Senseless slaughter – the case against the cull

What follows is the text of Animal Aid Director Andrew Tyler's address to a RSPCA internal seminar that examined the fate of the ruddy duck and wider issues of 'conservation versus welfare'. Other speakers were Dr Mark Avery, director of conservation of the pro-cull RSPB; Professor Morris Gosling, of the Evolutionary Biology Group, University of Newcastle; Professor Michael Reiss, School of Mathematics, Science and technology, Institute of Education, University of London; and Dr Chris West, Zoological Director, Zoological Society of London.

You are being asked today to choose between animal welfare and species conservation. This is a false choice. The real choice is between rationality and a pathologically warped notion of wildlife ‘management’.

Let us consider what you are being asked to endorse

A species of duck – the ruddy – was brought over to this country in the 1940s by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust. Its function was ornamental, decorative. Some ruddys escaped and bred in the wild.

Their numbers increased to several thousand and then came reports that some had reached Spain where they were mating with a rare duck called the white headed – rare because it had been hunted and its wetlands habitat destroyed by people.

The product of this union between the ruddy and white-headed is regarded by the conservation zealots who make policy at bodies such as the RSPB as profoundly offensive. Labelled an impure hybrid, there could be only one way to deal with it – the mutant had to be hunted down and killed.

Now perhaps I’m missing something, but killing in the name of blood purity – human or animal – strikes me as dangerously retrograde. We went there in the 1930s with the human population – attempting to weed out misfits and defectives. That project was immoral, scientifically misguided, logistically a non-starter and thoroughly brutal in its execution. Precisely the same objections apply to the ruddy duck cull. I shall be dealing with each of the objections in turn.

But let me say at the outset that I am not alone in detecting something extremely worrying about the impulses at work here – this obsession with genetic purity. Nature is not pure. Nature is not fixed. It is in flux – not least because of the dramatic and continuing impact our own species has on the landscape. The mating of close genetic kin – hybridisation – is a fact of bird life, just as it is a fact of plant life.

Let me also say that I do not believe that the RSPCA has the option of standing on the sidelines on this issue. The job of the RSPCA is to confront wanton cruelty. Proponents of the mass slaughter (sorry ‘control programme’) argue that nature is served by the killing. It is not. The killing is driven by the political and funding imperatives of the conservation industry. It is about power plays, point scoring, the hunger for grants and a reactionary view of nature that regards animals – not as having intrinsic value – but as objects for our gratification.

It does not matter to the white headed duck that she has produced what the RSPB calls an impure hybrid. It only matters to the more extreme bird listers and tickers.

And yes, it is particularly depressing that this slaughter has been driven by the RSPB. Here is a body, so I believe, whose origins are as an animal welfare body concerned about the cruelty inherent in the use of bird feathers to decorate ladies hats. These days, the Society is explicit in its disavowal of any welfare brief. It is decidedly not concerned with bird welfare. Its concerns don’t even centre on birds in general but on bird species whose numbers are reduced. That is why it is content for pheasants to be mass produced and shot for pleasure. It allows pheasant shooting on its own land – and, it’s been reported, works in harness with wildfowling clubs (i.e. duck shooters) and the BASC.

I have said that the cull is, in large part, about conservation politics

Let me explain by taking you through its origins. The process seems to have started with Tom Gullick, a leading British ornithologist living in Spain, who carried out a survey of the lakes in the south of the country in the 1970s. Together with a colleague called Makins, Gullkick alerted the Spanish authorities to the precarious position of white headed ducks – whose population had shrunk to just 20 or 30 birds; this was thanks, as I say, to them being shot and their habitat destroyed. The Spanish took action to preserve the main breeding grounds and their white headed population has since grown to somewhere between 1,000 and 3000 birds.

Gullick is grateful for the authorities’ intervention. But he is thoroughly opposed to the ruddy cull. He describes it as a pointless and extremely expensive massacre. In a letter to Bird Watching Magazine, he said he believed there was very little hybridisation involving ruddys and white headeds; that the ruddy ducks who did reach Spain were most likely coming from neighbouring France where they are kept in waterfowl collections; and that the Spanish should concentrate on further restoration and management of their wetlands.

Gullick subsequently told the Times that the cull proponents ‘will never succeed in the total eradication of the ruddy duck. It’s a scandalous misuse of rare conservation money. But I think too many people have stuck their necks too far up above the parapet to admit that they are wrong.’ Quite so.

Now for the politics. From conversations I’ve had with various well-placed individuals, my understanding is that Spain was feeling under pressure from other EU countries for its lack of action in protecting the Spanish steppes from the ravages of intensive agriculture – the steppes being important for the survival of species such as the black vultures. Spain retaliated to the chiding by demanding action on the ruddy duck, which it claimed was threatening the survival of the now cherished white headed.

The RSPB, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and others took up this challenge – not only because of pressure from the Spanish but because of a phenomenon identified by British Birds magazine in May 1999:’ 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.’ The ruddy duck, in the magazine’s view, was most certainly an easy target – far easier than confronting powerful industrial and agricultural interests whose land development and polluting activities are responsible for the decimation of any number of species.

Then came the so-called trial culls to prove the ruddy duck could be eliminated


One took place in 1993-4. The shootings resulted in a significant number of birds dying in protracted agony. According to the DoE report, one bird was shot 13 times and was still alive when retrieved from the water. Another took two hours to die.

Largely through Animal Aid’s campaigning, the DoE cancelled plans for a mass slaughter in 1997 and English Nature told us it was ‘definitely off as far as we’re concerned’.

But in December 1997, the Bern Convention told the UK to proceed with the mass slaughter without further delay.

This was the justification the pro-cull elements – notably the RSPB – were looking for. Bern had to be obeyed, even though another Bern edict on the reckless use of snares in this country had been opposed and neutralised by British interests.

The so-called UK White Headed Duck Task Force set in motion an even bigger trial cull than that conducted in the early 90s. In Anglesey, the West Midlands and Fife, the Central Science Laboratory orchestrated the slaughter of 2651 ducks – many were shot on their nests.

This time we had no data on the associated carnage and suffering. The information was deliberately suppressed.

In its report to DEFRA, the Central Science Lab said that some 3,000 ruddys survived across the country and that if total eradication were to succeed, the killing gangs in future would need access to all land on which the ducks were resident. That would mean the government amending the Wildlife and Countryside Act to allow compulsory access to the property of non-compliant landowners. Non-compliance was certainly a feature of the trial cull they had just completed, with around 50% of land owners refusing access.

In response to the Central Science Lab report, DEFRA has committed itself in principle to eradication. But it said more research needed to be done into such things as non-lethal control – i.e. egg pricking. In the meantime, it has essentially removed all the protection previously enjoyed by the ruddy. Any land owner or other authorised person can now shoot ruddy ducks, so long as they return some basic information about numbers and gender to DEFRA having done the deed. And in Essex, just this past week, government killing gangs appear to be back in action, even though the local authority and the Essex Wildlife Trust are in opposition.

Let us take a look now at this phenomenon of hybridisation

I’ve already made the point that it matters not in the least to the white-headed that her offspring has some ruddy duck genes. It matters only to the more extreme bird watching bigots.

The pro-cull lobby have encouraged the view that the randy ruddy bullies its way into the nest of the white headed female, scaring off the male before raping her. In fact I am reliably informed that the white headed male is 30% larger than the ruddy male and is anything but fearful of him. This information comes from watchers who have seen the two species inter-acting. This evidence has obliged the pro-cullers to now talk of the ruddy sneaking its way into the white headed’s nest when the male is absent. But again I am reliably informed that this scenario is implausible. It is females who have not succeeded in mating who take the opportunity to liaise with the ‘foreigners’.

Such bird hybridisation is not uncommon. Collins Bird Guide gives two pages to wildfowl hybrids – offering by way of illustration seven variations that resulted from mating between four species of duck. Mallards, for instance, hybridise with green winged teal, which is one third of its size. And there is more such evidence in British Birds magazine.

Does such hybridisation lead to species loss. The evidence says no. In fact, Tom Gullick, the ornithologist who alerted the world to the plight of the white headed, is convinced that competition from the ruddy male has prompted a robust response from the white headed male and caused white headed numbers to increase more than they would have done.

Let me now say a bit more on the logistics and the science


Clearly, I object to the cull on the grounds of morality and sanity, but even if it were a good thing, can it be done. Can the ruddy duck be eliminated? Plenty of experts have said no.

The ruddy duck can be found on 1,000 sites in the UK and in personal collections in 20 European and North African countries. There is talk of these countries coming on board the control programme, but it seems some have still taken no action.

And remember, this alleged plague of hybrids supposedly arose from just a handful of escapees. So any leakage from whatever source potentially undoes all the diligent killing that has taken place to date.

The Central Science Laboratory report talked confidently of reducing numbers down to 95 per cent of the current population – but even this was based on two flawed assumptions: one was that the resistant landowners could ultimately be overcome; the other was that the comparatively easy kill-rate achieved during the trial could be maintained even after numbers are reduced and the birds start dispersing to many more sites.

These are important impediments to the masterplan of ruddy duck extermination.

The intractable nature of the problem can be seen by the population estimates issuing from official sources. After the last trial cull the government said 3,000 ruddys remained. Weeks later, Press Association was reporting a figure of 6,000. Do the authorities not know how many ruddys remain or are the numbers on an impossibly rapid incline?

Let me round up by saying that this is about much more than several thousand ruddy ducks

It is about what constitutes rational and humane species conservation for the new century. I believe in species protection but I believe you achieve that by habitat protection, which means squarely confronting those who seriously encroach upon and pollute the last sanctuaries on which wild animals depend.

The ruddy duck cull is about scapegoating. It is about cynical politics and muddled reactionary thinking. It is too easy to blame one species for the perilous condition of another, while failing to acknowledge our own environmental vices. The grey squirrel is blamed for the plight of the red, Lundy rats for the plight of the island’s ground nesting birds, and so on – when it is we who are the guilty party.

How far have we gone down this road? A shockingly long way when you consider the list of species targeted by agricultural and game bird production interests. The hit list includes mink, rats, moles, crows, gulls, seals, badgers, magpies, hedgehogs, foxes, rabbits, muntjac deer, red deer, sika deer, wood pigeons, feral pigeon, Canada geese… All are being curbed or killed. Any animal species you care to name is suitable for scapegoating as long as a commercial or political interest is served.

In fact, I cannot think of any species that are actually tolerated except song birds – and they are paying the price of modern agricultural production methods which leaves them with a depleted, poisoned environment.

If you say yes to the ruddy duck cull you say yes to all that. You say yes to the notion that environmental harmony can be achieved through the barrel of a gun. I urge you to say no.

Delivered February 10, 2004 at an RSPCA Internal Seminar

For more information about ruddy ducks click here.