Assault on British wildlife

The Countryside Commission for Wales recently announced that a cull of two seemingly innocent species - the ruddy duck and the grey squirrel - will take place in Anglesey. The apparent purpose of this mass destruction is to safeguard the existence of white-headed ducks and red squirrels, whose populations are diminishing.Beck Smith reports on the increasing and disturbing tendency for conservationists to practice what amounts to 'animal racism'.

Animals are increasingly becoming scapegoats for the environmental destruction caused by humans. Here, we highlight three current victims of ‘animal racism’ in Britain.

RUDDY DUCKS

Ruddy ducks were originally imported into Britain from North America to be held captive and admired in animal collections. They have now established themselves successfully in the wild and there around 3,500 in the UK.

These birds are now being persecuted in answer to calls from the Spanish government, because they are, supposedly, flying over to Spain and mating with the rare white-headed duck. The result is an ‘impure’ hybrid, which conservationists will not tolerate. A ‘UK Ruddy Duck Working Group’ has been formed, consisting of representatives from, amongst others, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, The Department of the Environment, The British Trust for Ornithology, and Birdlife International. The group has researched methods of lethal (shooting) and non-lethal (egg-pricking) population control.

The white-headed duck is an endangered species because people in Spain have destroyed its habitat and shot it in vast numbers for ‘sport’. That some of the few who remain have chosen to mate with the ruddy duck makes good genetic sense – to ensure the bird’s survival, it is breeding with a more common species.

CANADA GEESE

Canada geese were brought over from North America in 1678 by Charles II so that they could be shot for sport. Numbers were fairly stable until about 60 years ago when large chunks of land in the home counties were dug up for road building. The resultant gravel pits were filled with water and vegetation, providing ideal breeding grounds for the geese.

The birds are now being shot by farmers in rural areas, because they are allegedly eating pasture grass and clipping the tops off cereal crops. And in towns, they are shot for being a ‘nuisance’ in public parks, where they are accused of being messy, noisy and aggressive.

A few years ago, Wandsworth Council made plans for 200 of the Battersea Park flock to be killed during the night. But public outcry led to the borough agreeing to investigate other measures of population control, such as egg-pricking. Most wildlife groups agree that killing is both cruel and ineffective, yet geese continue to be slaughtered in parks and in rural areas with the full backing of the Department of the Environment.

GREY SQUIRRELS

The American grey squirrel was imported to Europe in the late 1800s as an ‘ornamental’ species. But recently its status has declined from ornament to pest – the grey is being held responsible for the loss of Britain’s broadleaf forests, and for causing the decline of the native red squirrel.

Currently, conservationists favour exterminating the grey through the use of warfarin, a blood-thinning drug which slowly and painfully kills the squirrels by stopping their blood from coagulating. The victims die from internal bleeding.

The Highland Squirrel Club slaughtered 85,000 red squirrels between 1903 and 1933, and official persecution of reds in the New Forest did not end until 1927. The reds have now all but disappeared because humans have removed the broadleaf forests which provided the seeds and nuts on which they flourished, in order to make way for the rapid expansion of farming and industry.

The grey squirrel purge is stepping up. As well as the proposed cull in Anglesey, in March 1996, the Forestry Commission gave permission for warfarin baits to be used in parts of the old Westmorland, Cumberland and Lancashire. The poison had been banned in these areas since 1973. Cumbria Wildlife Trust has given its ‘reluctant approval’. The Countryside Council for Wales is planning to poison 1,000 grey squirrels in an effort to save a reported 50 red squirrels.

At present these UK wildlife culls are typically being described as ‘experiments’ into population control methods. It is possible that this worrying trend could be reversed if there is sufficient public objection. The RSPB for example has stated that they support ruddy duck control ‘subject to it being feasible, legal and publicly acceptable’. It is essential, then, that the relevant authorities hear that such ruthless destruction of species – currently being disguised as ‘conservation’ – is not ‘publicly acceptable’.

Action

Ruddy Ducks

Write to: Michael Meacher MP, Minister for the Environment, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, Eland House, Bressenden Place, London, SW1E 5DU

Canada Geese

Write to: Department of the Environment, European Wildlife Division, Room 902E, Tollgate House, Houlton Street, Bristol, BS2 9DJ.

Squirrels

Write to: The Forestry Commission, 231 Corstorphine Road, Edinburgh, EH12 7AT
and to: Lindi Wilkinson, Countryside Council for Wales, South Wales Area Office, Unit 4, Castleton Court, Fortran Road, St. Melons, Cardiff, CF3 OLT