Scapegoating the aliens
A special report by Animal Aid director Andrew Tyler.
Animal Aid has long been concerned about the growing tendency among what might be called 'top table conservationists' to scapegoat various animal species for the environmental and commercial vices of human beings.
A whole range of indigenous species are under threat as a result of the burdens placed upon them by human population growth and by modern manufacturing and waste disposal regimes. Yet certain ‘experts’ insist on displacing the responsibility and pretending that ecological harmony can be restored through the barrel of a gun or through the use of body-crushing traps, snares and poisons.
WILDLIFE UNDER PRESSURE
The main sources of pressure upon native fauna and flora can be summarised as follows:
Modern Farming Systems – involving loss of hedgerow, winter sowing, prolific use of chemicals, the destruction of ‘non-productive’ plant life, and the generation of vast quantities of methane, slurry and silage. Birds, insects, fish and small mammals all suffer as a consequence, either in terms of reduced numbers or increased vulnerability to disease.
Industrial Pollution – Some chemical, pharmaceutical and other large-scale producers are periodically fined nominal sums but they continue with their discharges into the air, land and waterways. No one’s bothering to count how many animals have been killed outright, or reduced in number through loss of viable habitat, but there are sufficient pointers to indicate that this is happening on a significant scale. There is also evidence of serious disruption to the reproductive systems of several species, resulting in loss of fertility and physical malformation in offspring.
Population Growth/Road Building/Developments on Green Field Sites and Flood Plains – Animals of every description – plant life too – are being displaced, or simply crushed under tarmac, bulldozers, cars and lorries. The road carnage is all too visible to those of us who live in the country and routinely see the bodies – whether maimed or already lifeless – of foxes, hedgehogs, badgers, deer, squirrels, rabbits and a variety of bird species.
The Pheasant Shooting Industry – In September 2000, Animal Aid published a report, The Killing Fields, exposing the environmental devastation caused by the pheasant shooting industry. The principal author was a former head of investigations for the RSPB. Backed by undercover film, the report details the staggering growth in recent decades of what is now a major agribusiness. Each year this industry:
- Breeds and releases around 35 million pheasants – half of whom soon perish from disease, exposure, malnutrition or under the wheels of motor vehicles. Of the roughly 16 million who are shot, it has been estimated that just 8 million are actually eaten. Many of the shot birds are wounded and never retrieved, or – according to reports in pro-shooting magazines – are collected and then buried in specially dug holes. This is because no market exists for them.
- Dumps thousands of tonnes of toxic lead shot on the countryside.
- Kills nearly five million wild birds and mammals with snares, poison and traps in predator control programmes. Foxes, stoats and weasels are among the species deliberately targeted by gamekeepers, simply because the animals are attracted to such unnaturally large concentrations of birds. But badgers, hedgehogs, sheep, cats and dogs are among the victims of the non-discriminating traps and poison. Even protected birds of prey, such as owls, kestrels, red kites, peregrine falcons and hen harriers are eliminated. The latter now face extinction in England as a result of these ‘predator control’ programmes.
REMEDIES AND ALIBIS
The inconvenient remedy to the carnage outlined above is for human society to curb its destructive impulses – to show restraints in terms of ‘development’, consumption, ‘sporting’ activities and irresponsible waste disposal. The convenient option – the one that has been embraced – is to make nominal moves in these directions and shift the blame. Hence the growing appetite for the blood of ‘aliens’.
Before tackling some specifics relating to individual target species, it is worth spelling out a fundamental truth.
RESHAPING THE ENVIRONMENT
Given that we human beings have comprehensively reshaped the natural environment to suit our own ends, it is an absurdity to aspire to environmental and/or genetic purity with regard to local fauna and flora.
By reshaping of the environment, we refer not simply to the endless ‘development’ of woodlands, wetlands, riverbanks, grassland, wild flower meadows, lakes, hills and even mountains. There is also the impact of international trade and transportation – activities that include the translocation every year, from continent to continent, of billions of mammals, fish, birds, reptiles and amphibians. They are translocated either to be farmed for meat, milk and eggs; put on display as exotic exhibits, or sold as pets. The impact that these animals – and the systems that facilitate their use – have on local eco-systems is often significant and sometimes significantly disruptive. But where there is a perceived commercial advantage, such trade is rarely resisted. And, of course, the suffering the animals themselves endure is of virtually no concern to the sophisticates who establish and oversee the regulatory framework.
While total solutions are not possible, if society is serious about militating the damage outlined above, then governments and conservation agencies must focus on curbing these animal trading activities, and not simply by way of rhetoric and gesture – which is what is on offer in the current proposals.
ANIMALS ON THE RUN
Now to the question of the ‘alien’ species already at large, e.g. the ruddy duck, Canada goose, muntjac deer, grey squirrel, North American mink, red swamp crayfish, New Zealand flatworm…
The ‘debate’ as to their fate has been dominated so far by the top table conservationists referred to above. And their contribution, in Animal Aid’s view, has been characterised by self-serving hyperbole, and a disregard for the welfare of individual animals. We know from early trial culls of ruddy ducks that a significant proportion of birds were not killed cleanly: some were wounded and never retrieved, one took two hours to die and another was shot 13 times and was still alive when pulled from the water. Killing the detested grey squirrel involves smashing their dreys and stamping on the young.
The good, the bad and the anomaly
The conservation hooligans responsible for these acts take it upon themselves to identify morally good and morally bad species; species which are good for local ecosystems and those which are bad. They presume to know the ideal population levels for each of the species concerned.
A good species is a native species, even though, in the case of native favourites such as the badger and red squirrel, their populations were supplemented in Victorian times by foreign imports because of human persecution on home ground – i.e. they are now genetically ‘tainted’.
Thoroughly foreign imports are presumed bad, except where sentiment gets the better of the supposedly fact-driven experts. The brown hare and little owl are thoroughly foreign but are nonetheless welcome. And so is the little egret (native of the Mediterranean and Middle East) who has recently been colonising parts of Dorset. A spokesman for the RSPB, which led calls for the ‘cull’ against the foreign ruddy duck; said of the egret interlopers: ‘This is a truly historic event. We hope that through the protection and management of our estuaries and wetlands, egrets will be encouraged to establish further breeding colonies across southern England.’
No matter the consequences for any native bird the egret might displace?
Myth of the golden age
The RSPB statement is indicative, pointing to a muddled and hypocritical mindset. It indicates that ‘the experts’ who are responsible for shaping government policy have neither the vision, the intellectual consistency nor the competence to accomplish their declared objective of restoring a supposed golden age of ecological harmony.
There never was such an age. There is no clear divide between native and alien species. When is the cut-off point? There is nothing so English as the oak tree, yet many we see today are descendants brought to this country from France, Germany and elsewhere in Europe. Nor is there a clear understanding of the impact newly arrived species have on local ecosystems into which they are cast – cast, for instance, by bored pet owners or by bankrupt mink farmers.
A recent New Scientist article pointed to the folly of trying to impose genetic purity upon a constantly shifting environment; an environment that looks set to undergo accelerated change as a result of global warming. In this new warmed-up, storm and drought-stricken Britain, are we going to exterminate members of every species who stray from their allotted territory?
“Populations can only be as pure as the habitat in which they evolve,’ the New Scientist article noted. ‘Red deer in Britain, for example, are threatened by the spread of Japanese sika deer genes into their populations, which seem to do better in Britain’s modern fragmented and modified landscapes. So foreign genes influencing behaviour and morphology may actually confer an advantage to native species living in the habitats they now find themselves in.” (NS, Aug. 20, 1997, p.45. Jon Bridle, of the Department of Biology, University of Leeds)
This gene mixing can be seen as a form of Darwinian adaptation – a survival mechanism, rather than a sin against nature that must be punished by extermination of the offending party. The mating of ruddy and white headed ducks is another example of one species mating with a close genetic kin and conferring an advantage. The white headed duck, after all, clearly requires an input of robust genes (courtesy the ruddy) to help it survive the attentions of its deadliest enemy – humans beings. It is human beings who have hunted the white headed duck and destroyed its habitat in the important winter breeding grounds of Turkey and east Asia. Now the conservation hooligans offer salvation by way of slaughtering the white headed’s genetic kin and latter-day breeding partner.
FURTHER THOUGHTS ON SOME OF THE ALIEN SPECIES UNDER FIRE
Glis (fat dormouse)
These are secretive nocturnal animals with a hibernation period of nearly seven months and with the appearance of a small squirrel. The date of their introduction to Britain is unknown but could have been by the Romans 2000 years ago as a food source. A few scattered colonies remain. Conservation zealots are currently making efforts to eradicate them.
These were introduced from Asia at the turn of the century and, as indicated above, there are plans to eradicate them in order to preserve the genetic purity of the red deer. The absurdity is compounded by the fact that other ‘conservationists’ want to curb red deer numbers to protect recently planted commercial forests. It has been suggested that red deer could be reintroduced from captivity once the forests have grown – and that they would be specially bred with ‘improved’ antlers to satisfy trophy shooters.
In the summer of 1998 there were deliberate releases from mink farms in Hampshire and Staffordshire – assumed to be by animal rights campaigners. These releases unleashed a frenzied wave of anti-mink sentiment that was at times breath-taking.
Animal Aid was dismayed but not surprised. We recognise that our culture demonises those it exploits- whether vulnerable groups of humans or animals. If the victim is defined as having no worth, no true feelings and, where mink are concerned, an insatiable, mindless bloodlust, then the exploitation is somehow legitimised.
Instead of concentrating on the minks’ suffering within their cages – their self-mutilation and desperate isolation – the victims became the villains, together with the ‘extremists’ who set them free.
Far from the wild rampages of newspaper fantasy, many of the released mink hung meekly about their cages, waiting to be fed – their institutionalised existence having rendered them helpless in the wild. Many others got run over, or wounded but not cleanly killed by local idiots with air rifles. Hundreds were blasted by individuals whose chief concern was to protect their own animal exploiting interests, not least pheasant farmers, part of whose trade, as previously noted, involves killing large numbers of indigenous animals, such as stoats and weasels, who would otherwise prey upon ‘their’ pheasants .
Mink live a solitary life in the British countryside, marking out territory a mile apart from each other. Argument has gone back and forth in scientific journals about their effect upon other species. A balanced view seems to be that they have caused no demonstrable impact on other species, except to the water vole in certain areas where the river is in an unhealthy state due to pollution, the clearance of vegetation and where banks have been revetted. There has also been high predation of ground nesting birds on some Scottish islands, as a result of a defunct mink farmer releasing his captives.
In 1992 the BBC screened a programme in its Wildlife on One slot called Invasion of the Killer Mink. Its producer told the Radio Times: ‘On a healthy, well-stocked waterway, wildlife can co-exist with it. There is a danger that mink becomes the scapegoat for man’s own damaging actions in the river habitat.’
The producer would rather we celebrate than demonise the mink. ‘It’s a superb creature,’ he noted, ‘supremely agile and adaptable. It can get by almost anywhere.’
Minks’ declining numbers
Until recently there were approximately 110,000 breeding mink living in the wild in the UK – a figure that had changed little for the last 50 years, ever since they were released by financially pressed farmers. Recent research, however, (BBC Wildlife magazine, July 2000) indicates an ‘astonishingly high’ decline in the mink population during the last seven years. Most experts, the report notes, point to its larger relative, the otter, as the cause.
“There is evidence that otters kill and eat mink and that they destroy the sites used by mink to mark their territories. Ironically, mink were once thought to have contributed to the otter population crash in the 1950s but scientists believe that mink were only able to colonise Britain so quickly because of the low numbers of otters – the results of widespread use of organochlorine pesticides in agriculture at that time.”
The survey in question pointed to a mink population decline in the West of England of 91 per cent, while even in the Thames region, which has seen the smallest reductions, mink have disappeared from 27 per cent of sites.
Whether or not this newest survey is correct, note how the certainties of the 1950s have been turned on their head; and note that it was farmers’ use of pesticides, rather than mink, that is now identified as the cause of the otter’s problems. In fact, otters, at this time, were also being mercilessly hunted for sport and persecuted by anglers because they were perceived to be interfering with their hobby.
The cherished red squirrel was also, for many decades, persecuted by foresters and game keepers. They used to be known as tree rats and there was a price on their head. Just one so-called ‘squirrel club’ in the highlands killed 85,000 reds in the first 30 years of the last century.
As well as being hunted, the red was a victim of climate changes, disease, woodland destruction and the cessation of hazel coppicing since the Second World War. They were already in decline before the grey was introduced 100 years ago as an ornamental species.
The greys have flourished because they have been better able to adapt than the red. They are more sturdy, opportunistic and faster at breeding.
So what is behind the grey squirrel pogrom? What is behind the lie that the grey is responsible for the demise of the red and for damaging Britain’s forests? The answer, it seems, is an alliance of powerful vested interests that includes the Country Landowners Association, the Timber Growers Association and The Forestry Commission.
Grey squirrels, the FC noted when announcing a new grey squirrel ‘cull’ in the early ’90s, do better in broadleaved forests than in conifers. Therefore, we in this country need to plant more conifers and fewer broadleaf species, such as the much admired oak, beech and sweet chestnut.
It so happens that the quick-growing soft-wooded conifers form the basis of the commercial logging industry in this country. Many people despise the gruesome mess caused by the regimented planting and felling of the spindly commercial conifers. But now we know that, for our own good, we need much more of the same. How else are we to dispose of that most implacable and dangerous enemy: the grey squirrel.
Bird-watchers and experts within the field have made some enlightening comments in the media recently pointing to the futility and false scientific premise of the ruddy duck extermination programme.
Here, for instance, are extracts from two statements by the conservationists who first alerted the Spanish authorities to the decline of the white-headed duck in Spain:
“For the last 28 years, I have studied birds and conservation in Spain and I was the first to respond with action in the field to protect White-Headed Ducks… Is the Ruddy guilty – or likely to become guilty – of hybridisation on a scale which will endanger the population of White-headed? I do not know of evidence which can lead to such a guilty verdict. I know of only one case of hybridisation when a female Ruddy was misidentified by Spanish authorities and left to the mercy of a group of drake White Headeds after her male Ruddy companion had been shot. What evidence is there that the few Ruddies seen are from the feral UK population? Neighbouring France, with many Ruddy Ducks in waterfowl collections, is a much more likely source.”
Tom Gullick, Castilla-la-Mancha, in Bird Watching, April 1999
“With Tom Gullick, a well-known ornithologist living in Spain, I carried out a survey of the lakes in southern Spain in the Seventies. We alerted the Spanish authorities to the precarious position of their white-headed ducks, then numbering 20 to 30 birds… Some experts, including the late Ramon Coronado, conservador of the National Park of Donana, and Mike Lubbock, a world respected aviculturist, believe that the Spanish race of the white-headed duck is only a sub-species. They are not only a darker bird in plumage but are often to be found in Spain with black heads, something we never see in the birds we have in captivity here. It may well be worth investigating in these days of DNA whether the Spanish ducks are an entirely pure breed. They may be the result of earlier hybridisation with the African Maccoa duck, another species of Stifftail.”
W.M. Makins, Director, Pensthorpe Waterfowl Trust, in The Times Feb 6, 1999
The Ruddy Duck cull is, inevitably, tied up with international politics and the British government’s keenness to be seen to be ‘doing something’ for the environment. To quote British Birds, (92:222-224), ‘when faced with a long list of biodiversity actions, many of which are difficult, intangible, expensive and not necessarily in the short-term interests of the economy, politicians and environmental agencies will always tend to jump on easy targets’.
During the Department of the Environment-funded trials in 1993 and1994 shooting with shotguns and rifles, trapping and egg destruction were all tried. The detailed report ultimately recommended shooting the ducks on the basis of cost rather than effectiveness. It judged that shooting was less effective than other methods and certainly inhumane. It also noted that shooting caused more disturbance to other birds than did visiting nests to trap ducks or oil eggs (dipping them in paraffin), this latter method being 100% effective.
Animal Aid believes there is no moral or scientific case for ‘controlling’ ruddy ducks. We might reasonably have expected, however, that the ‘bird protection’ groups advising government in the initial trial period, would have insisted on the most humane method of control – namely oiling eggs. This they failed to do.
And so the shooting goes on. Given that ruddy ducks are found in mixed flocks of wildfowl, it is impossible to imagine how they could be shot without also killing or injuring other species.
One final twist to this bitterly ironic saga: Some experts maintain that since North American ruddy ducks were introduced to the UK in the 1950s, they have developed differences in DNA from their ancestors. If this is the case, it makes them one of Europe’s rarest ducks and therefore, a conservation priority!
These birds are accused of defecating on paths, harassing other birds, pinching the behinds of children and spoiling the public amenities by trampling and nibbling grass. They also cause an, as-yet unspecified, disease problem (see below*).
In rural areas, where the complaint is that the Canada geese eat pasture grass and clip the tops off cereal crops, farmers are busy shooting them, notwithstanding their supposedly protected status. (Where there’s a will there’s a legal loophole). Some experts say the farmers’ complaints of large-scale damage to crops – a significant portion of which end up being dumped as surplus – are exaggerated. But it does seem that Canada geese numbers have increased in the last few decades. Not surprising really, given their history.
They were brought over from North America in 1678 by Charles 11 so that they could be sportingly shot. Numbers were probably stable until about 65 years ago when large chunks of the Home Counties were dug up for road building. The resultant gravel pits filled with water and vegetation, providing ideal breeding grounds for the geese. Come the 1950s and sporting types rounded-up large numbers of the adult birds and dispersed them around the country so that the pleasure of blasting them from the sky could be more widely enjoyed.
Now we’re told there is a problem of over-abundance.
(*Because various pathogens can be isolated from an animal species, that doesn’t amount to proof that the animal constitutes a health risk to the human population. All animals (humans included) carry a host of endogenous and exogenous viruses and other disease organisms. The chances of another party getting sick depends on the virulence of the pathogen in question, the rate at which it is being replicated and shed, and the relative health of the potential recipient.)
A native of China and Taiwan, muntjac deer were brought to Britain at the turn of the last century and first released, in 1901, from Woburn Abbey by the Duke of Bedford. They too have developed a reputation as a crazed despoiler of nature because of their fondness for bluebells, primroses, orchids, young trees and shrubs. In fact, they are secretive and solitary creatures, who are especially vulnerable to road traffic, dogs, arthritis and snowy weather. Many die young.
Claims that they cause serious damage to agricultural crops are unproven.
There are believed to be about 50,000 in Britain, mostly in central and southern regions. While their population is believed to have increased sharply in recent years, their numbers are self-limiting – being dependent on available habitat and food sources. Various strategies can be used to discourage them from entering off-limits territory. These include electrical fencing.
Look around at the consequences of human beings’ voracious appetite, destructiveness and profligate breeding and there will be some hapless animal or other taking the blame: mink, deer, rats, pigeons, moles, gulls, seals, badgers, hedgehogs, pike, ruddy ducks, muntjac deer, Canada geese… All are being curbed or killed. In fact, any animal species is suitable for scapegoating as long as a commercial or political interest is served, or the guilt of the majority over its own actions can be assuaged.
More particularly, this hostility towards ‘alien species’ is a symptom of a destructive mindset within the Neanderthal leadership of the top table conservation bodies. They imagine they cherish nature and yet their list of enemy species grows and grows. They claim they like the world full of exotic animals. But they are reluctant to allow them the space to nest or eat. Depressingly, these bodies – being able to direct the public debate – are also able to blacken the name of the ‘undesirables’ and mute what would otherwise be a justifiable public clamour for existing or planned pogroms to abandoned.
Their argument for wanting to decimate the aliens is usually couched in conservation terms – the animal concerned is a marauding pest that is placing other species in mortal danger.
In reality, these animal pogroms are usually motivated by the self-interest of the participating parties, or by an obsessive and irrational attachment to particular species, at the expense of any other.
Our society needs to define and bring to life a new kind of conservation, one that is fit for the new millennium. It will be a conservation that respects the individual animal and has a broad rather than rigidly myopic view of nature. We need a conservation that dispenses with scapegoating and with trying to regulate species numbers through large-scale destruction.
Above all, human beings must be ready to concede actual territory to non-human animals. Too often, people pay lip service to bio-diversity and yet insist that animals be exterminated if they so much as exercise their most basic functions of eating and defecating. If we are not prepared to grant animals even these limited freedoms, then the world we construct will be one in which wild animals become things of history. It will be a world in which only the domesticated and the incarcerated are permitted to exist. Is this the world we want?