the dwellers do? Do they just stay in the same pat or are they actually moving from pat to pat and kind of tracking things with them.

Claire: Yeah, they do move from pat to pat. And it’s interesting what you said about the poo on concrete is an interesting one. So if you want to think dung beetles, you need to think like you are a dung beetle. So currently Manda, you are now a dung beetle. And how you evolved as well. So if you think about it from that perspective, you’re a dung beetle, you didn’t evolve with concrete, so therefore you don’t know what to do with it. So dung beetles evolved with pats on pasture. So some of these tunnelling dung beetles can move up to 500 times their own body weight. That is incredible. That’s like us moving six buses full of people, it just wouldn’t happen. So they can move that. And they’re called geotrupidae, which is one of their main names, those big black beetles that you found in your horse poo. That means earth mover, which is really cool. So they tunnel down, but they cannot tunnel through concrete. They don’t know what to do with it. And dung beetles have this amazing quality of actually being able to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. So one of the things that we’re talking about at the moment is reducing methane in livestock by giving them supplements in their diet. I mean, the whole thing just makes me a little bit crazy. Why don’t we just work on improving the number of dung beetles who can reduce climate greenhouse gas emissions up to 12%?

Manda: How do they do that?

Claire: So dung beetles have this huge role to play in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. And yet we’re talking about feeding stuff to cows, which might change how their dung looks to a dung beetle. The whole thing just blows my mind a little bit. So again, how they evolve. They also evolved with cows that ate grass. You know, we decided to feed animals. They wouldn’t have grown maize because they don’t have thumbs, so they would have eaten pasture. So therefore a dung beetle will potentially prefer pasture fed livestock. They don’t know what to do with high grain diets. They don’t know what to do with very liquid poo. So you said slurry, they don’t know what to do with slurry, they need those pats. They’re also a prey species, so those big folds that you get in your horse poos, they like to dig into those and hide. They’re a bit like the ruminant of the poo world, if you like. So they want to hide in those big deep pats. They don’t know what to do with slurry, they don’t know what to do with very liquid poo. And you know, we put dairy cows out in the springtime and, you know, I go and PD them (pregnancy diagnose) and get covered in green poo. And we say it’s normal, but how is it normal that that happens? We accept it as being normal. But when it takes a ruminant three weeks to change onto a different diet, if that was happening naturally according to the grass growth curve, we wouldn’t see that. But what we do see is this sudden change from a grain diet onto a grass diet in the spring, and the consequences of that. So when you’re talking about your gut biome, again, it’s probably not great for it I would say.

Manda: It’s probably also a monoculture rye grass diet, which is not going to be that good anyway. I’m sure the dung beetle actually wants lots of diverse species coming through in the dung, because it must have its own gut biome that needs diversity as much as anything else needs diversity.

Claire: Exactly. Again, how did they evolve? We talk about these improved pastures of rye grass, don’t we? I don’t really know the benefit. It’s like giving cows sweets to me. You just give them a load of sugary sweets all the time. They don’t have any choice in what they eat. Therefore, you get this rapid transit through the gut. You increase their metabolism, you increase their milk yields, all of those things do happen. But actually, what’s the benefit to the longevity of that cow? What’s the benefit to the beetles that are surviving on that? And a very small scale test that I did, a group of dry cows moving through a dairy farm,  the same group of dairy cows moving through the same farm. One bit of that farm is meadow, beautiful meadow, 20 odd or so species. You won’t find tunnelling dung beetles on any of that rye grass and clover pasture. The only place you see the tunnelling dung beetles and hundreds of them is in that meadow land. So it’s the same group of cows, it’s the same in theory, dung. But is it something about the diet that’s changed for the cows when they go into that meadow? Or is it something about that actual soil structure that they like more? I don’t know the answer, but I know that I see more in there and that’s telling me something.

Manda: And probably the the monoculture pasture has been ploughed and seeded and the meadow hasn’t, because you can’t have that level of diversity if you destroyed the the soil microbiome and the mycology. And I’m wondering, it would be really interesting, not when they’re dry cows but my understanding is that cattle fed on monoculture grasses and cereals, the omega six omega three ratio in the milk is the wrong way round for humanity. So it’s not only bad for the dung beetles and bad for the soil and bad for the cattle, it’s bad for the people who are drinking the milk or the milk products, or eating the meat, or any of the other things that we’ve got these cattle for in the first place. And that’s the kind of thing that isn’t getting any media exposure at all. If you read or listen to some of the what’s now commonplace but used to be considered hard right visions of the world, they want to rewild everything that they don’t necessarily have to see, and then they want farming to be industrial monocultures where everything is exactly the same. Everything is massively over pharmaceutical ized, or what I would consider it to be pharmaceutical ized. And it’s this extraordinary, reductive view of the world that doesn’t actually match anything that we understand now about how complex systems really work. We’ll go back to dung beetles in a minute, but I’m curious to know whether you’re getting any interest from what we would consider to be the mainstream media in the story of dung beetles can help to sequester carbon, but we need to be on diverse pasture. We need to be more pasture fed livestock. We need to have animals that have lower productivity, because high productivity is not necessarily the only measure. Is anybody coming to ask you about that?

Claire: Not really I would say.

Manda: Damn. We need to make that happen.

Claire: I think there’s more generally in the media, isn’t there, more about regenerative farming, which I think is a really good thing. I don’t know if it matters who they speak to, as long as they speak to somebody who’s really passionate about what they’re doing. For me, that’s really important. I don’t understand why it’s not more mainstream, but I do feel like it is gathering momentum and I hope it’s going in the right direction.

Manda: Yeah. Okay. And but also, I’m aware that you and I were both at a conference where there were two different definitions of regenerative farming. There was something that’s not quite industrial farming because we don’t plough as much, but we still spray quite a lot of glyphosate all over the place, and that’s somehow regenerative. And then there’s the people for whom you get industrial farming and better than that is organic farming and much better than either of those is regenerative farming, because we’re pasture fed and trying to increase the microbiome. And the fact that the same word can have radically different meanings is going to confuse things. And I’m not sure that’s accidental.

Manda: We’re nearly out of time, but I want to go back to the dung beetles. How do they reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cattle? Because that is becoming quite a trigger thing and it’s part of the agenda of we need not to be having livestock on the land anymore. Which is, let’s forget the fact that fracking produces massive amounts of methane and pours it straight up into the sky, and let’s look at cows instead, because cows burp methane and that’s bad, which is functionally insane. And all of the numbers have been done on the assumption that every cow in the world is in a US concrete feedlot being fed grain and and has a lifespan of about two and a half years and then dies. And it’s all completely crackers. But if we want to change the narrative, we need to do it in a positive way. How do dung beetles reduce methane emissions in cows?

Claire: This is work done by Dr Ellie Slade and she looked at reducing greenhouse gas emissions on pasture. So it’s from faeces. Most of the methane emissions from cows, well obviously belching is what we worry about more generally from a methane perspective. But then again, we’re only thinking about a methane perspective and not about the huge other benefits of dung beetles. So obviously one of those is reducing the greenhouse gas emissions. So actually dung removal, like we said, they’re getting that dung off the pasture. They either drink it, they eat it, they poop it out again. Anything that’s pooped out by something once becomes better for the environment at the following end, as far as I’m aware. So it gets pooped out by a cow. It then gets re pooped out by a dung beetle and suddenly it’s much more usable nutrients. And obviously tunnelling it. So taking that muck under the ground away, reducing that runoff to rivers as well. So nitrous oxide as well. We know about nitrogen build up in rivers and the problems that that causes, eutrophication and all of those things. But also they do so much more than that. So there’s the greenhouse gas emissions, which is one thing. Then there’s the fact that, one of my most favourite things about Dung Beetle, is that they carry these tiny little mites on them. They’re called phoretic mites. And basically the phoretic mites don’t fly, but the dung beetle carries them from pat to pat.

Claire: So they crawl onto the dung beetle and then when the dung beetle flies around going to different pats, these little mites drop off into the dung pat. And these guys eat nuisance fly larvae. So they eat the fly larvae that then bothers the cows. Like that’s incredible. They also carry fungi I believe on them. There’s 300 types of poo loving fungus in the UK. Who even knew that was a thing? So there’s benefits that aren’t just direct. But then also they’re a massive prey species. So you talked about seeing more bats before. You find more greater horseshoe bats where there are livestock within four kilometres of their roosting sites. And the reason for that is a certain type of dung beetle that fly at dusk that are really, really important for feeding their young. So actually there’s all of these other impacts. And you were saying about crows before, there was a study done on the Isle of Islay up in Scotland, where they had a massive decline in red billed chough population. So red billed choughs are a bit like crows, but with red beaks, and they couldn’t really figure out why all these choughs were dying. And basically it was routine treatment of livestock using triclabendazole, which is a glucoside, and synthetic pyrethroids, which are fly products.

Claire: And because they were consistently using them, the poos were dead. Because anything that then came out the back end of the animal is affected by these products that we give to them, they’re covered in that stuff, in the chemical. And then when the choughs were going through the poo piles, there was nothing in them for them to eat. That’s what they do, the crows go through them looking for bugs. I mean, a lot of them will eat dung beetles, sadly, but they will eat other things in that poo pile. And if we use these treatments willy nilly on our animals without needing them, we effectively render those poos dead, so they don’t get broken down as quickly. We end up with dirtier pastures as a result, because that poo just sits there because nothing actually wants to eat it. They reduce the breakdown by earthworms because we find more earthworms under parts where dung beetles are in. I don’t even know how that happens. It’s incredible. All of these things we don’t fully understand, but all of those breakdown processes and those decomposition processes are affected by a decision made at the other end of the animal to use a fly product to maybe control some flies around a cow that may not cause an awful lot of problems. But we become so obsessed by the fact we don’t want a single fly around them that…. Yeah, the mind boggles. Again. 

Manda: Have they reversed it? Has Isla stopped using the the Anthelmintics and the pyrethroids? Have they got the choughs back?

Claire: Yeah, the choughs are back. That basically proves a point, and there’s so many examples of this throughout the world. The use of diclofenac in livestock in India caused massive population decline, 99% of the population of vultures basically disappeared because diclofenac, which is a pain relief they were using in livestock. The vultures then ate the dead livestock then the diclofenac caused massive kidney failure in the vultures. Then there’s suddenly no vultures. Again, another keystone species, even though they get a bad reputation, Vultures. Yet what they were doing in terms of clearing up dead animals. Suddenly there’s increased proportion of feral dogs, increased rabies in humans, and suddenly this whole problem. And again, you can talk about it with dung beetles, you know, dung beetles in Australia. We took livestock to Australia and then there was a massive issue because basically there was no dung beetles for ruminant livestock, because they only ever had marsupials. And the fly populations in Australia got so bad that it actually affected the economy, because people literally couldn’t be outside in the middle of the day because the flies were so bad. So they had to then suddenly import dung beetles into Australia. So all of the ruminant dung beetles in Australia, are now imported into the country, because literally the country fell apart without dung beetles.

Manda: That’s so interesting. And then you wonder, you know, because we’re very good at making obvious linear connections and what happens when we bring foreign dung beetles in that we have no idea exactly what that will do long term. Complex systems are complex. But I suppose you had to do something. And having introduced the ruminant dung beetles are the flies less now, is it working?

Claire: Yeah, I believe so. And the thing is, you wouldn’t ever think that, would you? We’re going to just take these animals from this one place to another, and that should be fine. But actually, if all of these other systems aren’t in place, like you said, and you take one thing and you change one thing without thinking about the entire system, you can end up in a bit of a tricky situation. But yeah the dung beetles are surviving well, as far as I believe. But what’s the long terme effect of taking those animals over to Australia? Massive.

Manda: But then we took people of a different kind to Australia and we destroyed an existing perfectly functional ecosystem with perfectly functional people in it. Okay. I’ve kept you way too long. This has just been so exciting. Thank you. Really really really interesting. Is there anything that you would like to say to people listening around the world about dung beetles, or regenerative farming, or holistic planning or anything, as a closing thing.

Claire: Please just do some faecal egg counting before you worm your animals. That would be my number one. 

Manda: And your number two, because we talked before we started and I haven’t ever got to it. Your Instagram. Tell us just a tiny bit before you finish about the farm.

Claire: Oh yes. I love that you called it my number two after what we’ve just been discussing! 

Manda: Yeah, that hadn’t occurred to me, but there we go.

Claire: What makes me excited at the moment..Again, it sounds like an idealistic dream, but I’m nothing if not idealistic. I went up to see a farm which isn’t too far from where I live, about a mile away, up the road the other day, and I knew I couldn’t afford it. And I knew I would also fall in love with it, because I run up there actually quite a lot. I run up through the footpaths and up past the side of the farm, and I went to look at it and yes it’s completely and utterly out of my price range. It’s somewhere in the region of about £2 million, and it’ll probably need an extra million to actually get it going. So I put a post about it, because what was interesting for me was that when I asked about interest, a lot of it’s come from forestry. And a lot of the farms around here and again up in Scotland as well, have just been bought out by forestry. And then plant trees have been planted on that land, usually the wrong trees in the wrong place, lots completely devoid of light, completely devoid of life. And those farms are gone and they’re not going to go back into production as farms again. So I put it out there because I feel like people aren’t necessarily so aware of it. And had some really good feedback and someone suggested I should crowdfund for it. And now I cannot stop thinking about it, and I don’t know if I would ever manage to crowdfund enough 2 million to £3 million to buy a farm. But if you don’t try, you don’t know. And somebody said you miss 100% of the shots that you don’t take, so you never know Manda, next time I speak to you. 

Manda: Go for it! You might be a farmer, somewhere not too far from here. That would be so exciting.

Claire: It would be ideal because my plan as the regenerative vet is actually to do myself out of a job, because I feel that healthy animals shouldn’t really need me. So I’m going to have to farm one day.

Manda: Yes, well, if you get your crowdfunder set up, you send me the link and I will put it in the show notes to this podcast. Because people listen long, long, long after the recording day or even the first transmission date. So if you get it, people. Anyone listening this far, I want you to go to the show notes and have a look and see if there’s a link to crowdfunding for Claire’s Farm. And if there is, just give it a little bit. Every little bit helps. Just a pound. You’re absolutely right. If you don’t try you won’t know. All you need is 3 million people giving you a pound each.

Claire: There you go, done.

Manda: Sorted. Yay. Thank you so much. This has been so exciting and I really look forward to following the progress of the regenerative vet. I am deeply envious that such a thing exists now, and it’s so long after I abandoned veterinary practice that I’m not going to set up in any kind of competition. But I’m so glad that you’re doing this and that people are listening. You’re out there doing CPD for other vets, because that’s how we’re going to spread the word. It’s great. So I hope you get your farm. I hope you do yourself out of a business, but I still think there’s going to be lots of room for people doing consultancy on holistic planning. And you are that too. So it’s grand. Thank you.

Claire: Thank you.

Manda: And that’s it for this week. Enormous thanks to Claire for all that she is and does, for her extraordinary enthusiasm and the depth of her knowledge and her capacity to spread ideas in the places that need them most. If you get a chance to go on one of her dung beetle safaris, absolutely, you should take it. You will learn more than you possibly knew. You could learn about dung, beetles and dung and all the things that a keystone species does when it thrives. And if you have the capacity to organise meetings of farmers or smallholders or vets or horse people, because horse warmers kill dung beetles just as efficiently as any other wormers. Then get some together and invite Claire to come and speak to you. She is genuinely one of the most engaging and intriguing speakers I’ve ever had the pleasure to listen to. So go for it. And if you can’t do any of that, then, as we said so often on this podcast, find out who’s growing food locally to you in a way that is genuinely regenerative. Not ploughing, not spraying, not fertilising in any way. No inputs. Just livestock recycling the value in the Land. Find these people and support them. Buy your food there. It will have higher nutrient density in the right proportions that you need, and you will be supporting your local community. So go for it.

Manda: And when Claire has her crowdfunder up, I guarantee I will put a link in the show notes. So keep checking back and when it’s there, even a pound will help someone who genuinely gets the Land to be out there doing good things. It has to be better than the forestry planting serried rows of monoculture Sitka spruce that releases more carbon in the ploughing of the land than it will ever sequester, and completely destroys the biodiversity of the soil and the surrounding areas. So go for that too.

Manda: And that apart, we will be back next week with another conversation. In the meantime, enormous thanks to Caro C for the music at the Head and Foot. To Alan Lowles of Airtight Studios for the production. To Anne Thomas for the transcripts. To Faith Tilleray for all of the conversations that keep us moving forward, and for keeping the tech intact. And then, as ever, an enormous thanks to you for listening. If you have time, five stars and a review on the podcast provider of your choice does apparently make an enormous difference to our capacity to be found by other people. I still think word of mouth is the way we spread, but stars and reviews also helps. But if you do know of anybody else who wants to understand the nature of keystone species, who wants to get to know more about dung and soil and dung beetles and the whole nature of regenerative farming, then please do send them this link. And that’s it for now. See you next week. Thank you and goodbye.

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