When to Stop Feeding the Kites?

I’ve been involved in a line of discussion this week that has provoked a few questions. Questions to which I don’t really have any answers. Feel free to offer up your thoughts, I suspect there’s no ‘right’ answer.

When does an initiative stop being conservation and start being interference? (Yes, I know by its very definition, conservation is interfering. Even the trendy George Monbiot brand of conservation). But my thoughts in this instance are mainly in relation to Red Kites. Marvellous things, aren’t they? I don’t think I’ll ever get bored of watching them soar overhead on stilly wings and forked tail. The novelty may never wear off. As an example of rapid species recovery through conservation efforts, they’re about as good a poster-bird as you could want.

red kite

‘Quick, fetch in the linen!’

So what am I getting in a huff about? Well if you want to see a large congregation of the birds, there are a few places you can be certain to spot them. Feeding stations have been set up, such as Gigrin Farm and Llanddeusant in Wales. Here, great volumes of carrion are served up on a daily basis attracting kites in the hundreds.

These feeding stations have undoubtedly helped with the recovery of the Red Kite and should be congratulated for this. They also provide a spectacle for nature-lovers everywhere, and anything that captures the attention and informs the public about issues such as species decline should be encouraged. But could feeding kites like this be having knock on ecological effects? Does this mass feeding artificially prop-up the local red kite (and buzzard) populations, and would this likely have an impact on other species? Do they reduce the natural dispersal of individuals, therefore impacting on the robustness of the national population? Most of all, can this still be classed as conservation?

The existence of feeding stations mean that the handbrake has not been removed. The Red Kite population should continue to thrive as long as the feeding stations exist, but is it ‘natural’? And who cares if it isn’t?

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Rewilding Britain – Pie in the Sky Romanticism, or the Future of Conservation?

Rewilding has been making a big splash again recently. With the recent Monbiot book ‘Feral’ and the formation of a brand new organisation – ‘Rewilding Britain’ – encouraging (very tentative) talk of charismatic big beast reintroductions, it is now firmly on the environmental agenda. Broadly, rewilding advocates a removal of altering anthropogenic factors and a ‘hands-off’ management technique, allowing the area in question to develop of its own accord without predefined outcomes. This may involve the reintroduction of flora and fauna previously removed or lost due to human influences. The basis for re-wilding has many appealing facets from a conservation perspective, not least the relaxation of the interventionist approach widely implemented in many natural areas, which serves to reinforce the dependence of endangered species on anthropogenic interference. Re-wilding may also be seen as a measure for ‘redressing the balance’ of destructive human activity over the past few millennia. The enforcement of a re-wilding ethic is not without its negative factors though, including the complexities of removing human needs and influence, uncertainty regarding outcomes and issues over the true nature of ‘wild’.

Though not a new concept, increasing dissociation with the land has brought about a romantic longing for something wilder, something to breathe some life into the mundane and everyday. This has advanced the desire to improve and expand wilderness areas and, though it is oxymoronic, to increase areas of wilderness for public enjoyment. This begs the questions how could the population at large benefit from these new wildernesses without visiting and experiencing them, and therefore sullying their intrinsic wildness? Any rewilding project would ultimately always be judged from an anthropologic perspective and therefore not truly wild. However this, many would argue, is still a vast improvement on the current provisions of nature reserves pegged to one permanent ecological habitat type.

Lynx - Soon coming to a woodland near you...

Lynx – Soon coming to a woodland near you…

This in itself is an issue though. Conservation practitioners are accustomed to an interventionist approach. From working in and alongside conservation organisations and with professionals and volunteers, my experience has been of an underlying desire to meddle, to be seen to be doing something, often to attempt to placate or secure funding or improve visibility of the organisation in what is becoming a crowded market. Can that desire to tweak and interfere by advocating practical approaches just be dismissed? If this is what our professionals are trained to do and have the skills for, can they resist the urge to exercise those skills? I have even heard from some the worry that advocating a ‘hands off’ laissez-faire approach would result in fewer jobs in the sector, particularly for those with a practical background.

Furthermore, the question arises regarding the actual results of re-wilded areas. With pristine wilderness no longer in existence in the UK, the outcomes of re-wilding are no longer the true representation of a natural habitat. With invasive species spreading and anthropogenic changes to nutrient levels, climate and species composition, certain species may come to dominate where they would previously have been negligible or absent. It must be judged whether the prospect of this is preferable to a static-interventionist approach of holding a site in a preferential condition for a few select species. During re-wilding these species may disappear from a site, but should this be discouraged? If the wild state of an area is unsuitable then it is surely not worthwhile maintaining it in an unnatural condition at great expense for ill-adapted species.

So much of conservation writing and rewilding theory is nostalgia. How can one have the right to be nostalgic for something one has never seen? The ideal of wilderness is a profoundly human creation. Where once areas of wilderness were viewed as inhospitable regions fraught with danger, the romanticism of groups like the Sierra Club and John Muir have transformed these in modern day thinking into areas of virtue, untouched by human influence. Industrialisation, accompanied by scientific and cultural advancements in recent human history has served to place the rural idyll on an ideological pedestal

An important question to address when considering re-wilding is what do we want from our environment? What is deemed as a favourable condition is ultimately determined from a human perspective, and ideas of restoration can rest as much on social traditions, such as aesthetic value, as scientific theory. An issue occurs when areas are left to re-wild and then fail to conform to expected anthropogenically defined outcomes, and a desire to once again manage the area to fit these standards is likely. A lack of preconceptions regarding outcomes with respect to species and habitat composition is necessary if re-wilding is to be truly embraced, indeed the prospect of an environment with no ‘outcome’ and a flux of successional stages should be accepted and expected as natural. In the UK, this will be particularly low with a population accustomed to a history of a managed landscape with farming and forestry being prevalent. The timescale for a return to a defined baseline condition may be a matter of decades, in many cases longer than the lifetime of those involved in site management. A need for visually obvious progress and an innate human desire to see achievement may often compromise re-wilding efforts.

Tigers, to my knowledge, still can not be found in Epping Forest. Although there was that business about a Lion on the loose in Essex a few years back, so who know? I digress...

OK, not quite. But it’s in my image library and I need to break-up this text, so give me a break, yeah?

A main issue with rewilding theory is defining a baseline for restoration. This has and will continue to be an area of debate between proponents as some species are looked on more favourably than others due to such esoteric data as their first appearance in the pollen record of peat bogs or the last recorded sighting. It has been argued that due to the historical pastoral use of land and anthropogenic shaping there is no relevant specific baseline for ecological restoration. My two penneth sits with defining this baseline around the disappearance of the land bridge with Europe, but such issues are minor quibbles. There are much more serious barriers to rewilding within the conservation movement, and that’s before the notion is even brought fully into the mainstream.

The big stumbling block

Much greater, more practical, stumbling blocks stand in the way of the rewilding movement though, especially in the UK. Big questions such as ‘where’ and ‘who pays’ need to be addressed. Logically, this will involve the traditional discordant wrangling between environmentalists and the farming lobby as the only areas now feasible for rewilding are the uplands of Wales and Scotland. Unsurprisingly they are likely to be at loggerheads again as each lays a claim as the defenders of an idyll. For the environmentalist, this idyll is a less tangible desire for a rawer natural experience, for the farming community, this idyll is the quintessential British landscape of pasture and crop.

Elephants: Look at that noble, dignified face and think about what you've done.

Sorry. Wrong again.

“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”
― Aldo Leopold

Now, slowly but with gathering pace, the rural community is more willing to see and be told otherwise. Opponents push the notions that rewilding and in many cases the environmental movement is sentimental and unrealistic and it is true that there is a certain sense of collective guilt assuaging associated with rewilding measures. We all, rightly, have drilled in to us the damage our actions have wrought on the natural environment, though environmental education still lags in its position and importance at our secondary schools. But the main opponents to the rewilding ethic are not themselves averse to conjuring up a romantic idyll as a counterpoint. When arguing for the continuation of marginal, heavily subsidised upland farming, the farming community will talk of families owning farms for generations, of hard work and honest toil of salt of the earth types, of man’s intrinsic link to the land and the loss of community. These communities are already failing economically, and in many places are no longer viable with the growth of global free markets. Therefore would these subsidies not be better served supporting environmental practices that may have greater long-term value and support just as many jobs in tourism and conservation? Conservation will only succeed when the owners of land are paid to manage it in the public interest. They will need to be led by the nose, in most cases by waving money under it, and this may be the true issue that consigns rewilding to the dustbin as an exercise in conservation wishful thinking.

Positives for Rewilding

There is a future for rewilding though. Subsidies for marginal farming will undoubtedly become more stringent and many marginal farming communities are likely to disappear as the next generation look elsewhere for a career. And if you are looking for an example of how it can work, even in an urbanised area, I recently visited Zealandia on the outskirts of Wellington on New Zealand’s North Island. Surrounded by an impassable fence, the 225Ha reserve sits in a valley in the suburbs of Wellington and has removed all invasive species from the site and reintroduced some rare flora and fauna. It is heavily geared towards visitors and public engagement, aiming to educate while also providing a reservoir and sanctuary for endangered native species, but retains a wilderness ‘feel’ as the rear two thirds of the reserve have minimal paths and access, ensuring that the public largely remain in the front third, where facilities and hard paths are plentiful. Securing such a large area of land near an urban centre is unlikely in the UK, but perhaps this represents a future ‘shop front’ idea for the rewilding movement, such as we are seeing the start of at Knapdale in Scotland. Future sights for such reserves are plentiful (Snowdonia, Cumbria, Yorkshire etc.), and perhaps this tourism based approach will be the first step towards a wilder Britain.

There Has Been a Bank Error in Our Favour

With a fiscal insertion that is, frankly, eye-watering and involves sums of money it is beyond my tiny, maths-spastic, brain to comprehend, the Premier League has recently been awarded £5.2Bn in TV rights for the next 3 seasons. Like me, you probably find it difficult to comprehend just how much money that is, but as I guideline I just did a quick land search – you can buy around 100 hectares of mixed woodland for £500,000. Now by my rough maths you could therefore buy an area of woodland around twice the size of Yorkshire. I think. Honestly though, I wouldn’t trust my maths.

I’m preaching to the converted here, I know, but if you were to somehow gauge the amount of time spent and enjoyment gained by people experiencing the natural environment, it would far outstrip that gained from a season ticket to your standard Premier League team, even if that team happened to be the 03/04 Arsenal, replete with Bergkamp, Henry and Vieira. Indeed, nowadays I’d much sooner shell out a few quid to watch a bunch of ecologists attempt to kick a ball around (or engage in any kind of competitive sport for that matter) than sell all my worldly possessions to watch the Gunners capitulate to their standard last minute defeat as they surrender a 2-0 lead at home to Leicester. Given the ecologists I know, I can guarantee it would be a much more entertaining game, though for quite different reasons.

communitychestIt’s that, well, green space is always just there, isn’t it? Unfortunately that’s the view far too many members of the public hold, as I’m sure we are all well aware. But just imagine for a second that there has been an almighty balls-up at the bank (yeah, just imagine that) and that £5.2Bn has accidentally been redistributed to a handful of environmental charities. Now we’ve got it, what the hell are we going to do with it? So here are my top 5 suggestions for spending our fortuitous winnings:

1. Rewild the uplands

Monbiot pushes this in Feral but it’s been a notion at the forefront of British conservation a lot longer than that. Wales and Scotland have many upland areas that have marginal viability farming. Many highland areas of Scotland are run purely for game (with detrimental human impacts on raptors and anything else that might possibly interfere with the production of more game) Compulsory purchase of Highland estates from some of the non-resident oligarchs that have scooped them up in recent years would allow a large scale rewilding effort with the reintroduction of charismatic megafauna and the possible re-establishment of the Caledonian forest.

2. Plant up more woodland

Following on from the above, imagine being able to re-establish the Great North Wood or extending the New Forest?

3. Re-meander rivers, allow to flood

If we could purchase large areas of riverine land, we could breakdown the restrictive man-made banks on our rivers where possible and allow flood plains, backwaters and meanders to re-establish. This would not only encourage wildlife but also have great benefits for the population of the Somerset Levels (much greater than knee-jerk dredging).

henry

Thierry applauds your noble if misguided intentions

4. Start buying up golf courses. Just because. I flew in to Heathrow last month and was astonished by the amount of green-space given over to golfers.

5. Evacuate the Isle of Man and leave them as an experiment in rewilding (OK, I’m not entirely sure we could really afford to do this. I’m not sure what property currently runs to in the IoM. I’m pretty sure that, unlike everything else on the island, it is not a good 10 years behind the mainland). Maybe the Wallabies will take over.

What do you think – overly ambitious? Not ambitious enough? There were plenty I could have added (I wasn’t sure whether you can actually ‘buy’ areas of the ocean) but I’ve aimed for brevity for once. I know, I know, it’s all pie in the sky stuff, but I think it’s an important exercise to consider – if we don’t consider what our ultimate, dream outcomes are, then how can we move towards them?

This picks up from a thought I had recently while watching UKIP: The first 100 days – what would the first 100 days of the government of Spike look like? Thinking about it, there would probably be about the same level of rioting, I’m not sure people are ready to discuss population control quite yet. Maybe I’ll write that one up next month…

Here Kitty, Kitty – Big Cats or Just Slightly-Bigger-Than-Average Cats?

It’s silly season again, with another report of a massive mystery moggy making the news the other week in France (yes, I’m a little late to the party). This story seems to have gone a little quiet now, so one can only assume that it was an oversized tabby rather than a misplaced Tiger after all. Was it another instance of a Dougal-esque mistaken sense of perspective?

There seems to be another sighting of a Big Cat around the British Isles every few months. Just what is going on? Monbiot, in Feral and recently on his blog, has put this down to some sort of collective yearning for a connection with something wilder, something atavistic to bring some excitement to mundane lives bereft of any really cool wildlife of the ‘can disembowel you’ variety. Maybe he has a point. Maybe there is some sort of subconscious wish fulfillment going on here. Or maybe this is a case of people falling victim to some kind of primal pre-programming to seek out the sinister and deadly amongst the commonplace and routine, analogue hard-wiring of the brain in a digital age. Maybe our remaining fauna have become so readily visible, such as with our expanding urban fox population, that we have had to invent our own, more interesting charismatic carnivores.

And my, it does generate a lot of media interest. Just take the Epping Forest puma; after numerous attempts at generating publicity about fly-tipping, a cuddly toy stuck up a tree generated more press interest than any amount of builders rubble ever could:

kitty2

Monstrous and horrifying beast captured on a trail cam round my way

We do seem to love the novel, the out of place the aberrant, the anomalous in our wildlife. I should know. By far the most interesting thing I’ve ever done is counting Wallabies on the Isle of Man (I’m pretty dull). It’s all anyone I talk to ever wants to hear about, I take measures to ensure I can bring it up in any conversation. I’m a riot at dinner parties.

Big Cats seem to spring up from nowhere from time to time, arriving fully formed and with little prior incidence or evidence that might have tipped off even your most unobservant of ecologist (I think even I’d notice 5 foot high scratching posts and an abundance of half-eaten deer about the place). Take the debacle in St Osyth a couple of years ago which saw the tabloid favourite mythical Big Cat get a fresh chance to stretch its legs. This time it was supposedly a Lion (are we upgrading? Are pumas and panthers no longer exciting enough that we have begun to see Lions and Tigers lurking in the undergrowth?). This was a modern play on an old theme, with Twitter aliases, bad photo-shopping and rolling 24-hour news coverage of intrepid reporters standing in fields completely bereft of anything even vaguely feline. Much as the Paris Tiger has, the Essex Lion also seemed to vanish without a trace.

Mysterious Black Cats - They could be hiding anywhere

Mysterious Big Cats – They could be hiding anywhere

But what I have found peculiar about both instances is the reaction of the local police forces, and the similar reactions from police forces around the country after other sightings. I think this might be something worth considering all in itself. Yes, they have a duty to ensure public safety, but where the rest of us see a grainy image and think ‘someone really needs to cut back on their kitty treats’, the local rozzers decide to scramble their ‘copters and mobilize SWAT with more alacrity than even their Ferguson counterparts might. Do they take the whole thing more seriously than the rest of us? Do they know something we don’t? Or are they just waiting for any excuse to break out their shiny toys? Either way, they are clearly taking the whole issue much more seriously than most of us. Why might this be?

Well, one possible reason might be that there really is actual concrete proof of at least one Big Cat turning up in the UK. In 1991 a Big Cat was shot in Norfolk, prompting the excellent answer of ‘Oh, only some pigeons and a Lynx’ to the question ‘what’s in the freezer?’ As usual, I will give a warning that this lynx link is to the Daily Mail. But just as one swallow does not a summer make, one Lynx does not a…erm…bugger…anyone know the collective noun for Big Cats? Beyond this incident there are slim pickings for solid evidence of Big Cats, but as I’ve said before, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, which does rather neatly make it pretty difficult to definitively disprove the whole thing.

There are many angles and interpretations of the Big Cat phenomena, and a lot of interesting articles, websites and blogs on the subject that can run the whole gamut from logical to lunatic. The Paris Tiger will not be the last time that the (possibly) mythical Anomalous Big Cat makes a (grainy and obscured) appearance. And once again it will force us to ask the question, ‘are there Big Cats abroad?’ On consideration, it’s probably the best place for them.

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.