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Chris Packham - Ecological cleansing


Chris Packham writes about exterminating invasive species - or not.

Perfection is beautiful, but extremely rare, and the ever increasing scrutiny of anything tending to it invariably reveals a flaw. Maybe definite perfection doesn't actually exist at all; maybe attempting to find it, own it or create it is the eternal fuel for idealists who imagine that it can be theirs. That quest is laudable of course, without such energies and their results the mediocre would reign supreme and the whole world would be a poorer place.

But at what point does one stop and accept that, within reason ‘that's as perfect as can be'? It's difficult because the sort of people who pursue perfection are typically immensely driven and easily lost in a fog of determination or their ego. They actually struggle to see anything but their goal which becomes increasingly critical and ‘unsatisfiable'.

I'm like that about taking photographs, I set my standards far beyond reach and as such have never taken a decent picture yet. Indeed, I'm resigned to the fact that I never will. That's a bit sad, but definitely not as dangerous as some other perfectionist's objectives; those who sincerely believe that perfection can be sculpted on a grand scale, on the scale of life itself. Mr A. Hitler was one; Mr Pol Pot another, and tragically there are plenty in the historical list of eugenicists who cross the line between reason and horrible madness. Now, I'm not going to compare anyone here to these evil miscreants or suggest a desire for comparable crimes, but there are some ‘conservationists' who have clearly lost the plot when it comes to purity and perfection.

Imperfect nature
Nature is not perfect either of course. If it was then things would have evolved to a point where everything worked in complete harmony and the actual process of evolution would be redundant. This is clearly impossible; the climate changes, meteors collide with earth, ice caps melt and refreeze and so on, and without imperfection being constantly generated then the necessary new forms wouldn't be there to survive the changes.

Invasive species
I like it that life itself is flawed, it helps me when I look at our ruined landscapes, it excuses my need to ache to try and make them totally perfect again - because they never were! Thus when I look out of my window and see an invader, a non-native such as a Grey Squirrel I don't run for my air rifle, I just think that the ruins of paradise are still a pretty good place to be.

Grey squirrels - Live and let live
I know that we couldn't kill all the Grey Squirrels in the UK, we missed that chance long ago, and because where I live that Grey offers no threat to any native Reds I'll let him nibble my nuts. It's not that I'm against controlling Greys, far from it. In certain places more resources should be available to assist with this as they present a very real threat to our fluffty tufty Great British Red boys. And such measures can still work so they are currently still worth pursuing. But if they couldn't or wouldn't work then my attitude changes, I'm for a more laid back approach, ‘let it happen, let it go, wave goodbye with a tearful eye if you like, bid farewell to the old Reds and get used to the Greys'.

Paradise lost? Should the whole countryside look like this?

Paradise lost? Should the whole countryside look like this?

Paradise lost
It's bad luck, we made a mistake, we shouldn't have brought them in, but then we didn't know better back in 1876. But now there are certainly better and bigger things to worry about, things where we could make a massive difference if we weren't occasionally distracted by a small band of lunatics who are insidiously bogged down and blinded by sentimental racism. Things where we can prevent rather than cure, create rather than destroy, things upon which our conservation cash would be more productively spent if only we could accept that perfect paradise is lost and that a new version of it is realistically all we can have. An environment where change is allowed and where difference from the ideal is exciting and new.

Good old days? - They never existed
But when it comes to the emotive issue of immigration plenty of people don't agree with such pragmatism, they are hell bent on cleaning up all the ‘non-native' scum and making Britain's countryside pure again, just like it was in the good old days. The thing is, when were the ‘good old days', when did they start and end? After all if we have to try and live in some sort of idealised time we must at least have some sort of programme to work to, however artificial. I've tried asking around but got no joy, the common perception still seems to be that everything living here when the land bridge to mainland Europe was inundated at the end of the last ice age is native, everything else non.

48% land mammal species in UK are non-native
Pity that, because it immediately makes forty eight percent of our terrestrial mammal fauna non-natives, and so presumably if the Grey squirrels have to go then so do all the rabbits, hares, four of our six deer species and so on. That's going to be a bit expensive then, better put the helicopter gun-ships on standby, and of course it will leave us with a lot less mammals and completely balls up the communities of other creatures which have adapted to live with these ‘incomers' since they arrived. Mr Buzzard will miss those rabbits and I can't see Mrs Public being too happy about the extermination of Fallow deer and all their little Bambi's.

But I'm being silly of course we make exceptions for nice animals, it's only the horrible ones we want to ecologically cleanse.

Do you know what the rarest terrestrial mammal in Britain is? I often ask this question to audiences of the keen and committed and to date I've never had the correct answer from the floor. Otters, wildcats and Pine martens are favourite candidates along with polecats, the occasional oddity such as Water shrew and the inevitable bleeding dormouse.

I bloody hate Dormice
I bloody hate dormice; possibly our biggest conservation con and undeniably Britain's most boring animal. Strictly nocturnal and almost totally arboreal, they are invisible to every naturalist unless pulled out of a nest box by a licensed person. So that's a rewarding creature then. An animal that in a life times rambling will never show itself, the perfect choice for a conservation icon. Still there's always a good chance they'll be in the box because they sleep for five or more months of the year. That said perhaps Global Warming will inject a little more life into these boring things! And we've also recently discovered they're not that rare after all - we just couldn't find them! No, for me the only thing the Mad Hatter did wrong ... was forget to add the hot water! Oh, I know they've got lovely big whiskers, and lovely big eyes and lovely golden fur, but do you know what their most important asset is? It's a hairy tail! God help you if you are a rodent without a hairy tail, you can be Britain's rarest mammal but if your tail is naked - you're history!

Are we going to exterminate all Manadarin ducks in the UK?

Are we going to exterminate all Manadarin ducks in the UK?

Black rat extermination
That distinction goes to the Black Rat which worse is an immigrant too. A dirty, disease spreading rat that no one loves and will never get onto the Wildlife Trusts calendar now because it's the target of systematic extermination. A few years ago they were ‘removed' from the Isle of Lundy in the Bristol Channel. Except they weren't removed at all, lovable Tiggywinkle Hedgehogs are ‘removed' from the Hebrides, caught live and flown to nice new homes on the mainland after a massive public outcry at the very mention of the ‘cull' word.

The rats were just poisoned. I queried this action in print but was told by the then English Nature that they were a pest that were destroying seabirds, notably Puffins, and that they weren't native so they should be exterminated. I pointed out their rarity and the fact that we've got Puffins coming out of our ears on places such as the Isle of May and also inquired if we should start ‘removing' all the Little owls, Mandarin ducks and Capercaillies as these were introduced too.

I'm mad apparently. But at least I don't maintain double standards based on artificial and shallow ideas of cuddliness or outdated and embarrassing prejudice. I can forgive and forget about the plague (last reported epidemic in the UK, 1847), and I don't randomly pick who I welcome into our fauna based upon whether it eats gaudy seabirds or not. Anyway, the academics have got their sights set on some birds too.

Ring-necked parakeets
Those noisy, vulgar Johnny-come-latelys the Ring-necked Parakeets cant roost safe at night these days as I've heard rumours of an exercise to asess and cost the possibility of their eradication. Well, they are pretty numerous now, thousands flocking to Esher Rugby Club in winter, and they are widespread too, squawking from Oxfordshire to Kent all down the Thames basin, and people have learned to love them as well. The women's rugby team at Esher are called ‘The Parakeets' and they play in green. So, even if it were possible and some misfit deemed it desirable, and yet another affordable, just how popular would blowing bright green parrots out of the skies over most of London's Parks be? ‘Hello, is that the Daily Mail?' Get a life will you and stop wasting valuable money on such short sighted and idiotic ideas.

Big money buys exceptions
But here's my coup de grace. A serious, even custodial sentence awaits anyone deliberately releasing non native species into the wild; this even applies if you nurse a Grey squirrel back to health and let it go again; that's fine, okay... Well, what about the six hundred thousand Ring-necked Pheasants turned out every year just so they can be blown out of the skies, or get run over, whichever comes first? Non-natives that support a complete industry, a whole economy... Oh, yeah, well that's different isn't it mate. Funny that, one rule for rats another for big money and influential people who like to kill things - certain ugly parallels wouldn't you say?

Just be clear, I'm not advocating a free for all on releasing lots of new species into our countryside, I'd much rather see no more at all. Managing them soaks up a huge annual budget that I'd rather have to spend creatively elsewhere, and I realise the disastrous impact that certain invasive species have on both our native fauna and our economy. I am not President of The Himalayan Balsam Society or patron of The Japanese Knotweed Club; I don't have an ‘I Love Signal Crayfish' t-shirt. But when I look out that window I see gardens, parks and woods and hedgerows full of foreign species and I know they are here to stay, so wouldn't a live and let live policy be a little more feasible? Did someone forget to put windows in the ivory towers?

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