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Archive for January, 2015

Protectionism

The headline in the wildlife magazine read “Help save our badgers”. Not an uncommon statement and one that probably has many people giving a passive nod of support. Yet the more discerning reader might ask, “From what exactly?” Badger baiters? Landowners? Disease? Road accidents? Habitat loss? Government sanctioned shooters?

These are all different factors and it raises questions about what precisely ‘protectionist legislation’ is and what it seeks to achieve.

Badger protection laws have been strengthened from 1973 to 1992

Badger protection laws have strengthened significantly from 1973 to 1992

For example, the first badger protection law was passed in 1973 with the main aim of combatting badger baiting and any illegal killing. At the time, local badger populations were under threat from such actions, so it could be argued that this legislation was both a conservation and anti-cruelty measure. Over the years, the law has been tightened on a number of occasions to the point where the badger is now perhaps the most protected mammal in Europe.

The result is that numbers have risen significantly and in no way could badgers be described as an endangered species. Some would say that this is a successful outcome, but is it? A sizeable rise in any species is inevitably going to have an impact on some other species, whether it be plant or animal. At the political party conferences last year, an RSPCA official spoke of the charity’s concern over the decline in hedgehogs, apparently unaware of the link between the rise in the badger population and its predation on hedgehogs. The spread of bovine TB, too, cannot be excluded from this situation.

The 18 bat species in the UK have similar total protection and again there are unintended consequences in that, like the badger, places where they reside are also protected. Bats like to live in caves and in the absence of such dwellings see churches as a good alternative. The trouble is that many churches are old, contain ancient and valuable monuments and try to accommodate a variety of community groups, while of course being places of worship.

The damage bat droppings and urine cause can be extensive and the smell can make some churches ‘no go’ areas for people with respiratory conditions. Repairs and renovations now have to come second to preserving the bats and their roosts, while cleaning becomes a demoralising, almost daily, necessity. The costs for bat surveys and delays in building repairs often run into many thousands of pounds. Some 6500 churches are affected in this way and the same restrictions apply to other property owners, such as those who wish to renovate barns.

Cover-up and clean-up.  The only options for 6500 churches.

Cover-up and clean-up.
The only options open to 6500 churches.

A simple change to the law, as proposed by Christopher Chope MP with his Bat Habitats Regulation Bill, seeks to enhance natural bat habitats, while limiting the protection for bat habitats in places of worship where the presence of bats has a significant adverse impact upon the users of those buildings. It is a good, common sense move that doesn’t involve the death of any bats and indeed one that should not even be necessary had the original protectionist laws been properly thought through and been slightly more flexible.

The default position for certain groups, some of which blur the line between conservation and animal welfare to suit their own needs, is to always call for greater protection, yet often it doesn’t work. Take the case of the Irish hare. Though numbers fluctuate, there has been a decline over recent years and scientists studying hares argued that it was important for those with an interest in this species and its habitat, including hunters and coursers, to be involved. The government minister at the time decided to ignore that advice and listen instead to the animal rightists. A Special Protection Order was granted in 2004 giving the animal total protection, yet numbers of Irish hares continued to decline. Typically, the calls for greater protection kept coming and could very well be answered by asking how? The Irish hare was now fully protected!

Raptors are also all fully protected, yet the outcome is not always what most would desire. Without acceptance of a sensible balance between shooting interests and the conservation of these birds, the protectionist groups will always face resistance and conflict…and often stalemate. Some might even say that such conflict is a useful form of fund-raising, preferable to seeking compromise which might achieve a higher success rate for the animals concerned.

Perhaps in recognising the flaw in calling for simplistic measures, a recent campaign to give the brown hare a close season for breeding takes a slightly different route. What is not said too loudly is that hares can breed in most months of the year, so a close season could be quite lengthy. Given that there is an uneven distribution of brown hares across England leading to the animal sometimes being shot as a pest in some areas, this simplistic measure could cause ‘pre-emptive’ shooting just before a close season begins. Such a move might very well upset the slow increase in numbers we currently see, a situation that is in stark contrast to some countries that do have close seasons and yet continue to see numbers decline.

The Hunting Act, while not granting the hunted species full protection as in the legislation mention above, nevertheless claims to ‘protect’ the fox, deer and hare (the mink doesn’t get much of a mention) and yet anyone who has the slightest knowledge of hunting and the other management methods knows it does nothing of the sort. This is why not a penny has been spent by any of the anti-hunting groups on assessing the effects the Hunting Act has had on the quarry species. One might have thought that if this legislation is as good as it’s claimed, a little bit of research would be very useful to counter the arguments of those calling for repeal and secure this law for the future.

What is needed is a proper explanation and understanding of wildlife management in all its forms and a willingness at government level to sometimes avoid the fashionable option. Protectionism sounds good, and indeed in some cases it is, but if the laws become too rigid, too illogical, too intrusive or simply not needed in a different era, they become counter-productive.

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