Quagga Mussels and Dealing With Rejection

Ok, let’s get the technical stuff out of the way so I can get to the real point of this post.

Quagga Mussels are bad news for water bodies in this country. They’ve only just started to turn up here in any significant numbers in the last few months. They’ve caused significant problems in the Great Lakes in the US and have the potential to be pretty destructive to native ecosystems. They originate from south-east Europe (the rather wonderfully named Ponto-Caspian region). No one knows precisely how they got here, perhaps in ships ballast, an inevitable and unavoidable consequence. I blame the EU*.

Quagga Mussels - What did they ever do to me?

Quagga Mussels – What did they ever do to me?

How can we get rid of them? (My god, I’ve turned into one of those people who ask then answer their own questions). The University of Cambridge have come up with a ‘BioBullet’ that may dissolve their shells. I await to see the progress of this. It’s better than introducing a predator at least (I’m always reminded of the old lady who swallowed a spider when I think of this approach. And I don’t like being reminded of it; that story always unnerved me when I was a child).

Anyway, what was I here for? It was when I was doing a bit of reading on the internet for a previous piece about invasive species that I blundered over a few examples of yet more confusion over just what we mean when we talk about invasives (I say blundered, I had set out to find examples of it, and they were there in abundance). It was when reading this piece that I got into one of my periodical fugs about the misapplication of social and political principles to ecological issues. Aliens (ecological ones, that is) usually get cast as either evil interlopers ‘coming over here, killing our native species’ (bad) or as poor, victimised travelers, just trying to carve out a life for themselves in the world (even worse). It’s not hard to spot the subtext in either opinion. This article fell into the latter (spot the authors revealing comment about himself towards the end) and I couldn’t really let its lake of scientific rigor and disregard of a real ecological problem stand. So I posted a response.

I think I was particularly narked about the use of quotations marks around the word conservationists, but also took the time to point out the error in confusing social issues with scientific ones and why his admiral defence of the Quagga Mussel was misguided.

There was a counter-post, of which I could not really get my head around the first sentence (feel free to explain this one to me if you understand it)

‘To say that a species is “out of place” is a value judgement and not a scientific (logical) conclusion. It could be a logical conclusion if you start with the assumption that a species may not out-compete another species to extinction even if it is the best suited to survive in the environment it finds itself.’

But which also went on to generalise that all ‘conservationists’ believed in survival of the fittest until it suited them, disregarding it when they wanted to get out and kill something.

The author has much in common with Joaquin Phoenix, including a stupid first name

The author has much in common with Joaquin Phoenix, including a stupid first name

Again, I couldn’t let such fresh nonsense stand and submitted a further counter-counter-post clearly analysing and dissembling each of his misplaced points. I talked with great flair, élan and cutting knowledge using big words such as ‘monoculture’ and mentioning that if any ‘conservationists’ they had met still held to survival of the fittest, then they probably deserved the quotation marks. But clearly my rebuttal was too thorough, too complete in its glorious refutation of the misplaced sentiment of their blog and my comment never appeared – deleted or not approved by the blogger or just vanished into the ether under the weight of its own awesomeness. And that vexes me. I am terribly vexed

So, in essence I suspect this page is more about my own feelings of rejection and fears of being ignored than it is the Quagga Mussel. Sorry for misleading you.

*I don’t blame the EU

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Noisy Bloomin’ Parakeets

There are some alien species that my opinions are straight down the line about. Japanese Knotweed? Himalayan Balsam? Pain in the arse. American Mink? Genuine threat to native wildlife and a small enough population to remove. Little Owls? Awesome featherballs. I have a great sympathy with a bird that manages to look so permanently affronted. I really like Little Owls. Maybe I sense a kinship with something that looks angry the whole time.

Spike's Subjective Scale for Invasive Species - to which I have ludicrously ascribed values of 'good' and 'bad' to different species.

Spike’s Subjective Scale for Invasive Species – to which I have ludicrously ascribed values of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ to different species.

Ah, but Parakeets. There I find myself flip-flopping. Ambivalence is the wrong word. It’s too garish (or colourful, if you prefer) and screechy (or vibrant) a bird for such an absence of emotion. Maybe I haven’t fallen into either camp because they toe the line between novel alien and damaging invasive. Maybe it’s because I’d never seen (or heard) them before moving to London 8 years ago (and I’m pretty slow to make my mind up about anything). Maybe I’m just being contrary by not picking a side when everyone I know in the sector already appears to have done. I end up defending it to my anti-parakeet friends and pillaring it to the pro-parakeet-ers. Both sides think I’m an idiot.

I’m not going to go into the well-versed myths about the origin of the population; I blame neither Bogart nor Hendrix. But the reason for their population boom since the late 90’s is definitely a point worth considering. Have they surpassed some seemingly arbitrary population density that allows them to thrive, like an inverse of the Passenger Pigeon? Maybe they’re some kind of backwards climate change canary?

I can’t quite find it in myself to get fully behind the London Wildlife Trust’s stance that they are as ‘British as curry’; it’s a clever but skewed comparison open to misinterpretation. And the lazy chucking about of ‘racism’ by the sub-editors in these pieces (though it is not used anywhere by ‘wildlife experts’ from what I can see) instantly gets my back up, puts me on the defensive and back in the anti-parakeet camp. There is some evidence that parakeets are causing damage to native species, with over-competition with bats for nest-holes and even direct attacks recorded. There is also a suggestion that they out-compete and ‘bully’ native species, but this has as yet not been fully explored. But should we act here on a precautionary principal regarding an alien species? By the time adequate evidence has been accumulated, it may already be too late.

But in reality, it probably already is too late. The ‘as British as curry’ argument suggests an ingrained and embedded species that would be difficult (and expensive) to eradicate, but I’ve never seen this as a reason not to try. They are colourful though, and add a welcome dash of brightness to the mundane décor of…nah, balls to that. Decisions of ecology should not be reduced to aesthetical grounds, that’s a whole stew of nonsense decision making right there. This piece has been a very subjective and personal one; there’s a lot more ‘me’ and ‘I’ in it than I could say I’m comfortable with. But maybe that’s the point? When the issue is one of such currently negligible scientific evidence and based on anecdote and speculation, should the ultimate fate of the Ring-Necked Parakeet come down to the opinion of your standard ecologically-illiterate Londoner?*

 

*Nope.

Wallabies! On the Isle of Man!

It’s another article in my series on invasive species, but this one is a little bit different. This one is a very personal tale. That’s right, it’s time I wrote an article about my time amongst the marsupials on the Isle of Man. Everyone wants to hear about that, surely?

Some time ago, in the distant past of my infancy as an ecologist (well, in 2008), I found myself losing a boot in bog land on the Isle of Man. As I sat with a damp foot and a furrowed brow, I became aware of a crashing through the scrub behind me. Could it finally be, that after 3 days of roaming around 200 hectares of marsh, willow carr, grassland, scrub and woodland at ungodly hours of the day that I was finally going to get my first glimpse of my target? I turned around just in time to see a rustling in the bog myrtle and what could have been a large tail disappearing into cover. Foiled once again!

One of the many oddities I cam across on Ballaugh Curragh. This was miles from anywhere, in the middle of thick woodland.

One of the many oddities I came across on Ballaugh Curragh. This was miles from anywhere, in the middle of thick woodland.

For those 3 days, the Wallabies of Ballaugh Curragh had been my white whale. I had washed up here in the Isle of Man as part of my dissertation. It seemed like an opportunity I couldn’t miss and one that suited me much more than some quadrat study on a windswept saltmarsh. It was all going to be so easy. How could I fail to find and record an accurate population count of the most inconspicuous of alien species? But I hadn’t reckoned on this. The thick, almost impenetrable bogs, the almost ethereal gift for concealment my marsupial marks had displayed to date. They were never the stealthiest of animals when moving through dense scrub, and a crashing sound in the distance was a dead giveaway that they were wise to your approach. But they could move around quite swiftly, padding around with little noise when moving through grassland or older woodland.

By the forth day, I was getting nervy and when I spoke to a regular visitor to the site about them, my fears were compounded. ‘How many have you seen?’ I asked. ‘2 or 3’ came the reply. ‘And how often do you visit here?’ I continued, nervously. ‘Oh, about once or twice a week for the past ten years.’ Oh dear. This was not looking promising. An Assessment of the Ballaugh Curragh Wallaby Population wasn’t going to be much of an assessment if I couldn’t find any of them. Still, I’d found plenty of scats, so the secondary purpose of the project, to analyse their diets, was still on target.

And then on the fifth day, my luck changed. Either that or the Wallabies became accustomed to my unique scent. I’d scouted out my 12km of line transects over the preceding weeks and now it was time to begin. I arrived at 4 am, cycling to the site in the gloaming murk, lumbered with too much kit and nearly falling off at least once. I walked the first transect through lush and long acid grassland and birch woodland. Nothing. My second, through willow carr. Nothing. My third…well you get the idea. It was late morning when I found a small glade and laid down to take an early lunch. I don’t really like early mornings (what sane person does?) and drifted off to sleep. When I woke, I had a strange sense of being watched, and there, at the edge of the glade was my first sighting. O frabjous day. I can’t quite describe the feeling of coming face to face with something quite so out-of-place. Maybe I hadn’t really believed in them until then. I probably looked quite perplexed. The Wallaby looked supremely nonplussed as it chewed leisurely, hoping off in a most laid-back fashion while I fiddled ineffectively with my camera.

Why do you keep following me and stealing my poo?

Why do you keep following me and stealing my poo?

After this, they started to appear with almost obedient frequency, to the point that a new sighting almost, almost became mundane. Walking 60 km of transects, I made 74 sightings over the next month and the final population estimate returned was around 90-100, much higher than anyone had previously estimated*. I’d been sunburned, rained on, fallen over in bogs, but it had all been worth it.

The second part of the study was not quite so glamorous, as I began the study of wallaby fecal matter. This involved transporting 20 scats back to England in a cool bag (I’m still not entirely sure that this was legal, as it came mid-foot and mouth scare. I don’t think they’d written anything specific into the legislation for Wallabies, though). I then diluted, strained (with a tea-strainer) and dyed my samples in my kitchen back in London, after having stored them in the freezer for a month. Not very scientific, in retrospect, and my wife was not best pleased when I told her. I still don’t think my other housemates at the time knew (sorry if you are reading this now). My samples sat on top of the fridge for months after (completely sterile though, you understand).

How the Wallabies came to be there is a confused story and is not the only example of such a population in the UK1, but through my research project I was able to determine that they were causing no real damage to the Ramsar site and (hurray) would not have to be controlled at their current level.

They’re perhaps not the first species to come to mind when you ask a conservationist to name an invasive, but they’re certainly the most charismatic I’ve come across. So what’s the future of the Ballaugh Curragh Wallaby population? Well, I hope that they will remain free to enjoy the fragrant bogs they call home and remain unmolested2 by scatologically obsessed ecologists for at least the foreseeable future. They’re certainly a unique addition to the UK’s flora and fauna and one that is sure to provide a sense of surprise and wonder to anyone fortunate enough to see them3, and in the end, isn’t that what conservation should be about4?

*

*Unfortunately my study was then followed successive harsh winters, and the population is probably smaller than this at the current time.

1An Assessment of the Ballaugh Curragh Wallaby Population available on request. If you have a particularly masochistic streak.

2I did not molest any Wallabies during my time on the Isle of Man.

3Wallaby spotting tours of the Ballaugh Curragh site available on request. Possibly.

4No, it isn’t.

Culling – The Dark Side of Conservation

The Badger - Serial mover of goalposts. Is the FA the real driving force behind the current cull?

The Badger – Serial mover of goalposts. Is the FA the real driving force behind the current cull?

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.

Deer Culling - I couldn't get the rights for a image from Bambi

Deer Culling – I couldn’t get the rights for an image from Bambi

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.

Red-Eared Terrapin

It’s time for another Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle film again, so I thought I’d get out ahead of the publicity juggernaut with an article about our very own Chelonian peril, the Red-Eared Terrapin, or Slider. They’re now a frequent sight on urban ponds in the UK and are often seen as something of a novelty, however they are actually currently listed as one of the 100 most invasive species in the world by the IUCN. They can live for 40 years, but there is scant information on their distribution and the severity of the issue on UK ponds, with some speculative reports suggesting a population of around 15,000 in London alone.

Terrapin riding a dead fox down the Regents Canal

A perfect illustration of the callous and cold-blooded nature of the Red-Eared Terrapin (and the unremitting grimness of London) as one rides a dead fox down the Regents canal. Apparently Megan Fox is in the new film, but for the life of me I struggled to make a sensible pun out of it

From the southern United States and Gulf of Mexico region, terrapins were a popular, cheap pet, and were often sold when around the size of a 50p piece. Care and feeding was relatively simple and their popularity as pets grew during the 80’s (damn ninja turtles!). Growth could be rapid and for many owners unexpected. Coupled with aggressive behaviour and the potential for transmission of salmonella, many families took the irresponsible option of letting them take their chances in municipal ponds and canals.

Fortunately, the presence of terrapins is largely restricted to ponds in urban or semi urban settings (as accessible dumping sites) where the environmental value and biodiversity may not be that high. This does not reduce the need to eradicate them, a process which should both be simple and cheap but which land owners seem reluctant to undertake. Perhaps this is because of their status as charismatic novelties with the visiting public?

Reaching the size of a large dinner plate, they are opportunistic and voracious omnivores and their presence in the ecosystems of small ponds can be devastating to invertebrate and small vertebrate populations and also reduce macrophyte cover, compounding the problem. There are also anecdotal reports of terrapins killing ducklings by dragging them underwater, but more serious danger to waterfowl perhaps lie in their tendency to use nests as basking areas, destroying or submerging them and potentially eating eggs. Exploiting an environmental niche in the UK, the Red-Eared Terrapin has no natural predator and due to its adaptable and varied diet, is able to grow largely unchecked. Other predators are out-competed while the loss of fish stocks may increase the homogenisation of flora already found in many over-polluted bodies of water. As ever, there has been the usual, responsible reaction to the issue of an invasive from certain media outlets (Terrapins that can bite the finger off a child’s finger are being dumped in the Lake district by owners who don’t realise how big they grow – a particular favourite of mine, mainly for the glorious sub-editing failure to trim down the title).

Solutions

Removal of terrapins from our waterways should be a relatively straightforward process. They do not currently breed in the wild in the UK as they require a warm ambient temperature for over 60 consecutive days, though one incident of egg laying and nest building has been recorded in the south of England, and hatching does occur in areas of southern Europe. There has also been a recent report of a juvenile in London last year, but its provenance was unknown. Improving information on distribution and impact should be a primary concern and would not be overly difficult; interest groups such as anglers for example would be a useful source of knowledge.

Buying terrapins is illegal in this country as is their dumping (or that of any alien species) and the lack of breeding suggests that the issue should be self-resolving, as with a lifespan of 40 years, the majority of those purchased around the 80’s boom should die out in the next decade or so. However, the scary prospect does exist that as long hot summers increase in regularity, the chances for breeding in the UK improves for the Red-Eared Terrapin. For this reason alone, removal should be attempted wherever the need exists.

Perversely, American Mink may be one of the only species present in the country that is able to predate on terrapins, though this may also be possible for otter.

A Personal Nemesis!

I have myself made the odd attempt at catching Red-Eared Terrapins (I emphasise the word odd), working to remove 5 terrapins from a small nature reserve in Kings Cross, London. Attempting a number of traps that verged on the Heath Robinson-esque, I eventually sourced some outside assistance, contacting the Hampstead Heath Conservation Rangers

Volunteers capture terrapin

Volunteers looking pleased with themselves after catching a terrapin (terrapin understandably camera shy)

team, who had reported great success in removing terrapins from their bathing pools with a tried and tested trap. The rather ramshackle looking trap consisted of a 5ft by 5ft square of thick piping, plastic sheeting of about 1ft forming the walls of the trap and on which the Terrapins would not be able to gain a purchase. The bottom was lined with chicken wire. It was necessary for the trap to sit in relatively deep water and the combination of a basking area as well as some bait would prove an irresistible charm and they would slide into the enclosed area and become trapped. At least that was how it was supposed to work.

However the much-vaunted trap failed and the terrapins showed absolutely no interest in it, despite prodigious baiting with sprats. After 2 months of failure we finally threw in the towel. No sooner had we done this than a volunteer strolling along the side of the pond simply bent down and scooped a less-than-vigilant terrapin up one morning. This was soon followed by a second, scooped up in a net while out fixing vegetation rafts in a canoe.

Catching the Terrapins was one thing, deciding what to do with them then was another matter entirely. Trawling lists of contacts and in depth browsing of the internet only resulted in a number of recipes for Terrapin soup. They could not be re-released, (terrapins are a Schedule 9 species) but equally there was nowhere on site to home them and no contacts who were willing to take them. Eventually the pair was euthanized by a vet, but the issue caused such consternation amongst the volunteers that the three remaining terrapins were left much as they had been before.

Taking on the hard choices regarding animal culling is a key part of responsible site management, and to ignore or fudge the issue by pandering to elements within volunteering or staff risks endangering the future stability of the ecosystem and this should not be underestimated despite how small or urbanised the reserve.

Social Stigmatising of the Invasive Species Issue

Authors note: This piece has absolutely nothing to do with immigration or racism. If you find something in it that endorses or opposes your view on these subjects, you have misread it.

Invasive species have been getting a rough deal recently. And not from where you might expect. Ecologists and Conservationists have long known about the danger of invasive species, not just their effect on native habitats and species but the homogenisation of the landscape that can result from their unchecked advance. Recently though, a number of other people have started getting in on the act, and for all the wrong reasons.

Nigel Farage: Not an ecologist

Nigel Farage: Not an ecologist

As the issue of invasive species and the detrimental effect they can have on ‘balanced’ ecosystems has increased, there are those who have sought to profit by putting forward their own cultural and social spin on a scientific problem. It bears repeating, the issue of invasive species is not analogous to any human social equivalent, and to say otherwise betrays only scientific ignorance or a wilful misrepresentation for ones one pernicious means (Farage, I’m looking at you and your ilk). It’s an issue all ecologists must be versed in and vocal about on every opportunity, lest we be tarnished by association with right wing rhetoric.

As an example of this tarnishing, proposed culls of grey squirrel have frequently been discussed in connection with words such as fascism and racism. This piece, as just one instance, makes the assumption that one animal is being hunted ‘based solely on the colour of its fur’ (it most certainly isn’t). It also goes on to state “have the three hundred people who joined in the hunt not yet made the connection between this cull and a little thing called racism?” I would hope that they haven’t, because there is no connection and I should not need to expand on why there is no connection. Throwing out the word racism in these situations is lazy, irresponsible sensationalism.

squirrel

Grey Squirrels: Not to be confused with humans

But it’s not just fringe bloggers who are guilty. Oh no. Take Chris Packham for example, who here voices concern that we might be ‘distracted by a small band of lunatics who are insidiously bogged down and blinded by sentimental racism’ when discussing well meaning efforts to eradicate invasives. For someone whom for many a layman is the face of the wildlife sector in the UK to start throwing this word around where it might stick by association to his fellow professional conservationists and ecologists is downright reckless. But then articles like this are probably the reason Packham is getting worked up (it is not surprisingly from the Mail). Lets look at the opening paragraph to this piece of work: ‘If there was a band of illegal immigrants that cost our economy an estimated £14m per annum, carried a fatal disease that killed off most of the indigenous population and threatened our wildlife and woodlands too, wouldn’t you be keen to go to war with them?’ And there it is, right on the first line – the conflation of illegal immigrants with an invasive species. I also admire the wonderfully inflammatory use of the phrase ‘go to war’ in this paragraph. Sorry, admire isn’t the right word is it? Abhor. I think that’s the one I was looking for. It is both insidious and as subtle as half-a-brick in a sock in its underlying meaning, but that is another issue.

So it seems we get it from both sides. It is curious that the misrepresentation of the invasive species issue as an analogue for immigration and racism sees conservationists allied to perennial foes and vilified by our traditional supporters. Suddenly we find that politicians and certain sections of society who would normally be against our aims and objectives, lest they stand in the way of ‘progress’ are siding with us while those who would normally be our supporters (the left-leaning, the liberal) find themselves in the opposite camp. This may be an overgeneralisation, but it is certainly galling to be referred to as a racist by someone like Packham. It is unfortunate, as I understand that the aim of his piece is to express a similar view to mine (namely, that there is no place for racist thought in invasive policy), he goes too far and by discounting a viable and scientifically driven project like grey squirrel removal, he risks the public similarly discounting and vilifying other such measures.

Some of this stems from a poor versing in scientific thinking in our mainstream media (all the more reason why Packham getting caught up in this is unforgiveable). And there is unquestionably a larger overarching issue here of the misunderstanding, deliberate or otherwise, of scientific principals to drive social and cultural policies. The trickledown and take-up of these themes by the general public is a real problem. I have myself been accused of setting a poor example for children when discussing the differences and problems caused by invasive species for their native equivalent. It’s certainly a sensitive topic, but unfortunately one we will have to deal with increasingly as these cultural issues gain a wider audience. On that occasion I explained exactly what the problem was and I hope it clarified things. So please, if you hear anyone make a comparison between invasive species and immigration or racism, take the time to correct them. It’s not big and it’s certainly not clever.

Red Signal Crayfish

Red Signal Crayfish are native to North America and Canada and were originally imported to areas of Scandinavia to boost native crayfish stocks devastated by a ‘crayfish plague’. Ironically, the new imports were found themselves to be carriers of the plague without actually being susceptible. That is irony, isn’t it? I often find myself forgetting the point at which coincidence becomes irony. They can live around 20 years and are able to breed after 2 or 3.

The main impacts on native species are on the White Clawed Crayfish, which have suffered dramatically since the introduction of Signal Crayfish in the 1960’s, dropping by an estimated 95%. Disease is the main reason, although there is also an argument that the more aggressive Signal can out-compete the White Clawed and is more tolerant of pollution.

red signal crayfish

Red Signal Crayfish – Tasty, if you can catch them

So is there a solution in this case? There are a lot of variables to deal with and it currently doesn’t look too great for the White Clawed Crayfish. Cleaning up our waterways to improve potential habitats would help, but that’s a much larger problem. The plague is the main issue here and it does not seem as though the White Clawed Crayfish can offer any opposition. Mortality rates are nigh on 100% in European crayfish species and other options are limited. One glimmer of hope may be gleaned from the very vector of their devastation. Signal Crayfish and other North American species have developed resistance to the crayfish plague, so theoretically the chances are that this could also occur in European crayfish species, however as yet no incidents have been recorded. Is there any way we can realistically intervene to save the species? Small breeding colonies are being promoted in areas of Yorkshire and Bristol, but as the Signal crayfish becomes more and more ubiquitous in our waterways, is this an occasion where we are throwing away resources against an irresistible force?

It would be negligent of us as conservationists not to try, and there are ways in which we can co-opt the public into helping us. And after all that dry information about plague resistance and lifecycles, here is the interesting bit: They’re incredibly tasty, and easy to catch.

A few years back, when I was a volunteer with a wildlife charity in London, we started to find Signal and Turkish crayfish in the Regents Canal. In a waterway already packed with its share of invasive species (Aesculapian snakes, Red-eared Terrapins, and, apparently now snapping turtles) this wasn’t really a surprise. In fact it would have been a much greater surprise to find the native White Clawed Crayfish in a polluted, stagnant waterway such as the Regents. Still, we devised a number of methods to catch them, ranging from bacon on the end of a piece of string to willow-weaved constructions resembling old eel traps. They were all pretty ineffective, but there are much better DIY ideas out there if you have a look around. In other places I’ve found it much more straightforward and you can sometimes literally scoop them up out of the water (if you are careful). It is definitely recommended that you purge any you catch by keeping them in fresh water for a few days. I have previously done this in a reconfigured steel bin in the back yard. My wife was not impressed.

So could we ever remove it? With many of our waterways to polluted or eutrophied to sustain populations of native crayfish, would there be any point in trying to remove the interloper? It’s a long shot, but when conservation can be this tasty, it’s worth a go.

If you are thinking of fishing for Red Signal Crayfish, which I thoroughly recommend, then be sure to contact the Environment Agency first to gain permission.