Archive for November, 2014

Leave it to nature?

Any comment made via social media usually prompts further comments. A recent statement about the League Against Cruel Sports’ reluctance to debate hunting brought this response, “Nature does all that for us, if hunters/shooters would just leave her alone to get on with it”

The view that we should just leave everything alone may be a nice idea to many people, but is it viable?

Given free rein, nature would certainly blossom, but as there is hardly anywhere in the UK that could genuinely be described as wild, we would have to get used to a very different countryside. So I’m not convinced that leaving nature entirely to its own devices would be too pleasing, either in conservation or animal welfare terms.

An obvious starting point has to be what we have lost and in particular the large predators. When I worked for the LACS one argument promoted by the group was fairly simple; there are predatory animals and there are prey animals. That view is now outdated and replaced by the phenomenon of ‘trophic cascade,’ in which actions that affect a top (apex) predator then alter the actions of a middle (meso) predator and consequently the state of the prey animals and/or plant life.

Deer have lost their main predator – the wolf –  in this country and it is generally accepted by most organisations that control is necessary and that means shooting. It’s been argued that the fox is also a predator and therefore should not be hunted with hounds, but this is to misunderstand that foxes are meso predators and are indeed hunted in other countries by larger predators such as wolves and coyotes.

Having so drastically altered the countryside, not only by removing the large predators but by farming and forestry methods too, mankind has a duty to manage the environment. The only way in which we could realistically leave nature to “get on with it” is by removing man from the whole picture.

When that point is made, the argument more usually shifts to any method that avoids the death of animals. Yet in arguing for wildlife management we don’t always have to see this as another way of saying killing. A range of methods is available and these should remain open to those who manage the land. Some do not involve lethal outcomes, but it is also naïve to think that culling must be excluded. Difficulties arise when what appears to be neat and humane solutions are promoted by either the well-intentioned or the mischievous.

Darting deer on Exmoor

Darting deer on Exmoor

Some animal rightists have said that deer needn’t be hunted or shot and that numbers could be controlled by contraception – an idea that is clearly attractive to many people unfamiliar with the realities of wildlife management. Some years ago I witnessed the steps required to place a radio collar on a red deer hind for research purposes – a procedure not too dissimilar to placing a contraceptive implant into the animal. A tranquiliser dart was used with a transmitter attached, the reason being that the drug is highly dangerous to humans and had the dart missed or bounced out (as it did on the first shot) leaving it there for perhaps an unfortunate walker to tread on could not be risked. The whole process was lengthy and not without its hazards. And that was for just one deer.

The LACS sanctuaries (those that are left) attracted high numbers of red deer to the point where disease, either lungworm or TB, became serious problems. Once again, those who advocate leaving nature to itself don’t seem to have an answer to controlling disease in wildlife, unless it is the suggestion made at a recent debate in which it was said that as wild animals die horrible deaths, there was no need to do anything.

Giving the public a choice between vaccination or extermination, as the RSPCA did in a now banned advert on bovine TB and the badger cull, was always going to attract the people to the ‘humane’ option rather than the lethal one. No mention of the practicalities in trapping badgers which would have to be repeated or the fact that there is no vaccination available known to be 100% successful.

Fox with severe mange. Should they just be left?

Fox with severe mange. Should they just be left?

Quite why the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has been slow to agree the Hen Harrier Joint Recovery Plan to help resolve the conflict with grouse moor owners is unclear. Briefly, the ‘brood management’ scheme would allow hen harrier chicks to be moved to other areas when they have reached a certain level in order to avoid the birds predating on grouse. No killing would be involved and the plan would alleviate the problems in making shooting on grouse moors viable. However, if the suggestion of leaving nature to itself were to be followed, the natural predators of the hen harrier (foxes, badgers, corvids etc.) would be a serious threat to the birds, as could be seen when gamekeepers at Langholm Moor were laid off when hen harriers became too numerous and grouse shooting had to stop. That would happen again in the short term, but in the longer term, the moors themselves would disappear without management.

It’s a pity that some organisations see conflict with hunters and shooters as being preferable to working with them. No doubt that battling attitude, with an identifiable ‘enemy’, does no harm on the fund raising front, but what’s more important is for these groups to explain precisely what they find acceptable, rather than simply what they disagree with and, in doing so, avoid the comfortable but unrealistic position of saying we should just leave it to nature.



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