The Culling Fields
This article appeared in Bird Art & Photography
Years ago, as I sat with my back against a pine tree, gazing at a crystal clear lake in the Serbian mountains, I heard scratching from the tree next to me. I slowly turned to be eyeball to eyeball with a beautiful chocolate brown ‘Red’ Squirrel.
“Hello fellah” I said.
The squirrel spat and hissed back at me.
I know how he must have felt. He was about his business on his home patch when a stranger broke the sacred silence. I was the alien, more liable to damage his habitat than enhance it.
Humanity has spread over the world like a locust swarm, stripping the land bare as it goes. We have abandoned all hope of reducing our numbers, trying instead to sustain our swarm’s exponential growth. When will we realise that our species must downsize in population. For if we do not we will overwhelm the planet wiping ourselves out through famines or plagues of biblical proportion.
As we wandered the world our sentimental attachment to the familiar resulted in many species being exported, often to the detriment of native species. Few places remain truly natural. Through the hand of man, some species spread everywhere, like rats, Rock Doves, Cane Toads and Japanese Knotweed. Colonists wanted to hear familiar birdsong, or thought the antipodes should afford British gentry the opportunity to chase foxes. We have deliberately introduced species to ‘control’ others, only to find they became plagues. Some such species create their own niche wherever they go – cities as far apart as London and Los Angeles have colonies of African parrots.
Lack of predation or competition has resulted in some ‘new’ populations outnumber the folks back home. Britain has more Sitka deer than China, New Zealand more Brush-tailed Possum than Australia and the US more House Sparrows than the UK! We paved over paradise with parking lots and replacing ripped out rain forest with palms for bio-fuels, now we encourage other species to follow our rapacious example.
Enlightened conservationists are trying to stem the flow. The trouble is that it mostly goes unnoticed, is often opposed by bunny huggers or constrained by the ‘bottom line’.
Sentimentality seems to be an extremely myopic emotion. I do not understand how ‘animal lovers’ can release farmed Mink without seeing that this results in Mink slaughtering ducks and displacing native otters. How can those opposing culling feral cats reconcile the consequent loss of millions of songbirds, reptiles and small mammals? Why do they confer unwanted pets with more rights than the natural world?
A few scattered attempts are underway to remove alien species that threaten native ones. For a decade in the UK America Ruddy Ducks have been culled as it is claimed that they fly to Spain and interbreed with threatened White-headed Ducks. Despite this costing millions of pounds; few ‘ruddies’ reaching Spain and that reduction in White-headed Duck hunting has reversed the decline, the plug has not been pulled. Why do UK conservation organisations champion the cull of this low impact species, but do not call stridently for a Grey Squirrel cull? Are these conservationists inexpertly playing politics… hoping that if we support one EEC partner maybe other EEC members will stop killing millions of ‘our’ migrating songbirds each year? I believe a poll of members would show most are opposed to the action! It’s enough to make this grumpy old member considered resigning!
Grey Squirrels are a perfect example of a species that should be culled in the UK. Charming and appropriate to North American woodland they have no place here. Greys rob nests, damage trees and carry a disease that kills our disappearing native Red Squirrels. We do not tackle them because they are cuddly critters that feed from your hand in the park. The refrain is that their numbers are legion and they are so well established, that we could never eliminate them all.
New Zealand, a country with around 6% of the population of the UK and proportionately far less wealthy, is taking on the Polynesian Rat and Brush-tailed Possum, Feral goats, pigs and introduced deer. They have cleared their outlying islands of aliens creating havens for native plants, birds and reptiles. Now they are working on the mainland, restoring native forests and controlling predators and competitors by poisoning or trapping rats, stoats, weasels, possum et al. It’s working to the extent that they are confidently re-introducing vulnerable species like Kiwis from their island refuges.
In the southern Evergreen Beech woods deer eat the same buds as a critically endangered bird; the Yellowhead so a cull of deer was initiated. Hunters, fearing being deprived of their ‘sport’, burnt down a building and several vehicles and threatened conservation workers with guns! But the work goes on. Educating people and saving the planet is neither easy nor cheap.
Our antipodean cousins, with a relatively small economy drowning in a sea of species introduced by the ‘old country’, put us to shame. Why are we playing politics, wasting £500 a head culling low impact Ruddy Ducks instead of taking the fight to really damaging invaders?