Management of wild creatures part of maintaining countryside
Culling badgers is, for the majority in the wildlife movement, unacceptable. Philip Bowern asks why many take a different attitude to species that don’t have the appeal of Old Brock.
They may sometimes be uncomfortable admitting it, but supporters of various wildlife charities – and the charities the mselves – almost all accept that in a managed countryside some species can be legitimately controlled – or killed.
This fact is forcibly brought home by the reaction recently to the news the water vole, a native species once common in wetland areas across the country, is now teetering on the brink of extinction and is as close to the edge as Africa's black rhino.
The reason for the water vole's decline? Another species, the American mink, is preying on water voles at an alarming rate. And with the mink population exploding the voles have little chance of survival.
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Darren Tansley, water vole expert from the Wildlife Trusts, representing groups across the country, recently told the Press Association in an interview: "The mink is now widespread through most river catchment areas in the UK. They are so widespread that total eradication is no longer possible, the best we can hope for is controlling them."
For "controlling" read "killing". And the accepted way of doing that is cage trapping and shooting. Advice to wildlife organisations carrying out the work spells it out. "The only accepted way to kill captured mink is a clean shot through the head. Shooting should be done with a 0.22 calibre rimfire rifle, powerful air gun or shotgun," it says.
That may be distasteful to some but where it has been carried out efficiently – most notably here in the Westcountry on the Somerset Levels with much of the work undertaken by wildfowling members of the British Association of Shooting and Conservation, under the pro-shooting organisation's Green Shoots programme – it clearly works. In Somerset water voles are fighting back as the mink are culled.
Take another threatened species, the red squirrel. Another interloper from the United States, its grey cousin, is at least a part of the cause of the spectacular fall in red squirrel numbers. Greys carry a pox that does not harm them but is contagious and deadly to reds.
A project, supported by none other than the Prince of Wales, aims to bring back the red squirrel to West Cornwall by eradicating the greys from the entire West Cornwall peninsula. Again, members of the shooting community are doing their bit, with landowners urged to allow the shooting of grey squirrels, or undertake the task themselves so that, in time, reds can be re-introduced.
Of course mink and grey squirrels are not indigenous to these islands. The badger most definitely is. But then so is the rat, the fox, roe and red deer, woodpigeons, and many other species that the majority – including wildlife charities – accept need to be "managed" and are routinely culled.
Imagine the outcry however, if badgers, protected under the 1973 Badger Act from any interference by man, came to be treated in the same way as the fox or the deer? Imagine if landowners were permitted to manage the badger population, not under a high-profile and tightly-controlled scheme to attempt to bring bovine TB under control, but as a part of a general rural management as the fox, the deer, and other species are.
Such management would keep the badger population in check, thereby protecting ground-nesting birds, bumble bees, hedgehogs and other creatures that make up the badger diet. It would, quite probably, also reduce the incidence of bovine TB in the wild – and among domesticated cattle.
It will never happen, of course. The badger is protected not only because it is an iconic native British mammal with an appealing striped face, a long history in popular literature and symbol of the Wildlife Trusts, but also because it was once mercilessly persecuted by badger baiters who dug animals from their setts and set them against dogs in a sick trial of strength.
Repealing the Badger Act would not give the green light to re-start that appalling behaviour. Laws covering cruelty would prevent it.
It would, however, bracket badgers with other wild creatures that are numerous and do not face any threats to the long term viability of the species.
Many farmers and landowners would certainly welcome such a change in the law. But would some wildlife charities welcome it too, however hard they might find to admit it?
We have already established that – aside from the fanatics who believe animals have rights equal to the rights of man – wildlife organisations accept management and culling wild creatures is a part of looking after the countryside, in the same way as pulling up invasive plant species like Japanese knotweed and Himalyan balsam or clearing the underbrush in woodland to encourage plant and animal life.
So long as suffering is kept to a minimum and there is an overall wildlife or countryside gain from culling, could those organisations that do so much good in standing up for the natural world, accept that controlling badger numbers might have a place?
Do not hold your breath – but at least let us have the debate.