Everyone reading this has an impact on the planet and its limited resources. Most of western society eats farmed meat, drives polluting cars and owns an unprecedented range of consumer goods. The device you’re using to read this (and the one I’m using to write it), the light on your office desk and the cup of tea sat next to you – they all use energy. Multiply all of this (and lots more) by a global population spiralling towards 9 billion and it’s easy to see why as a species, we have a problem. A big problem.
I can’t remember the last time that I was so excited about my photography. It’s a bit weird; I’m like a kid in a sweetshop. It’s not that I’m jetting off to the Pantanal or the Canadian Rockies. It’s not that National Geographic is sending me to Antarctica – quite the opposite in fact: I’m staying in Scotland, a tiny country with a Big Story (that’s the exciting bit).
Years ago I met a Swiss photographer who was passionate about the Serengeti ecosystem. He told me to always make sure I was “doing something” for a place, species or issue about which I was passionate. Ever since that chance meeting, I’ve done exactly that, or at least tried to.
I’m not a red squirrel biologist but as I understand it, this is pretty much the situation as it stands with the species’ conservation: Red squirrels in the UK occupy only fragments of their former range with their remaining stronghold being the pine forests of northern Scotland. The primary reason for their decline is believed to be the introduction of the non-native grey squirrel which has spread and out-competes the red as well as passing on a potentially fatal disease. Where embattled and cornered red squirrels are threatened by the ongoing invasion of greys, conservation action is being taken primarily in the form of grey squirrel ‘management’ (aka culling). Is that it in a nutshell? No doubt someone will tell me if not.
Assuming my simple analysis is correct, here’s my question: Is it feasible, or desirable even, to defend red squirrel strongholds in the long term by fending off greys? How long can we keep this up for – 5 years, 50 years? 500 years? My understanding is that we’ll need to keep this up forever if we’re to retain red squirrels as a viable UK species.
Here’s my next question then: Is this a good use of time, effort and funding? Nobody wants to see red squirrels disappear (nobody I know at any rate) but surely we face a stark choice if we accept that the present regime is untenable:
1. We succumb to the relentless march of the grey and accept the extinction of UK reds.
2. We invest our energies in completely eliminating grey squirrels from the UK.
Option 2 has many barriers. It’s expensive, time consuming and some would argue impossible to completely eradicate grey squirrels such is their stranglehold (I would personally suggest it’s difficult but not impossible). Then there’s the question of societal sensitivities – for many people, grey squirrels provide their only contact with nature and never having seen a red squirrel, form part of their cultural backdrop. Finally there is a moral argument that challenges the need to kill any healthy animal regardless of origin.
So with all doors presently closed, we have no choice but to carry on as we are. But didn’t we already establish that wasn’t feasible?
I don’t know the answer to this dilemma by the way, but I do know that trying to marry political and cultural sensitivities with ecological integrity is at best, damned tricky and as a consequence we tend to tread the ground that upsets fewest (human) agendas – the sticking plaster approach. In my humble opinion with the consequences of indecision now well documented, the sticking plaster is no longer good enough: we’re talking major surgical procedure here.
What would you do if you held the keys to the piggy bank (or to the gun cupboard)?
The capercaillie is without doubt a fine looking bird. One of the finest. And they’re in trouble. Nobody really knows why but their numbers are perilous; moreover, they are entirely dependent upon a pine forest which itself is fragmented across the Scottish Highlands. Inevitably with such an icon, conservation action is urgent, focused…and expensive. So is this denizen of the wildwood worth all the effort?
Well as with most things that depends on who you’re asking, but the plight of the beleaguered caper has become entwined with the needs of people living in the Cairngorms National Park. This is certainly not a new phenomenon but one that has crystallised recently with a requirement for affordable housing in a local village. The problem? The housing is destined to be built in what many consider to be prime caper forest.
So which species has the greater claim? Personally speaking, I can see both sides and I genuinely don’t know the answer. But let’s put aside the legislative requirement for capercaillie protection on the one hand, and the social needs of the local community on the other. Ecologically speaking, us humans are adaptable creatures and can find shelter in a wide variety of habitats. Unfortunately the same can’t be said about capercaillie. But is it really the end of the world if a few birds get pushed out of their home? No. They will be missed but within the wider scheme of things, it will make little difference. Or will it?
We can nick a bit of forest here, a flower-filled meadow there, a bit of a bog, a piece of moorland – none of it makes much difference here and now, but where do we draw the line? I’d be the first to agree that short-term, our lives will not be significantly affected by the presence or otherwise, of Scotland’s capercaillie. But then we said that about the bear, the lynx, the wolf, the sea eagle, the red kite, the osprey, the beaver and doubtless millions of micro-organisms that have slipped through our fingers. Surely we’ve learned some lessons? If I needed a house in a local village, I might not care about these things, but the irony of this is the desire on the part of everyone living in this village, to secure a future for the next generation. Nothing wrong with that of course, but that future will undoubtedly be impoverished in the absence of a (irretrievable) healthy environment, along with all the component pieces of the jigsaw. So for me, this is not a question of capercaillie or people; it boils down to whether we prioritise our short-term or long-term needs. 100 years from now, a few extra houses won’t excuse us in the eyes of a future generation for allowing a species to slip away.
Many of you will know of Roy Dennis, a man who has spent most of his life working with raptors. I saw him yesterday and he was telling me of his latest exploits satellite tracking peregrines, eagles and ospreys. He was also updating me on the hugely controversial problem of persistent raptor persecution in some parts of the Highlands. We agreed – and have done before – that the root of the issue is cultural rather than economic.
So is the glass half-full or half-empty? Over the years I’ve met lots of ‘half-empty’ types, claiming persecution will never stop, and I concede that it’s a societal problem that shows no sign of disappearing anytime soon. That said, there was a time when drink-driving was acceptable; ditto racism; ditto most ‘isms’, and, if we go back far enough, ditto slavery. It’s all to do with values, and values change slowly, especially those that are as entrenched as killing birds of prey.
So in spite of Roy’s (and many others) concerns, my glass is definitely half-full. With one caveat: legislation might provide a framework for dealing with those that are caught committing wildlife crimes, but it’s a crude tool for changing cultural values.