How can conservationists claim to want to protect and preserve certain species whilst at the same time promoting the shooting, culling and destruction of others?
Let me set the scene. In one corner is the argument that conservationists should be aiming to protect and preserve all animals regardless of species and status. In the other corner we have the argument that certain species need to be controlled to preserve the wider habitat or ecosystem. Is selecting the species to cull hypocritical and by being the ones to select which species are protected are conservationists self-indulgent. I will outline some examples of situations of where species control is as well as others where it isn’t acceptable and explain the reasons for this.
Let’s start with species for which culling or shooting isn’t acceptable. Example 1: The Badger Cull. This government led project aims to control and eradicate Bovine Tuberculosis (Bovine Tb). Bovine TB has cost British farming an estimated £500 million over the past decade and Badgers can act as carriers. So why oppose the cull? The majority of scientific evidence shows badger culls do not deal with the problem effectively. Trials undertaken between 1998 and 2006 showed culling causes a short term decrease in levels of Bovine Tb locally but it then increases also Bovine Tb occurrence in neighbouring areas increased due to disturbance of Badgers. There are also welfare implications, with some individuals taking several minutes to die. Many conservation organisations support a solution to Bovine TB but do not support the cull.
The second example is the shooting of birds of prey on grouse moors to minimise Red Grouse predation. These actions help to increase grouse numbers for the shooting season. Here the lines are clear-cut and defined. Persecution of these birds is illegal and many trapping methods were outlawed over a century ago. The RSPB has an investigation unit examining such crimes and bringing the offenders to justice. Despite legal protection the shooting of birds of prey continues. The levels are significant enough to be effect populations of these species. The poster species (sadly) is the Hen Harrier; England holds enough habitat for 300 pairs to breed but in 2014 only 4 did (that’s 1.3% of the potential number). As a result, there are campaigns to protect the Hen Harrier and other birds of prey. In this case it’s obvious to see why this is strongly opposed by conservationists; its illegal and damages populations. For more about the impacts of grouse shooting check out Mark Avery’s blog.
Now on to the more contentious examples. The first of these is the culling of deer. Now Bambi is cute and adorable, but unfortunately deer cause massive problems. The lack of top predators (such as Wolves and Lynx) mean that deer are found in higher numbers than would naturally occur. As a result, they put massive pressure of forests from overgrazing. For example, overgrazing by Red Deer is stopping regeneration of the Caledonian Pine Forest in Scotland which then impacts rare native species such as the Capercaillie. Additionally, on a more local level many woodland nature reserves are being damaged by grazing from Roe and Muntjac Deer. As there is no natural regulation of the population it means that culling is often the most effective means of control. This preserves valuable woodland habitat and allows natural regeneration of trees; resulting in a habitat that is better for other woodland species. So overall there is a benefit to the ecosystem.
The second example is that of the Ruddy Duck. This is a very contentious issue, all I’m doing here is reporting what happened and why. The Ruddy Duck escaped from captivity in the U.K in the 20th century and rapidly increased in numbers. They spread across the country and some made it to Spain. Here they began to hybridize with the native and endangered White-headed Duck. This was seen to cause a threat to the gene pool of the White-headed Duck and may lead to local extinctions through inter-breeding. As a result of this the U.K government decided to undertake a cull of Ruddy Ducks, this was successful reducing numbers from an initial population of 5500 in 2000 to 20 – 50 by 2014. This should result in a reduction in hybridization of Ruddy and White-headed Ducks and reduce the pressure on the White-headed Duck population helping this species to survive. Despite this cull being endorsed by many conservation organisations it still remains controversial among some parties.
There are many more examples of both acceptable and unacceptable situations for culling or shooting to take place; many are less clear cut than examples given here. I hope these examples have shown that conservationists are neither hypocritical nor self-indulgent, but work on a case by case basis. Understanding the species, habitat, circumstances and possible impacts allows each situation to be assessed and the best course of action to be taken. At times this can mean making difficult decisions, but they are always done with the best intentions and the bigger picture in mind.
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