Friday, 18 October 2013

Who decides which species to save and which are doomed?

As I opened the curtains my eye was caught by a flurry of movement and for the next several minutes I stood transfixed.
My apple tree, as I mentioned last week, has not produced an exactly bumper crop this year. But here it was absolutely full of life.
During those minutes, my little patch of garden – especially the tree – played host to three chaffinches, two goldfinches, a greenfinch, two robins, four blackbirds, a blackcap, and a little brown job I could identify only as a warbler of some sort.
Plus – what had really grabbed my attention – a mixed flock of great tits, bluetits and the odd coal tit. They were flitting about much too quickly and eagerly for me to make an accurate count, but I reckoned there were between 20 and 30 of them.
It was a grey, overcast morning after a night of rain, and I could only assume that the birds had been attracted by a feast of insects.
Though I didn’t spot one, it wouldn’t have surprised me to see that the little birds had in their turn attracted a sparrowhawk to the bonanza.
I’ve recently seen several big raptors being harassed and driven off by other birds. The other day, on the A145 near Loddon, I was startled by a buzzard that flew out of the undergrowth right across in front of my windscreen – rapidly pursued by an angry crow.
These battles are, to me, among the most fascinating instances of wildlife in action to be seen in our midst. Some people, though, seem to be angered by the rise and rise of the buzzard, and the very existence of the sparrowhawk.
There have been calls for sparrowhawks and magpies to be “controlled” (i.e. killed) because of their habit of preying on the smaller birds we all love to see in our gardens.
Which misses the larger point that it is humans, particularly with our modern farming methods – pesticides, monoculture, lost hedgerows etc – who have done the most damage to populations of all kinds of birds.
Misses the point, too, about the huge numbers of garden birds massacred by pet cats.
But, the cat-lover will say, my moggy is only doing what comes naturally. As are the sparrowhawks, which – unlike your pet puss – need to kill to live and to raise their young.
Meanwhile harriers and goshawks are persecuted almost to the verge of extinction for their habit of preying on grouse and partridge – creatures bred to be killed by people for fun, not by wild things to preserve their own threatened lives.
These were among the points of dissension under discussion at the Royal Society in London on Monday evening at a debate led by the zoologist and TV presenter Chris Packham, patron of the World Land Trust.
The Halesworth-based trust does a phenomenal job buying areas of threatened land in vulnerable parts of the world to save them for wildlife. And it believes, rightly, that the growing list of conservation controversies should be opened up to public scrutiny not ignored or swept under the carpet.
Difficult questions such as which species are worth saving. In an era of multiple extinctions, does it actually make sense to allocate large sums of cash to try to keep alive rhinos, pandas, polar bears and orang-utans?
The gut reaction to that is an unequivocal ‘yes’. But who decides which species can be saved and which are doomed?
Can re-introductions to the wild really work – and are they worth it? Is it enough to maintain a gene pool in zoos and captive collections?
And if you’re looking for inconsistencies, here’s a big one that begs all sorts of awkward questions about us in Britain. About our attitude to people elsewhere in the world, as well as to our own beleaguered wildlife.
British conservationists tell people in India they should be protecting their elephants and tigers, even though they can cause human deaths, eat their cattle and destroy their crops.
Meanwhile we are gassing badgers, despite all the evidence that it’s totally ineffective as a defence against TB in cattle. India has no badgers, but it has bovine TB.
Perhaps, instead of telling the Indians what to do, we should ask what we can learn from them. Not, admittedly, a humility that comes naturally to Britain’s decision-making classes.
Among many questions stirred up by the Daily Mail’s vile and unjustified attack on Ed Miliband’s father is this: When and how did “socialism” become a dirty word?
Like the entirely admirable Ralph Miliband, I am pleased to call myself a socialist. But I am uncomfortably aware that the name is not always understood.
Contrary to the way Joe Stalin and Mao Zedong appropriated it – a perversion the Daily Mail chooses to think was the real thing – socialism is about equality, fairness and democracy. Common ownership and common responsibility, not repression of the majority by a rich minority.
Socialism, sadly, is not currently on the British political agenda. The Labour Party may be better social democrats under Ed Miliband than they were under Tony Blair, but socialists they are not.

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