People Are Just the Worst. And So Are Goldfish

Work in conservation for any length of time and you’ll gradually find yourself becoming a glum misanthropist. It might even have happened to me already. I just don’t know. Maybe it seeps out occasionally in this blog. Do flag it up if you spot it.

This week someone has decided in their infinite wisdom that what the ponds on the reserve really need is 150 goldfish of varying sizes dumped in them. Great. Fantastic. Thank you once again ‘the public’. You really are a bunch of unmitigated arseholes. If I find the person responsible, I’m going to make him eat every single one hundred and fifty of them.

goldfish

They’re clearly orange

Why is this so bad? Well, firstly because the ponds on site are rather good for Great Crested Newts. With goldfish in this pond, we can pretty much wave them goodbye. They’ve also dumped them at just the point when they are about to spawn; you can see them getting frisky already*. The combination of this and the presence of Great Crested Newts makes me tentative about electro-fishing them out. That’s if we even had the money to. And the time.

But the worst part is that I just know if we don’t get them out sharpish, then the public – bless ’em – are going to get attached to them. They’re going to become a ‘feature’. People are going to start feeding them. Which is going to make it even worse for me when I come along and brutally euthanase the lot of them. Apparently a little calculated pescicide will make me the bad guy. Ludicrous.

So I’m open to suggestions. What’s the best way to get rid of these aquatic interlopers?

* I should also point out that it is completely illegal. But you knew that already.

The Green Glossary – C

Another week in the on-going green glossary series. You get the idea by now:

Canada Goose, n. – A great big, stupid-faced, honking idiot we are forced to remain on good terms with for appearances sake.

canada goose

Honk, bloomin’ honk.

Chantrelle, n. – A mushroom and absolutely not an appropriate name for your first-born, apparently.

Charity, n. – The environmental sector is broadly concerned with the preservation of a robust natural environment in the face of ever multiplying threats and conflicting interests. That the human race is reliant on a robust natural environment seems to have passed a great many people by. It is therefore absolutely reasonable that it predominantly exists on charitable hand-outs.

Cherry Laurel, n. – Another bastard. See recent posts.

Chiffchaff, n. – LBJ. Provokes birders all over the country to show off their vocabulary by casually throwing out the word onomatopoeic.

Climate Change – Not so much the elephant in the room as the blue whale in the bath-tub. An issue at which the world’s great and good occasionally offer sideways glances as they sit on the toilet reading the FT.

Cockchafer, n – Low-flying, Lancaster bomber of the insect world. Yet another example of a perfectly reasonable name that makes uninitiated simpletons giggle uncontrollably. See Also: Blue Tit, Shag

Coffee, n. – A poor substitute for tea when it cones to fuelling volunteers.

Corridor, n. – A popular notion amongst conservationists is the idea of wildlife corridors. The theory goes that if I manage Nature Reserve A, which is hemmed in on all sides by shooting galleries and industrial wastelands, and you manage Nature Reserve B, which is surrounded by toxic waste and concrete, everything will be OK as long as they are linked by C, a thin strip of amenity grassland.

Comma, n. – For conservationists this is a type of butterfly and not a form of punctuation which we are notoriously slipshod at using sometimes to the detriment of our readers who have to ask themselves if it is entirely possible for a normal human being to hold their breath for the amount of time needed to successfully finish reading long and laborious sentences that don’t really go anywhere.

Commons, n. – Some misguided folk in the dim and distant past decided that green spaces would be so much better if every Tom, Dick and Harry could have the run of the place. For this reason, any mention of Commons is now automatically prefixed with ‘tragedy of the’. The folly of this policy is most visible on places like Clapham Common, where the high density of local residents grazing their sheep on the grass and collecting firewood from the copses has created a bland monoculture littered with artisanal coffee houses. In a perfect world, these places should all be fenced off with very large ‘Keep Out’ signs and rows of razor wire really ramming the point home. Only the likes of us will be allowed free access. The likes of you will be granted day passes after successfully passing a gruelling 4 hour test on grass identification.

Coot, n. – A Napoleon of the urban pond

Coppicing, v. – A method of farming wood. Exists in the hazy zone between heritage and conservation.

Cotswolds, the, n. – A magical place where nature roams free and all conservationists dream of living a life of gay abandon, with no thought of grant funding, targets or ‘engagement’.

countryfile

Countryfile:…oh bugger, I forgot about Craven

Countryfile, n. – The Great Divider. The Church of the Green Movement is generally thought to schism into two main camps. Countryfile is a television program specifically designed with the aim to determine which camp any new convert falls into. Upon watching an episode of Countryfile, standard reactions are either ‘this is Tory/Farming propaganda designed to maintain and reinforce the detrimental countryside status quo‘ or ‘this is a dumbed-down and fluffed up representation of the countryside produced entirely for liberal left city dwellers’. Either way, Adam Henson largely takes the blame for it.

Cow Parsley, n. – If you look out of the window at this time of year, you can probably see this stuff growing before your very eyes.

Culling, v. – If the general populace realised quite how many conservation issues were expediently resolved with a bullet, then we might not be quite as popular.

I’m stuck about there…I was working on Curlew, Countryside, Copse, Caledonian Forest, Cowslip etc etc, but I’ve run out of time. Do give me a definition if you think of one.

No Shades of Grey in the Hunting Argument

About a month ago I wrote an article, in which I lightly prodded the League Against Cruel Sports about their current stance over Trail Hunting. I thought I’d give it a few weeks to lend a little distance and give me time to mull over the various replies I received in relation to it, but this has only reinforced something I already suspected: You can’t wade into the hunting debate without being on a particular side. It’s just not allowed.fox2

My first port of call was an article on the 10-year anniversary of the ban in the Guardian (I know, I know, I’m a mung-bean eating, sandle-wearing Pinko). I dropped in to say hi, do a light bit of shameless self-promotion of Adventures in Conservation and popped in a small query relating to my article but also to something else I was trying to write at the time:

‘I’m genuinely interested what role hunting for subsistence and people’s preconceptions about those that take part in fox hunting has to play in people’s views of it. There’s a wider psychological point here about generations of hardwiring to gain satisfaction in a hunt successfully completed – how well are we able to incorporate that atavistic, analogue hardwiring into our digital, hyper-civilised modern brains? Can we, should we, attempt to completely deny this part of ourselves?’

(And OK, reading that back it does sound rather po-faced. Atavistic? Hyper-Civilised?)

This gathered a predictable melange of unrelated posts and it soon degenerated into the usual tit-for-tat. No one bothered to actually answer the questions I posed, but it didn’t take long for me to be labelled as ‘pro-hunt’ because of my desire to probe the human side of the issues rather than the canine, to couch my questions in terms of psychology rather than animal cruelty – an issue that I am not, as some have suggested, looking to ignore, it’s just not what I currently happened to be talking about:

SteB1

As a short aside here, this is a constant theme, and one that particularly irritates me – the sheer whatabouttery of that 80% stat thrown in there and also the charges of ignoring animal cruelty. This is not what I was talking about and yet there is the sense that by not talking on their terms, I am somehow being neglectful, sly even. One of my least favourite phrases in the world is ‘there’s people starving in the world and you’re talking about this?’

I responded:

‘That’s my point well emphasized right there – it’s such an entrenched and opinionated topic that to some, you can’t be neutral, in the middle, or have the capacity to argue, understand and have sympathy with both sides. As soon as you’re in the debate, you’re immediately seen as falling in one camp or the other – and as long as that kind of viewpoint prevails, you’re all doomed to just keep banging your heads against each other for the foreseeable.’

There were no further responses, either because of the astounding insight I’d just delivered or because the comments section had closed. You decide.

And so I ventured on to twitter with my article and held my breath…nothing. Where were all these virulent anti-hunt Sabs that the pro-hunt movement had led me to believe were ready to pounce (and visa-versa)? Maybe I’d done them a disservice in my piece; maybe I’d misrepresented them. And so I left it. For a while at least. But I can’t help prodding things; maybe I’m just a bit of a git.

So to the image that dragged me back in, just when I thought I was out…(Warning – has naughty words)

If you’ve read my previous article, you’ll know the point I have been trying to make is about the aggressiveness demonstrated (by both sides) and that I think there’s a real need to deescalate before there is a fatality. Images like this, images and phrases that promote the dehumanisation of a section of society…well, viewing a certain class of person as ‘less than human’ has always worked out so well in the past, hasn’t it? I couldn’t really let it pass and so I engaged the tweeter. Tweetee?

Later in the conversation, with absolutely no sense of hypocrisy, I was tweeted the below image, demonstrating just how mean pro-hunt types are (and yes, it isn’t very nice). I retweeted the original image that kicked the whole thing off, just as a reminder…I’ve yet to receive a response.

hunt abuse1

More than anything, I think what has stoked my ire is the willingness to throw out utterly sweeping statements and generalisations, the inability to see things in anything less than black and white – Sabs are non-violent angels and the hunt are all thugs, Sabs wear masks and intimidate the hunt who are just defending themselves. I was startled by the unwillingness to believe that it is entirely possible to have a foot in both camps, which led to (quite tame) abuse and blocking (I’m still not entirely sure what I did to deserve that).

I may have charged in on Social Media and Below the Line comments knowing what I was potentially letting myself in for, but what surprised me was that the thing that most riled, most irked people was my neutrality.

I’ll leave you with this final, charming tweet I received and the thought: What do we normally call people who wish a violent death on those who do not subscribe to the same ideology as us?

(I was then mocked for my use of the word ‘jeez’. Fair enough)

Canada Geese – Scourge of your local park

Do you live in a town or village? Do you have a local pond? I bet it’s got Canada Geese on it, hasn’t it? Do you gather a great deal of pleasure from going down to the pond and throwing bread at their big, stupid honking faces? No, I thought not. Because, of course, you are a thoroughly ecologically literate person, yes? And if you are not, well, take my word for it – Canada Geese are just the worst.

canada goose

Look at my big, stupid, honking face

Take a trip down to that local pond of yours this afternoon and you might ask yourself, just why is the water that colour? Why is there so little plant life in the water? And how the hell did I find myself slipping over and falling face first into the pond only to find myself assailed by indignant swans? Blame the Geese. That’s what I usually do. Canada Geese, you see, have the rather remarkable ability to poo about once every six minutes, so much plant matter do they need to consume. Imagine that? Well, ok, don’t imagine it. Especially if it’s lunchtime. OK, consider the ramifications of that. Not only do they denude ponds of vegetation, but they then nutrient load the water so highly that algal blooms are about the only thing that can survive. Think of the knock-on effect this might have on other wildlife.

How do we deal with it? Well, if you’re a little out of the way, you can shoot them, but in more urban areas (where public opinion and understanding may not be entirely on your side) egg pricking, or smothering the eggs with paraffin helps to reduce their stunning fecundity. I did have an idea about running a ‘grab a goose’ day on my particular patch the other month, but given the glowing comments volunteers have given me about how much they enjoy seeing the Egyptian Geese and even the terrapins, (yes, the bloody terrapins!) I can’t imagine this would go down overly well.

I’m not the first to suggest eating invasives to tackle the problem (and recently, the Guardian argued against this, though using Lionfish as an example). But previous articles about eating Canada Geese have perhaps (DAILY MAIL LINK ALERT) not been couched in the most persuasive of terms – oh lordy, just read that and you might realise why both the Daily Mail and the hunting fraternity (or what people assume is the hunting fraternity) are so hated in some quarters…‘A Baronet acquaintance of mine’ indeed.

Eating Canada Geese, though? Maybe that could work. Of course I would not encourage you to nip down to the pond under the cover of dark and try and snatch one. Absolutely not. I absolutely wouldn’t suggest that, should you be struggling to make ends meet, or are just naturally curious, then Geese represent a readily available source of free protein that with just a little bit of effort could feed a family for days. Neither should the fact that I’m linking to sites giving tips and recipes for geese convince you that I would advise it. But just in case my effusive insistence that you do not go out and catch yourself a Canada Goose is not enough to deter you, I would direct you to the relevant legislation and license requirements for such an endeavour.

Time to Get Positive About the Hunt?

In order to court more readers, I thought I’d confront a contentious and volatile topic. Clickbait, I think they call it. Recently on the same day I came across two videos showing violent assaults taking place at hunts. One with the Master of the Tedworth hunt being beaten unconscious by hunt saboteurs, one with a member of the Blackmore and Sparkford Vale hunt knocking over a protestor with his horse. Both videos are edited for brevity, rather than to obscure and distort, obviously.

The League Against Cruel Sports has, as would be expected, made rather a gleeful point about incidents such as the latter while singularly failing to mention, let alone condemn, the former. This concerns me and I’m prepared to risk copping a whole load of flack (given my potential audience) by pointing out the hypocrisy displayed by The League here – condemning the attacks against sabs, while ignoring those a certain element commit. I am sure they could say that these people do not really represent them. I’m sure the hunting community would say the very same thing. But they do no such thing, and that is disappointing.

I remain unconvinced by many of the videos posted by LACS and other sabs. This is not an attempt at victim blaming, and I would obviously condemn any acts of violence visited upon the person of a sab, no matter how odiously they were behaving. But these videos are always out of context – we cannot know what preceded or followed. There is always quite obvious cutting, and we do not see (and even less often do we hear) anything from the other side. I’ve no doubt this media manipulation can occur on both sides – but logically those on the anti-hunt side are a) much more likely to be carrying cameras and b) much more likely to be skilled and media savvy. Hunts do not generally go in for Social Media, and they have no agenda to pursue through short Vines or posts on youtube (I can’t imagine anyone sitting through a 3 hour video of a lawful trail hunt).

Chums

Here, have a stock image of a fox chumming up to a cat to break up the text

I think it’s only fair that I preface much of this by spelling out my own views and positions. I grew up in a rural community and have close ties to people involved with various hunts, but this is not to say I am either pro or anti hunting. And yes, you can be neither. I disagree quite fundamentally with the confrontational, aggressive, activism often displayed by anti-hunt protestors. I disagree with attempting to alter, influence or inhibit someone else’s belief or culture (no mater how unpalatable I might find it) by conflict rather than communication and consensus. I believe this to be counter-productive to the environmental movement as a whole, and indeed, the LACS’s own aims.

My view is that these aggressive tactics do not endear sabs to others in the environmental sector – it’s not about giving other green protestors a bad name (though that is certainly an issue) as much as it is about making us look bloody childish by running around banging tins, shouting and wearing stupid Guy Fawkes masks. Not everything is a bloody ‘Occupy’ movement.

Perpetuating ridiculous stereotypes in the media isn’t helping the cause either. Again, and as an aside I similarly have issue with the current lazy portrayal of bankers. It casts them as simplified evil figures of hate, It dehumanises them. And when you can see your opponent as something less than human, anything seems permissible.

There is something I find worryingly fanatical and fundamentalist about some in the anti-hunt movement. It will have no truck or allow any other viewpoint than it’s own. The hunting community have at least demonstrated the ability to bend, but sabs will not contemplate anything less than a total victory.

But what is a ‘total victory’ for the sabs? Much of this comes from my discovery recently that LACS are now gunning for trail hunting. Trail hunting involves mimicking a fox hunt through use of a more twisting and changing trail laid with fox scent as opposed to the straight thrash of a drag hunt. It usually crosses the territory of a real fox (there’s not really anyway you could avoid this – it’s the countryside), resulting in occasional kills. LACS claim that this is deliberate.

If trail hunting goes, the hunts go. They will not survive on drag hunting. There is not the interest or will to continue. And if the hunts go, a whole lot more goes with them. This does make one question the ultimate vision for that ‘total victory’ the sabs seem to want. It would be wrong of me to speculate that the aims of many anti-hunt supporters are driven by perceived (and misplaced) cultural and class-ist agendas. Totally, totally wrong. I’d never suggest that. Obviously. There is the nagging feeling beneath it all that if they come after trail hunting now, will they come after drag hunting later? One accidental kill by a drag hunt and who knows?

I believe that the hunt saboteurs and by extension LACS’s approach is unviable in the long run unless their aim is to remove and destroy every last vestige of the fox hunting community – something they deny, but there is a definite sense they to object to the hunting community on much deeper grounds than animal cruelty. You can see why the hunting community get so angry; they must feel as if people from outside are coming after their way of life, in many ways literally, as the hunt constitutes a living, in one way or another, for a large percentage of those following it.

The trouble is that by disturbing and sabotaging law-abiding hunts, the gap between the two sides just continues to widen. Positive publicity and reinforcement, in my opinion and experience, often works a lot better. The League Against Cruel Sports has an opportunity to promote and to support law-abiding hunts, for applauding good practice and making real positive connections. To my knowledge, it has never attempted to do this.

The two sides of the argument appear intransigent, at opposing ends of the spectrum, too disparate in their ultimate aims. But it can’t continue, it can’t progress like this. If we’re to reach any kind of consensus on fox hunting, the two sides are just going to have to bite the bullet and start talking to each other. And as it is the LACS who are working for change, I believe the onus is on them to make the first move towards conciliation. The two sides are clearly diametrically opposed, but they must realise that neither is going anywhere anytime soon, (I’d make some half-arsed Israel/Palestine comparison, but that would be childish and offensive). If the relationship remains confrontational, and I address this to both sides, then they will forever remain locked in this stalemate, no progress will be made, they will continue to exist in an antagonistic state, riling each other, and we’ll keep having incidence like Tedworth or Blackmore and Sparkford Vale.

Chinese Water Deer Hypotheticals

As is becoming a bit of a thing in this section of the blog, invasive and alien species can be used as examples of wider issues in conservation – ethical and moral issues, operational issues, logistical issues, political issues – This time it’s Chinese Water Deer.

Weird-looking - hence my empathy

Weird-looking – hence my empathy

The main reason I’ve chosen to discuss Chinese Water Deer here, apart from the fact they look like weird, tusked teddy bears, is to address a moral and ethical conundrum; Chinese Water Deer in the UK now account for an estimated 10% of the whole population. In it’s natural range, (in China, obviously) it is listed as near threatened. As seems to be a common theme with invasives in this country, its origin can be traced to those pesky Victorians and their insatiable curiosity and desire to pilfer things from other countries and cultures (see the British Museum). There’s more, better, discussion and information to be found out there than you will in this post, which is mainly just a jumping off point for some wild speculation. Namely, what happens if that ‘near threatened’ listing deteriorates – say to critically endangered? And imagine that, concurrently, here in the UK Chinese Water Deer become a real threat to, oh I don’t know, Water Voles. Or Hen Harriers (Admittedly, I have no concept of how they could possibly be a threat – even with the tusks.) Do we have a duty to remove them or conserve them? It’s enough to give one a headache, but there are situations where this has occurred with other species.

This is a long way from being the case with Chinese Water Deer, who, on an entirely subjective note I would love to see preserved in this country – I have a peculiar fondness for the truly out of place and odd-looking mammals that call the British countryside home, the more bumbling the better. They add character; at least that’s my argument. As ever – and because I seem to have spent an inordinate amount of time behind a desk than in the field recently – I’m dealing in hypotheticals. Chinese Water Deer present no pressing danger to our native fauna and flora, there aren’t battalions of tusked, furry faced invaders out there hunting down every last Natterjack Toad. Although it’s an arresting image. But should they one day turn on a protected species in a fit of pique, we need to know whether to reach for the gun or to corral them all and ship them back to their homeland – I think that’s important. Probably. Don’t you?

What if…Big Cats really do roam the Cotswolds?

After writing about Anomalous Big Cats the other month I had a thought- what if they really were really, really real. What if the Cotswolds really was riddled with them? What would that mean for them, and nature conservation, in the UK?

Now, as a subject, I’ll be upfront – I love Anomalous Big Cats. I love the very idea of them, I love the scant and fleeting little YouTube clips, I love the anecdotes of dubious provenance, I love the theories, the speculation and the occasionally bat-shit mental suppositions and conspiracies. It entertains me enormously. Maybe I’m the kind of person who can get overly caught up in the enigmatic. My wife (yes, I really have managed to get married) lives in constant fear that I will run away to search for a remnant population of the Thylacine or some such. OK, ‘fear’ might be the wrong word. Hope. Yes, hope, that’s what I meant.

So I pondered, well, just what would the ramifications be if somehow a feral population of melanistic panther/puma/whatever were discovered to exist somewhere other than the odd dog-walker’s subconscious? I’ve never bought in entirely to Monbiot’s theory that it is some kind of subliminal, hindbrain response to a world denuded of all that is wild. And I’ve never entirely discounted the notion that there might just be one or two anomalies scurrying around out there. But if a full, breeding population was proven? Then what? Do we protect them? Do we eradicate them? Do we work to encourage breeding?

I suspect there’d be a call to properly study the population scientifically, and that is certainly what Natural England would agree to. Almost immediately, the study would have its funding quietly trimmed and a suggestion would arise that a more focused study on the economic impact to farming concerns would be more beneficial. Despite concerns being voiced from the scientific community, all livestock lost to predators become listed as ‘potential Big Cat kills’, while the transmission of a disease from Big Cats to sheep is described as ‘not yet proven.’

nessie

Nessie: Sure to benefit from HLF funding, but who is looking out for Mothman?

Finally, the report would be published, and would clearly state that the Big Cat population presents no significant danger to humans or native wildlife and that livestock loss will be minimal. It even suggests the population might be beneficial for controlling the ballooning deer population. Having read this, Liz Truss will nod her head sagely and order a widescale, expensive culling program to eradicate the Big Cat menace. A year later and with no confirmed kills, the reinstated Environmental Secretary and UKIP MP Owen Paterson will announce that the Big Cat population never even existed in the first place and this is why you should never trust scientists. In the same speech he will state that Climate Change is an entirely natural process that the UKIP/Conservative coalition will be doing it’s very best to enhance while announcing the lucrative new opening of Farageton, a new port town on the Somerset Levels.

I have already extrapolated mentally to a whole host of other cryptids and maybe one day when I’m really short of ideas I’ll write about that (put briefly, it’s good news for Nessie (Heritage Lottery Funding) but bad news for Yetis (Chinese herbal medicine market)). For now, I’m off to pack my bags and look up flights to Tasmania.

Catch It, Kill It, Eat It – Is It So Wrong to Enjoy Hunting?

The man who does not like to see, hunt, photograph or otherwise outwit birds or animals is hardly normal. He is supercivilized, and I for one do not know how to deal with him.’ Aldo Leopold

The disconnect between plate and animal for the average consumer in the modern industrialised nations is huge. How can we appreciate where our food is coming from when for the most part we only see it in its final form, sterile and packaged? Is the art of hunting, killing and eating your own food an essential part of what makes us human, or have we civilized beyond this point? It is undeniable that the majority of people around me have never had the visceral experience of killing ones own food; many would undoubtedly be repulsed by the act. Is this civilization, or is it shirking of responsibility? By ignoring the source of our food, do we seek to abnegate ourselves from any moral guilt or squeamishness around the intensive farming and iffy welfare, which comes as part of the cost for our cheap and readily available meat? Do we owe our food the moral responsibility of at least having some knowledge and first hand experience of their conversion from living beast to dead meat?

That’s a lot of questions and there is always the possibility that I’m getting on my high-horse after reading too much Leopold and Walden, Maybe I’m feeling a regression towards my rural upbringing, but I can’t help but feel I am missing out on something, some kind of hereditary hunting fever.

I'll say anything just to be on the opposite side of an argument to Morissey

I’ll say anything just to be on the opposite side of an argument to Morissey

My own feelings on hunting are varied dependent on form, target and other, perhaps less definable qualities. For reasons not worth expanding on here, I am pro-deer, anti-grouse, fox-largely-pro-with-caveats, and badger-largely-anti-with-caveats. I have an understandable vocational tolerance of hunting for conservation measures but have developed an abhorrence of farmed hunting, again largely on conservation grounds. Hunting as a tourist pursuit I dislike, hunting for subsistence (in a first world country) I can tolerate, but I have no first-hand experience of either, so speak from a position of ignorance (something you must be familiar with, I hear you cry). One issue riles up my peers more than most, and one that has particularly been applied to fox hunting but would be relevant to all forms – the enjoyment of hunting for hunting’s sake. It is seen as immoral and uncivilized, an outdated and redundant primal instinct. I’d argue that this innate response is not a regressive one, but an intrinsic part of our future. Why shouldn’t we enjoy hunting and killing things? We’re hardwired to divine a sense of achievement, satisfaction and maybe even enjoyment from a hunt well concluded. We are at a point in our development where our level of civilisation has (for the most part) advanced beyond our innate primitive drivers and desires. Like trying to incorporate digital software into analog hardware, conciliating the atavistic part of our psyche with our enlightened social structure is prone to breaking down and may require occasional release of our internal ‘monkey brain’.

As such might it not be good for everyone to kill (and eat) something at least once in their life? I remember visiting an abattoir as a child, it was not traumatic in the slightest, as I was always aware of the journey taken by the food on my plate having grown up in a farming community, but this experience certainly drove it home. If every child of 10 were taken on a similar visit, well, there’d probably be a few more vegetarians, but if every teenager was offered the opportunity to learn how to catch, kill and eat their own food, the sense of entitlement many feel towards their protein may dissipate. I know from the inner-city groups I have worked with that many would jump at the chance (a fair few more would run a mile, mind). Radical (and likely to draw the wrath of many a parent), but the act of killing their own food could be an important lesson for our children. I will stop well short of claiming it as a release valve for pent-up barbaric inner desires and a cure for social ills such as gang violence, but engagement with the environment at such a crude level would promote conscientious shopping at the very least.

A requirement to understand the origin of the bacon in your sandwich may have absolutely no relevance to your enjoyment of it, and you may view it as an unnecessary burden to subject yourself and your children to. And in the 21st century, you may be right, but I would consider the renunciation of this knowledge, and further than this, the denial of the instinct to hunt, to be a denial of what has made us the human race we are today. But enjoying it? Maybe this is a taboo too far in a supposedly civilised society.

Fox Week Part 2 – Urban Foxes: The Intersection Between the Wild and the Mundane

Urban foxes.  Whether it’s erroneous calls for culling in the media or a blogger getting overly worked up about it, you just can’t get away from them. I’ve tried to avoid it, every year Springwatch do another feature covering the same ground, and every year I turn off. Pariah or persecuted, it can get incredibly subjective. Discussions on foxes elicit fierce passions, as anyone who has waded in on either side of the argument will know. There have been some calls for culling of urban foxes, and this is no doubt an over the top knee-jerk reaction to a few incidents. But due consideration should be given to both sides of the argument.

Now free comment sections on newspaper websites are not perhaps the most logical places, but the blinkered thinking can often be quite staggering. So much so that you have to question the posters motives. It is probably no stretch at all to imagine that a self-professed Tory posting ill thought out pro-hunting arguments on the Guardian website may not be all he seems, and visa-versa. So lets look at some stats:

Well, that was my intention with this paragraph, but it seems it isn’t quite that straightforward. The last estimate, from the 1980s, put the total urban fox population at 33,000. – There may not be, and, according to the Guardian, there is a consensus that there is not likely to have been an increase since then. This is the pro-urban fox position. However as any good scientist will tell you, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. No evidence does not necessarily mean something is not happening, it generally depends how hard someone has looked for that evidence, and with no population estimates available since the 80’s it would seem no one has looked too hard. Anecdotal evidence, overly subjective though it is, should be given due consideration and the majority of these suggest that if not an increase in population, then urban foxes are at the very least becoming more visible. Either way, this is extremely pertinent. Population pressures and social behaviour are potential contributory factors in fox-human interactions.

Ask someone on the pro-urban fox side of the fence why they think they should not be controlled and you may elicit the response ‘they help to control the rat population’. This is a double standard I have come across frequently, and one that both sides of the argument are guilty of. You can’t have it both ways. Again, there is no quantifiable evidence for this and if you dismiss something because you have not found any evidence for it, you cannot then use anecdotal evidence to provide a positive slant on your argument. Yes, foxes do kill rats (and mice) and other small mammals, but do they exert any population control? Rats are tricky to catch, can bolt down small holes and can defend themselves if needs be. There are most definitely much easier pickings out there in the urban supermarket for the average fox. – And again, this argument does segue into an interesting tangential example of double standards; rat control is presumably a good thing. Why is this? Despite their reputation, rats can be incredibly clean animals and they carry no greater threat from transmitted pathogens than foxes (presuming no new plague outbreak, and yes I know that’s black rats). Perhaps it is the proximity that is an issue? Perhaps they are less appealing to look at?

Pointless Remake - Even with Skarsgaard in it

Pointless Remake – Even with Skarsgaard in it

Dogs attack many, many more people than foxes do – This is not an argument. I cannot reiterate this enough, and yet still frequently have to. This has absolutely no relevance to the issue of urban foxes. None whatsoever. It is a clear example of ‘whataboutary’. It is a Straw Man (or Straw Dog?) argument that dogs are more dangerous. No one on the anti-urban fox side of the argument has ever suggested anything otherwise. They may both be canine, but they are completely different species. Put briefly, consider the relationship of the two to humans and how often dogs come into contact with humans as opposed to foxes. How often in the last year have you been within jaws grasp of a dog? A fox?

Taking a look from the other side of the fence, an often-proposed anti- argument is that foxes kill pets – This is again an issue with little evidence, relying solely on anecdote. It seems everyone has seen or can point to footage on youtube of cats and foxes chasing each other around the garden, usually with the cat coming out on top. Foxes don’t kill cats, that’s the perceived wisdom amongst many. But dogs kill cats. I came home once to find my very harmless dogs had killed my cat. Foxes are wild animals. It’s no great leap to believe that with the increased overlap between the two that is occurring in urban environments that such incidence will happen. Not often, again, as with rats, there is not a huge deal of benefit in it for them, but the huge number of ‘Missing Cat’ posters may attest to a hidden conflict (again, that is a hugely speculative presumption).

Much of this is playing devils advocate, but there are blinkered arguments on either side. I would hate to see a cull of urban foxes sparked by a single incident of human attack, but it is likely there will be further incidence. With increased population

Chums

Chums

pressures and loss of the few suitable green spaces in urban areas, interaction with humans will become more and more unavoidable. Foxes must not be given special treatment, and must be considered in the same context as rats, mice, pigeons, geese, with scientific evidence backing up any decision. Not just because there seems to be a lot of them about.

Really though, the whole argument is rather facile. In these situations, what must a citizen of rural India, or places with real wilderness, real threats from nature, think? We frown, rightly, on the destruction of the rainforest, shooting of tigers, elephants, animals that can quite easily leave your average farmer as a small damp patch in the dirt and are a legitimate danger. And yet, a fox snaps at us and we are advocating a cull. The economy takes a downturn and we want to carve up ancient woodlands, our equivalent of rainforests, for a needless vanity project. To those we berate for planting more palm oil, trapping tigers or selling rhino horn, we must look ridiculous.

Fox Week – Part 1: How to Create a Story Out of Nothing

It seems this week is going to be fox-heavy week. I had a post all set up and ready to go today (and it will appear here later) about the ‘scourge’ of urban foxes, the whys and wherefores. It is such an emotive subject and (for frankly irrelevant reasons) foxes cannot now be discussed without being laced with political context (in other words – if you want to control fox populations in any way, if you say anything negative about foxes at all, you’re a Tory). For an ecologist, this is a little annoying as it can be a legitimate area of concern.

This isn’t really a fox article. Urban foxes are (sorry to burst your bubble) dull, abundant, mid-level generalists that have limited value from a biodiversity perspective (barring that, of course, all nature has its own inherent value, etc and so forth). But at the weekend, a story I was keeping tabs on in a local paper has gone national in the Telegraph. It concerns a larger issue of scientific illiteracy in our media that Monbiot has previously addressed, but also a willingness to misrepresent a subject which incites high passions to push copy.

The story first appeared last week in the Wandsworth Guardian, which picked up on a seemingly innocuous press release on Urban Foxes by Wandsworth Borough Council. The press release, quite sensibly, advises securing your food waste to deter Urban Foxes. From this, Wandsworth Guardian have produced the heading ‘Starving urban foxes would drive numbers down in London’ says Wandsworth Council. Now I challenge you to search that press release and find where any such thing has been said. The truth is it doesn’t. The not unreasonable précis of the advice is that if there is less food available for foxes, then they will go elsewhere. Yet the title is phrased in such a way that it appears as though it is a direct quote. The piece also makes reference to baiting, trapping and shooting (not raised in the press release but discussed in a 2007 committee paper) and phrases it in such a way that it appears as though it is an actual possibility. This is the main entry on the subject:

 16. There are a number of methods of fox control that may be legally used. These include baited cage trapping, shooting and snaring, however fox control is not generally recommended in urban areas. Killing or relocating foxes usually provides only transient relief from the problems they cause, as vacant territories are rapidly reoccupied once the control measures cease.foxes 1

A hoo-ha is being generated here where none exists. Various control measures are discussed, as is only correct in a discussion about issues with urban foxes. The Council is merely undertaking the minimal due diligence on the issue. If it were discussing any other contentious issue (drugs, knife crime etc.) you would expect, demand even, that the council take the time to discuss any potential measures, the most severe and the most sensitive. If it were a rat problem, would we expect the council to fail to discuss such measures? (But then rats don’t appear on Springwatch every bloody year)

The story has now appeared in the Telegraph with a similarly misleading title, and not too subtle mention that the Wandsoworth Council is Conservative. The sub-header runs ‘Wandsworth Council tells residents if a ‘vixen is shot during breeding season, the den has to be traced and the whole family of cubs humanely killed’. This refers to a throwaway line in the original press release (that has since, sensibly, been removed) that attempts only to highlight the many reasons why any such undertaking would not be practical or desirable, and yet the phrasing has again been used to infer otherwise.

This, of course, all links in to previous concerns I have raised about ecological and scientific issues being discussed in political and social context. The main point I have is that this kind of misrepresentation genuinely can have negative repercussions for environmental professionals, for whom culling is often a legitimate and necessary tool. A lot of our work can seem destructive to the layman, and when a council press release stating that shooting urban foxes is absolutely not a practical measure gets twisted to suggest otherwise, it risks creating public aversion to potential measures ecologists may discuss to legitimate environmental problems. This is just one example amongst many, and if you want another, more nefarious, example of this, then check out the ‘You Forgot the Birds’ fiasco, where the RSPB’s refusal to back an unworkable government Hen Harrier action plan now, by some twisted logic, means that the RSPB hate Hen Harriers.

And I know, I’m using an emotive subject to get more people to view my blog. My rank hypocrisy knows no bounds. I’ve already made a point about the idiocy of having a cake and not eating it.