One of the traits that makes us human is the ability to plan – to look into the future and envisage the consequences of our actions. We’re obsessed with planning. Businesses plan cash flow and marketing strategy; charities plan fundraising and volunteer recruitment; even nature reserves have management plans dictating which species should live and those that shouldn’t. And as individuals, in an effort to make the best use of our time and resources, many of us plan to the nth degree. As a society we don’t like to leave anything to chance. We strive to ensure wherever possible, positive and sustainable outcomes. It all makes sense but with all this detailed planning going on, you’d think that we’d have a pretty comprehensive plan in place for our future as a species. Not so. This is the elephant in the room, the plan that no one wants to make.
We don’t do change very well: as a species I mean. Our manicured, orderly landscape bears witness to that, with any hint of ‘wilding’ touching a raw rural nerve and challenging our control of a landscape that was historically perceived to be for the exclusive use of one species only: us.
And so the beaver, an ostensibly innocuous water rat, has found its way into the news; not necessarily as an agent of ecological change but as a carrier of cultural change. The beavers of Knapdale in Argyll, although not universally welcomed, have at least arrived through ‘official channels’, those prescribed by European legislation. The beavers presently running amok in the Tay catchment however, are seemingly escapees of unknown origin and questionable genetics. They are not official beavers welcomed by an official policy by well…officials. Predictably therefore a divisive dispute is raging over whether the unofficial beavers should be left alone or rounded up and popped into captivity.
I have to say I’ve read numerous reports and find it difficult to disagree with either view. Scottish Natural Heritage, although often accused of a lack of flexibility, have their hands tied both by legislation and by strategic obligations. They have ruled that the beavers must be captured. Equally, the growing fan base for the itinerant beavers also offer valid arguments in terms of animal welfare and opportunities for ecological research. It’s a tricky one for sure.
What is perhaps predictable is that this won’t be the last dilemma of its kind. As the potential for the spread of non-native species increases (not that I’m suggesting the Tay beavers come under this category), against a backdrop of growing concern for the functionality of our ecosystems, and perhaps, the tendency towards societal extremes at the expense of pragmatism, deciding which species live where and to whose benefit, will become more and more difficult.
Managing change – brought about by beavers or otherwise – has never been easy and therein lies the social science of conflict resolution. There are people who study this stuff, they’ve become experts in it. They’re not conservationists, foresters, farmers or ecologists and that’s their strength. They know little of beavers but change isn’t about beavers, it’s about people. And resolving conflict relies on knowing about people and the ability to effectively communicate with them. I can’t help thinking that somewhere amongst all the talk of beaver legislation, ecology and welfare, there’s a role for a professional communicator, a manager of change, a resolver of conflict, a mediator – call it what you will.
It happens to be beavers in the Tay just now, but red deer, seals and pine martens, they’re all symbols of our changing relationship with nature. Perhaps that change needs some innovative management?
Is it a good time to bring up wolves?