More Pointless Fox Hyperbole

Foxes = hyperbole. If I’ve learned anything from my ‘career’ in the sector, it is that there is very little as divisive. So when a story appears in the papers about a marauding fox’ penning some ‘terrified’ punters in a pub, I pretty much know what reactions to expect. Calls for culling, the counter ‘ode to the joys of the urban fox’; it’s all a little predictable.

chumsWhat I think has always baffled me though is the sheer number of people who just point blank seemed to have refused that this has happened. Why the self-deception? Why can they not countenance the idea that a fox, a wild predator, could possibly act aggressively towards humans? There is any number of reasons why it might – cubs, food, perceived threat or familiarity – but there is a steadfast refusal to accept. And so stories like this are treated with incredulity and ridicule. I have even heard people claiming today that all previous incidences of fox attacks on humans have later been proven to be dogs. I have also seen that damn statistic about dog attacks vs fox attacks trotted out everywhere despite its total irrelevance. One thing I do know from experience is that when it comes to foxes, you have to pick a side.

I can understand it to an extent – people see foxes as the victim, as persecuted, and are therefore more prone to emphasise their innocence and fluffiness. But why do they think it is necessary to overplay it? The peculiar thing is that today in the Guardian a piece also appeared by lovable hunk Steve Backshall (even I swoon) about the nefarious media practice of creating seasonal bio-panic, be it jellyfish, spiders, hornets or, yes, foxes. And I completely agree with every single word of it. So what am I even trying to say?

I think we need to admit to ourselves that there’s the odd thing out there that might, just occasionally, cause you a scratch, a

They'll be the death of me

They’ll be the death of me

sting, and abrasion, heavens even a cut. I think we have to embrace that. Grasp on to the last tiny semblance of danger in our rather mild-mannered ecosystems (this is all very well me saying this until I am mauled to death by badgers, of course). The truth is that kids, for one, are much more fascinated by teeth and stings and danger than they are by soft fur and a placid demeanour.

So the next time there is a story about a fox biting a bin man, an exotic spider secreted in a bunch of bananas causing mild swelling or reports of a super-deadly Asian Hornet (clue – it’s probably just a regular hornet! Seriously, those things are terrifyingly large) I hope our reaction is neither to run for the hills and stock up on canned goods or to put on our green armour and say ‘oh don’t be silly, it could never happen’. I hope our reaction is to shrug our shoulders and say ‘so what?’ Or even better, ‘cool’. Animals do what animals do and they’re pretty cool as they are, why feel the need to exaggerate or deny?

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



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.

Botham Takes on the RSPB (and I Can’t Even Think of a Good Cricket Pun)

It’s not often my twin interests of cricket and conservation combine. So, given Ian Botham’s criticism of the RSPB this week, I couldn’t give up the chance to comment.

Given that I have recently criticised the RSPB (well, the Vote Bob campaign, behind which it lurks and skulks like a group of foxes (learn your collective nouns, people)), this is a tricky issue and it’s going to take a bit of unpicking.

Botham is commenting on behalf of the ‘You Forgot the Birds’ (YFTB) campaign, and they raise some concerns that I have previously expressed. It raises the issue, and it is one I do keep harping on about, regarding the adoption of a business focus by many of our environmental charities. This has seen them diversify and become more centred on generating money through fundraising than actual conservation work. The figures touted (if to be believed) are a spend of £32M on fundraising against £29M on conservation operations by the RSPB. This is, genuinely, a reason for concern. Not just the disparity between public perception and actual activities, but the huge sums involved. Can charities come under the scrutiny of the Monopolies Commission? But these issues are lost beneath the sheer fug of bone-headed, imbecilic points made by the YFTB, thus losing any semblance of relevance.

YFTB Logo - I am still at a loss to explain the tagline

YFTB Logo – I am still at a loss to explain the tagline

Martin Harper has already responded, pretty well, although he has missed some of the key points and relied too heavily on RSPB’s vaunted past as a defence rather than addressing current issues. I could also do without the horrendous crowbarring of god-awful cricket clichés and metaphors into every paragraph. But I think the campaign could do with a much more comprehensive dissection. So lets pick out a few phrases from the website and highlight some of the cretinous asininity behind the campaign:

Firstly, lets look at the three big heads behind the ‘YFTB’ campaign. They are listed as:

Sir Ian Botham
Martyn Howat, former Director of Natural England
Sir Johnny Scott, BBC TV presenter

Where to start with that trio? As a contrarion, I think I’ll start in the middle. Martyn Howat, former Director of Natural England. Yes, indeed he was. But more relevantly, he is also the current (I have been trying to confirm this, but it is not clear on the website, I only know he was as of July 2014) Chairman of the British Association for Shooting and Conservation. Why is he not described as such? Why is he described by his former role? Anyone with half a brain can probably work out why they are keeping this association quiet.

Sir Johhny Scott. Well, just look at that CV. A man more steeped in the noble pursuits of hunting or blowing the face off game birds bred for the purpose of having their faces blown off you would struggle to find. He is described here as a ‘TV presenter’, and not the centenary patron of the BASC or any of the other patronages he has to hunting organisations. I flagged up the Vote Bob campaign for being an RSPB money-spinner by stealth, but this deliberate subterfuge much greater in its venality. As for Botham, a man who runs his own shoot, he is an irrelevance in this instance, a big, lumbering figurehead for a plodding, old-fashioned movement (insert your own joke about his later England career here). It’s sad to see a man who railed against the tie and blazers of the MCC become such an ingrained part of the same set. He’s an embarrassment.

Now for some of the loaded language used on the website. In reference to the RSPB using certain ‘box-office’ species for advertising, they say:

‘The wrong type of bird includes chickens (too frumpy)…’ – Chickens? Why the hell would the RSPB be using chickens, the most common bird on the planet, to advertise its work in protecting our dwindling bird species? Unless it was with regards to the horrendous condition battery hens endure, but that would involve lobbying, and, well…

‘How much “conservation money” is being spent on political lobbying on climate change?’ “Conservation money”? I’m pretty certain climate change is the main conservation issue at the moment. Unless you are denying it. You’re not denying climate change, are you YFTB? The YFTB campaign takes aim at the RSPB spending money on lobbying, education and research. These are core areas we need to be spending money on if we are to protect our natural environment.

Lobbying seems to be the key target for their displeasure and the message this sends out is clear; The YFTB campaign wants the RSPB and the like to stop sticking their nose into the business of landowners and farmers. It comes across as a call for the RSPB to ‘get back in their box’ and behave.

‘Take the hen harrier. It doesn’t just have bankable movie star looks but also a back story of victimisation. So it is the ultimate nice little earner for the RSPB’ – now, when you note that this is preceded by the sentence ‘Ideally there’s a nasty villain to protect it from’, I think anyone with half a brain can put two and two together and see what’s going on here. The plight of Hen Harriers are exactly the kind of thing the RSPB should be promoting and raising awareness about. How could anyone with an interest in bird conservation complain about this? Unless…hang on, do the people behind this campaign have a vested interest in (or think, through some misguided notion, they have a vested interest in) raptor persecution?

The ‘They Shot Bambi’ section added to the website today is equally hypocritical and idiotic (although I can not work out if they are being deliberately obtuse or genuinely are not aware in the contradictions between their aims and their backers). It gives us plenty more statements to pick apart:

‘Last year the RSPB shot dead 1,129 deer along with 273 “Freddy” foxes.’ The BASC (sorry, YFTB) are complaining about this? Well I admire their balls and sheer hypocritical brass-neckery if nothing else. They also ON THE SAME PAGE end the piece with the quote “Rare birds like Golden Plovers thrive when they have rich habitat and are protected from foxes. The RSPB is doing a lousy job at that” from the esteemed conservationist Botham (a man whose last foray in to the public consciousness was this disturbing image).

Botham - a gratuitous cheap shot

Botham – a gratuitous cheap shot

‘It also deliberately suffocated hundreds of unborn chicks by smearing oil around their shells’ – If you are going to throw this kind of emotionally loaded language around, you have to at least give a hint of the reasoning behind it. Control of some species is a vital, important part of nature conservation, which takes on many forms, and for the BASC to get shitty about this…seriously, this is staggeringly ridiculous.

They also ask ‘why its (RSPB’s) executive team is housed in a mansion. Homes for office workers? Or homes for birds?’ This is really childish, and a second’s research elucidates the background of The Lodge at Sandy. It was purchased in 1961, with generous financial help by Tony Norris. I’m not sure how this is relevant to current spending. I’ve been trying to find any evidence of the RSPB supplying homes for office workers (as opposed to, y’know, a place to work), but can’t. Happy to be corrected though if this is the case.

Despite my issues with the RSPB, and the genuine issues the YFTB campaign raises, I can’t help but think that if the RSPB are annoying the people clearly behind YFTB, then they must be doing something right.

YFTB go on to state ‘we are going to examine the accounts of the RSPB and all the 47 Wildlife Trusts and get you the facts’ and ‘It’s time it (the RSPB) was honest about its own approach…’ Well, in the spirit of honesty, I would like the BASC, a-hem, sorry, sorry, I meant the You Forgot the Birds campaign, to be honest about the ‘conservationists or self-confessed birders…farmers and landowners…’ and ‘volunteers from the cities’ behind this ill-thought out campaign. Just who is behind it? It doesn’t take a genius to work it out.



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.