The Dignity of Wild Animals


Snakes and Lizards




Wild Boar


It is an inescapable fact that wild nature in Britain has to co-exist with the needs of the dominant species, and if that co-existence is threatening to us then we manage-out the threat in an often ruthless way, with no pause for contemplation of relative rights to life and freedom.

The front page of the February issue of the Angling Star gives me a first example. The feature splash has Lord Mason of Barnsley calling for cormorant populations to be managed. Fishermen have long battled with cormorants in river estuaries as the wretched bird competes with them for their catch. This article took a slightly different tack - the cormorant was being blamed for spreading a tape worm parasite of fresh water fish, reducing their populations in the artificial sport fishing lakes of south Yorkshire.

The Director of the Countryside Alliance Campaign for Angling supports this view, envisaging dire consequences if this "Black Plague" continues to "rape" our water of vital fish stocks. The pejorative nature of his comments goes further when he calls the cormorant a "European interloper". He is wrong on two counts: Britain is part of Europe (ecologically) , and the cormorant is a native to our shores. Perhaps he should observe for instance as I do every year the cormorants nesting on Northumberland coastal cliffs.

Another example: in Autumn last year, the British Herpetological Society speculated that the declining populations of snakes and lizards were due to the increasing number of young gaming birds being released each year to meet the needs for sport shooting. Occupying the same habitat, unnaturally high numbers of young gallinaceous birds (pheasants) will soon clear out areas of these legged and un-legged reptiles - and look for even more food from the keeper.

Badgers have a rough time of it as well. Despised by cattle farmers, they carry the stigma of supposedly infecting livestock with tuberculosis (TB). Bovine TB is not a health risk to humans as meat inspection and heat treatment of milk provides protection. Its not a great hazard to badgers either, with more of them dying from road traffic accidents than from infection. In fact disease is a natural feature of ecosystems and can be an important factor in population regulation. But the key issue here is that bovine TB has economic consequences for affected farm businesses in lowering productivity combined with a pretty small mortality rate. However the prospect of badgers infecting cattle will not be tolerated by farmers, such is the prejudice against them.

Sadly Government resorted to the crudest of experiments to test the infection link when it sanctioned the Randomised Badger Culling Trial. Thousands of dead badgers later, and the trial was called off when interim findings showed reactive culling of badgers actually led to a 27% increase in the number of herds affected by TB compared to non-culled areas.

Who'd change places with a fox?

We really do hate wild animals. Not content with extirpating (eradicating) native animals in the past, we are either preparing to do it again - with wild boar - or forestalling their re-introduction, such as with the European beaver. The beaver is an interesting lesson. It is four hundred years since the beaver was hunted to extinction in Scotland. Now, ten years of study and widespread debate in Scotland has led to the point where Scottish Natural Heritage were able to submit proposals to the Scottish Parliament for their experimental reintroduction. The Deputy Environment Minister refused the license on the basis that he needed more information on the longer-term impacts. Do you think he meant the economic impacts?

Beavers may be a crucial component of healthy, functioning wetlands and riparian woodlands because of their ability to create wetland habitat, and also because of the opportunities they create for other species. However, the assumption against them is that they will cause extensive damage to forestry and fishery interests. None of this is borne out by the greater experience in continental Europe. The first reintroduction took place in 1922 when beavers were taken from Norway to Sweden. Since then more beaver reintroduction schemes have taken place right across Europe. Reintroduced populations now exist in Latvia, Russia, Finland, Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, France, Switzerland, Estonia, Germany, Austria, Netherlands, Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Croatia, Romania, Belgium and more recently in Denmark.

The last wild boar in Bradford was killed in 1350 and its tongue-less head is one of the emblems of the local authority, along with a stag and a hind. The tongue was removed from this beast by its slayer as a token with which to claim the reward for its death. The tongue-less head also turned up in search of the reward and this fraudulence is immortalised in that emblem. I have a Government report from 1998 that confirms that feral populations of wild boar exist again in England. Speak it only softly, but there could be as many as a few hundred split between an enclave on the Sussex/Kent border and some more in Dorset.

The wild boar is the archetypal wild beast and its reputation as a ferocious animal is legendary. Is this true? Aren't they a shy and wary animal? Undoubtedly wild boar will have ecological consequence as they wallow and root, but the soil disturbance is accommodated within their natural woodland habitat and may be an important factor in its ecology. Sadly though, a news report last month suggests the Government will not leave well alone. Behind closed-door consultations with interested parties advise that "something must be done" and that the wild boar population must not be allowed to escape our management.

There is a malign thread to our disdain for wild animals. It is perhaps unwitting, or just ingrained, as a recent Government consultation on deer management goes to show. Government probably feels it is acting responsibly when it issues a deluge of consultation documents on proposals for deer management. It backs up the need for this management by reviewing the cost of road traffic accidents and of the damage to woodland and farmland caused by deer. It associates deer with disease transmission, linking it with the spread of TB, FMD, Lymes disease and range of other viral, bacterial, nematode, tapeworm and fluke infestations that could be harmful to humans or livestock. And it outlines efficient culling procedure, even to the extent of specifying weaponry and ammunition, and the training of stalkers.

What it doesn't do is give any dignity to the wild animals it is talking about. There are brief descriptions of the two native and four introduced species in Britain, and limited information on their population size and distribution. There is no explanation of their natural behaviour or habitat, nor indications of geographical locations in Britain where their unhindered presence could be welcomed.

English Nature has brought out a report on the wildlife habitats of lowland England. It notes that much of the wildlife is found in fragmented areas of semi-natural habitat, and it calls for a new approach of reconnecting those habitats through taking a landscape-scale approach to nature conservation.

I couldn't agree more since the best hope of maintaining species is to give them the space to have an unfettered existence, free from the management and influence of the dominant species. It would make sense also to reintroduce large predators to those "sanctuary" areas so that the true dynamic of nature's balance is restored, taking away our need to have to choose what to slaughter - sorry, I should say "manage". The lynx and the wolf spring to mind, but if we were really adventurous then it could also be the brown bear. It may also be worth reintroducing a couple of herbivores in the elk and tarpan (wild horse) to forestall critics who predict that landscapes would turn into impenetrable thickets. But whatever we do, the fundamental issue is the re-dignifying of wild animals and gifting them the space to exhibit their natural behaviour.

This is not what English Nature envisages. Ever the pragmatists, their proposals chip away around the fringes of the dominant species exploitation of landscapes. Who then will be the advocates who stand up for the dignity of wild animals and uncompromisingly offers them hope?

Mark Fisher, 14 February 2004