The British wildlife hit list: Species under threat in the UK
Last week, the first badgers were killed. Allegedly on best scientific advice. Even though the Krebs Report, in response to the trial culls nearly 30 years ago, said it would not work. Even though a top government scientist said the whole plan was ‘crazy’. Notwithstanding the outcry from wildlife NGOs and the public alike, DEFRA has appeared oblivious to other means of controlling bovine tuberculosis (bTB), and has gone ahead with the cull anyway.
The argument about the badger cull is certainly the most noteworthy wildlife conflict within the UK in recent years – but there are also many other individual species that have received warrants for their extermination.
While some are culled for ecological reasons – deer for example, where man has taken over from the wolves and lynx we made extinct in this country, many species seem to have become demonised with little justification.
Wildlife management can usually be resolved without a trigger-happy approach. In the case of the badger cull, improving bio-security on cattle farms would be a good place to start. But the first response to rural problems never seems to be the improvement of current practice, and a disturbing trend has appeared, which shifts blame to the natural world rather than farming practice.
Badgers, and many others on the hit list, have become wild scapegoats. If we don’t speak up for them, all the creatures below may soon be targeted like the badger.
As a successful opportunist with a wide and varied diet, it was never going to be long before Britain’s red foxes started gorging on the huge levels of food waste we leave behind in our towns and cities. Sure enough, in the last half century these adaptable canids have become as familiar as rats, pigeons and grey squirrels within our urban ecosystems.
Since a couple of extremely rare attacks on infants, including the Koupparis twins in 2010 and a one-month old baby in February this year, calls for a cull continue to appear. Horrible as these as these incidents are, they need to be put into perspective. Around 6,000 people a year are hospitalised after attacks by domestic dogs – and no-one’s calling for cull of them. But the one-in-a-thousand actions of a couple of unusually habituated foxes has been enough for Boris Johnson to call all of them a pest and a menace to be tackled urgently.
There’s been no official population count of urban foxes, but many believe there are now too many for the urban ecosystem to sustain. However, while they are certainly doing very well for themselves, outbreaks of sarcoptic mange will often keep numbers down naturally. An outbreak in Bristol 19 years ago for example killed an estimated 95 per cent of the city’s foxes, from which they are still recovering.
An incredibly efficient hunter of fish usually associated with seas and coasts, cormorants have become increasingly common in freshwater ecosystems since the 1970s. Luckily for the cormorant, we have angling lakes stuffed full of big fish – practically a free buffet. Like all great opportunists, the birds don’t ignore this. There are now an estimated 25,000 wintering inland.
Of course, this doesn’t go down so well with anglers. Certainly ones I have spoken, say the ‘black death’, as they call the birds, “can empty a lake in a day”. Whilst such dramatic claims can’t be taken as scientific gospel, licenses that enable fishery managers to kill a limited number in serious cases have been granted since 1996. As all UK cormorants are part of a protected European population, it would require a continental cull of between thirty to 60,000 birds annually to make any difference.
Recent studies have found that lethal control has little effect on numbers, with further birds simply replacing those that have been displaced. Despite this, the Angling Trust have been campaigning for three years to add cormorants to the general control license – making it an issue that’s going nowhere fast.
Frequently soaring and mewing over farmland, motorways and even suburban gardens, it’s hard to believe buzzards were once so rare in Britain, but only forty or fifty years ago they were contained to a few populations on the moors and uplands.
There are two generally accepted reasons as to how these became one of Britain’s most common raptors today: the banning of biomagnifying pesticides such as DDT, and full protection under 1981’s Wildlife & Countryside Protection Act.
But with the way Government have been treating these birds recently, it seems the latter has been noticed less and less. The furore started in June 2012 when the Department of Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (Defra) announced plans to ‘issue licenses to destroy nests and take buzzards into captivity’, all to protect the 30 million pheasants released into the countryside each year for shooting.
While no one seems to have questioned the ecological consequences of releasing so many non-native birds into our woodlands, the fact that raptors, including buzzards, are responsible for about two to four per cent of pheasant deaths seemed to be enough for Defra to ignore any proposals for non-destructive methods.
A rapid and angry response from the public and conservation NGOs followed, and Defra quickly backed off. Or so it seemed. In May this year it was revealed that Natural England had ‘issued four licenses that allowed the destruction of buzzard nests on shooting estates’.
With the Government’s so-called conservation bodies motioning at the forefront of this initiative, and the head of Defra Richard Benyon an enthusiastic pheasant shooter, it really is hard to see whether nature comes into our government’s ideas of “rural affairs” at all.
The pine marten – a charismatic, arboreal member of the weasel family, once widespread across the country as Britain’s second commonest carnivore. It is now second rarest. Loss of forest habitat and persecution from 19th Century gamekeepers ensured populations became restricted to the remotest parts of Scotland, northern England and Wales. Afforestation and protected status today is giving it relief for a slow come-back, but it’s slow reproductive rate and poor dispersal to new territories means it still only numbers about 4,000 in the wilder parts of the country.
So it may seem strange that there are some who wish to see the removal of pine marten from their home range, or even a cull. The latter was certainly the proposal from the ‘Scottish Gamekeepers Association back in February 2012′.
Their reasoning stems from, ironically, the protection of another rare animal – the capercaillie: our largest grouse species, a specialist of Caledonian pine forest and a bird that’s declining through a number of factors. The estimated 12,000 or so left have had an onslaught of crises thrown at them, from habitat loss, disturbance, collision with deer fences and yes, predation – but pine martens are just one of a group of predators which also includes foxes, corvids and stoats.
While pine marten are starting to recover in number, a 2011 study found their abundance had no effect on capercaillie breeding success. Considering pine marten and capercaillie have evolved and lived together for over thousands of years, perfectly balanced in their ecosystem, and the large majority of capercaillie threats come from human sources, the idea of removing or killing one endangered species to save another just doesn’t make sense.
While there have been no official call for culls or control of these moorland raptors (‘bar Irish councillor John Sheahan in July’), there has been so much killing-on-the-quiet that, sadly, it is well and truly on the hit list – ‘no surprise that the only two breeding pairs left in England failed to breed this year’.
Grouse shooting on managed moorland estates brings in significant income, given the popularity of the pursuit among the wealthy gentry. To shoot two grouse it can cost between £70 to £170, depending on method. As such, land managers are keen to keep their moors as full of grouse as they can. So a £5,000 fine or six-year sentence has not deterred some gamekeepers from tackling hen harriers, an active predator of red grouse, with lethal means.
Government scientists have stated that despite the fact England could support 300 harrier pairs, this continuous decline is down to persecution. There have been several confirmed cases – notably the ”Sandringham incident” and ‘last year’s confirmed poisoning’ – and there are likely to be many more that go undetected.
The RSPB’s conservation director, Martin Harper, ‘has called for a government investigation and tougher laws surrounding those exterminating this already declining bird’. But when our decision-makers are the kind who’ll ignore scientific fact in favour of culling badgers or call for intense buzzard control to protect their pheasant shoots, is it more likely they’ll just continue to brush hen harriers under the carpet, to extinction?Tagged in: badger cull, british wildlife, Buzzards, conservation, Cormorants, fox hunt, foxes, Hen harriers, Pine martens
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