Culling is in the news again and it is, as ever, proving a thorny issue. It often seems anathema and contrary to the whole hippy-feel of much of our work to even be contemplating the systematic removal of a portion of a species. But our ecosystem is now, perhaps irrevocably, out of kilter. Many of the natural checks to species populations are absent or severely reduced through human actions. From an ecological perspective, culling is often an unavoidably necessary step. But how can we reconcile this part of our work with the softer, public face of the environmental movement? Maybe it is time for conservations dark secret to be brought out into the light.
Culling comes in many forms. From the removal of invasive species having a deleterious effect on native species (e.g. mink), to the trimming of deer herds or the issue of potential disease vectors. In all instances, no matter how sound the science and theory behind it, emotion plays a strong role. The importance of sentiment and basic compassion for wildlife should not be underestimated; it is after all the reason that many of us have chosen to devote ourselves to this sector. Making the difficult decisions should not be an entirely cold, analytical process; we need to take into account the reaction of the public and even staff and volunteers within our own organisations. It does not need me to elucidate further the dangers, particularly for a wildlife charity for example, of losing the trust and good will of the public who financially support it, and the staff that drive it forward.
Let us work through the different types of culling we may encounter in conservation, starting with what I would hope would be the most straight forward and obvious:
Removal of invasive species is a huge part of conservation work, be they flora or fauna. Perhaps the species most referenced with regards to culling is the American Mink. A destructive mustelid, since its introduction/escape into the wild it has decimated the native Water Vole population, amongst other species, because it size allows it to access bank side holes that would otherwise be off limits to other species. Its removal, therefore, is of direct advantage to a native and charismatic species under severe threat. Spelling out these basic issues, few in the conservation sector would have any issue with culling. Some among the broader public however, may take issue at killing one species for the preservation of another on the grounds of longer-term residency.
An interesting side note here is the provenance of mink in the UK. There is a theory that that a large number established themselves after being released by activists from a mink farm, breeding them for their pelts. This is unsubstantiated, and there are a number of different ways one could read this situation from misplaced good intentions to fabrication of the story, to discredit. Either way, it further highlights the role that emotion can play and how they need to be managed and addressed accordingly and not dismissed as bleeding-heart sentimentality.
Deer culling however, is much more likely to send members of the public into paroxysms of rage. This I have experienced having worked in woodland where herd trimming was essential. Deer kill woodland. It takes a long while, but their presence in the absence of a natural predator will eventually lead to a lack of natural regeneration of woodland species due to overgrazing of saplings and seedlings. This obviously has a huge knock on effect to other species. Keeping herds at an acceptable level, mimicking the effects of a natural predator if you like, is therefore a vital part of woodland management, allowing different areas to develop thick, natural regeneration where elsewhere areas are opened out by grazing.
And yes, I would love to see Lynx reintroduction as a measure to alleviate the need for such culling, but that is another argument. Deer though, are herbivores, are relatively inoffensive (whereas mink, for example, are seen as aggressors) and people generally like to see them on a woodland stroll. How then, to promote the idea and get the public on-board with the notion that you are going to be shooting a fair few of them in the head? Some organisations opt for the clandestine approach, keeping it a slightly dirty little secret, and you can understand why. But this shirks one of the main responsibilities of the environmental sector: to inform and educate. Through discussing, educating, and yes, even promoting the darker parts of our jobs we can pre-empt any potentially negative reactions. It’s a risky move, but keeping the activity hidden breeds distrust and suspicion.
On to yet more controversial culling activities: Badgers and foxes. They represent an extremely familiar face of wildlife in the UK – if we can be said to have any remaining charismatic megafauna, these are they. The recent badger cull was a complete farce, of that you hardly need me to tell you. But the reason it fell so entirely flat was not just that badgers are cute and fluffy, it was that the science was so flawed. As soon as this became apparent, the whole undertaking was a failure. Add to this that the move was taken to appease the farming lobby and you can understand just why it got everyone in the sectors back up so much. But, for example, imagine that the badger cull was scientifically backed up as being a necessary measure to protect a habitat or unique biodiversity feature, what then? This is not too far fetched, and indeed can stretch to that other target of the most vehemently and vitriolically divisive of culls, foxes. Either could theoretically reach a stage, like deer, where their population increase, unchecked by natural predators or competition, begins to cause real issues for conservation measures. Some might say that is already beginning to happen now. What then? Would we be prepared to meddle? Just how would we square that with both our own ethical stance and the public’s emotional attachment to these animals?
In such a situation it would be negligent in the extreme to ignore the issue. Many would say that the land should be allowed to adapt naturally, a rewilding ethic coming into play, and therefore these animals should be spared the rifle. But would this same feeling be extended to deer? Unlikely. How about to mink? Unthinkable. Why then should these two be spared? It is an interesting poser, but should this situation arise only clear and honest setting out of either side of the argument before the public will allow progress to be made in the right direction. Any other approach risks alienation of the one real weapon we have in the environmental sector: public support.