|Beavers and boars: a wild animal update|
I wrote early last year about the range of threats facing wild animals in Britain (see The Dignity of Wild Animals). Sad to say, while we coo and fuss over the seasonal arrival of charming migratory birds like the swallow (and some may use them as tell-tales of the state of our ecology), we still have it in for the native animals that stay put and inconvenience us by their presence. We are no closer to working out how we can coexist, seeing always wild animals as a threat and rarely ever an opportunity.
Everything is about study, consultation and caution. This is admirable in its own way, but paralysis can come from over-analysis. Sometimes it is used to delay or avoid difficult decision-making: often a consultation can appear to restrict potential outcomes; and there have been failures to recognise the critical message of a study, or even recognising that a study just doesn’t add anything more to the overall picture.
Each of these contentions has some basis in what has happened over the last year. For instance, the study of badgers as a source of transmission of TB to livestock continues, with a recent report showing that one in seven of the badgers killed in road traffic accidents was a carrier for the disease. The report concluded that were no conclusions to be made – a refreshing honesty, but what were they hoping for? At least the trial culling of badgers is still suspended, but I wonder if anyone was prosecuted for using a road vehicle as a lethal weapon in killing a protected wild animal?
The wild deer consultation has been and gone, and an action plan for management in England has appeared. Foremost in that action plan is that DEFRA will continue to fund the Deer Initiative for at least another three years. The Deer Initiative was established in 1995 with a primary role to “reduce the adverse environmental and economic impact of wild deer”. DEFRA itself will seek alteration of the Deer Act 1991 to facilitate the use of a range of weaponry in culling. A particularly nasty image is conjured up by the need to clarify the Deer Act, so that shooting deer from a vehicle whilst the engine is running, or the vehicle is in motion, is prohibited.
What I find underwhelming about this action plan is that it still lacks a recognition of, or proposes any action, to give wild deer a right to space where they can exhibit their natural behaviour. It’s all about management of threats, and the only opportunity is in the use of carcasses, arising from management control, for food. Thus the action plan says that consideration will be given to amending Game Acts to allow the sale of venison throughout the year. The Forestry Commission – who have the potential of a large woodland estate that is the natural home for deer – is tasked in the action plan to “share their experience in deer carcass handling, and larder design and use”. Perhaps we should consider what the expression “fair game” really means. The Forestry Commission has this year made some remarkable commitments to the future of ancient woodland in England. They should also make a commitment to the lives of wild animals that are part of the community of an ancient woodland.
The controversy over the culling of cormorants is a game of numbers and identity. The culling hit the news again at the end of August when Government invited license applications for a second culling season in a row set at 3,000 birds. Although only 1,200 out of the maximum of 3,000 were reported to have been shot in the last season (September 04 to April 05), this in itself was a large increase on the previous cull limit of 500 birds. The vehemence with which the angling community appears to regard cormorants suggests that the full 3,000 limit for the next season (September 05 to April 06) is likely to be killed. I guess we really need to question why cormorants have become such a threat and what the culling will achieve.
Estimates of total wintering cormorants in England range between 14,260 and 19,205. These birds are mostly the coastal subspecies (Phalacrocorax carbo carbo) with a breeding population of about 3,000 pairs on coastal cliffs and islands. However, the situation is complicated by a second subspecies of cormorant that originates in the Low Countries and Germany (Phalacrocorax carbo sinensis). This cormorant favours inland breeding sites, usually in trees near inland rivers and lakes. The two are difficult to tell apart but, in recent years, populations of cormorant have become established at lakes and gravel pits inland in Britain, with several colonies comprising some 1,500 pairs mostly of the continental sinensis form.
Perhaps the migratory nature of the continental European subspecies gave the lead to our coastal subspecies, but there is an inevitability that fish eating birds, possibly finding their normal coastal food sources diminished, have chanced upon the artificial fish-stuffed environments of anglers and have stayed to predate the rest of the UK inland waterway. However, their “number may be up”: a Government study from last year modelled the affect of culling on the cormorant population. At an annual cull level of 2000 birds, the cormorant population was predicted to fall by 25% over five years of culling but remain stable. Any annual cull over 2000 birds and the cormorant population would be predicted to show a disastrous decline in the equilibrium population to the point of extirpation. So why is the Government ignoring their own research and licensing an annual cull of 3,000 cormorants? Can we be sure that the cull figure will be reduced in subsequent years? Will the cull be selective for the continental sinensis subspecies? Why should the cormorant suffer for exhibiting its natural instincts?
There must be some very deflated and angry people in Scotland after the Scottish Executive turned down for the second time an application for a trial release of European beaver. Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) carried out the most extensive and expensive evaluation plus public consultation process – over a 10-year period – that has ever been carried out for reintroduction of beaver. It must therefore have been a blow to have their application turned down on what appears to be contentious grounds.
The Scottish Executive in refusing the application said that the uncertainty of the environmental impact of the trial would breach the European Habitats Directive because part of the trial area is a European Special Area of Conservation (SAC). Secondly, the Executive questioned the exit strategy proposed by SNH because it involved the potential killing of any beavers found outside the trial site or causing more damage than might initially have been considered. They indicated that any beaver introduced to Scotland would be protected under European law.
Reaction amongst the partnership for the trial has been one of disappointment, but also bafflement. The Mammals Trust UK has said that considering the extent and length of the consultation process, it seems “highly surprising that the reasons that have been given by the Scottish Executive have suddenly become apparent" The Scottish Wildlife Trust thinks the reasons for rejection of the trial are deeply flawed: "If the Executive really wanted to undertake this trial, then there are no practical issues that would prevent this”. An SNH spokesman said it was disappointed that the application had been turned down. And a source close to the decision is reported to have said that the exit strategy could easily have been altered to include a licence to cull a protected species.
I try not to be cynical, but I think this refusal is a delaying tactic, possibly to appease large land and riparian-owning interests in Scotland. An indication of this comes from the refusal letter where it mentions threats to salmon interests, even though they have no bearing on the trial area. More obviously, Rhona Brankin, Deputy Environment and Rural Development Minister for the Scottish Executive, has put a hurdle in front of SNH, which they must jump before another reintroduction application can be made. SNH is currently undertaking the development of a Species Conservation Framework for Scotland. The key goals of the species framework are to develop policies on: species protection; reintroducing species; controlling non-native species; and conflicts between the conservation interests of different species.
I used to eat wild boar, bought from a semi-upland smallholding in Oxenhope. The young boar were garrulous, highly vivacious, and colourful with their varied coat and characteristic stripes. Geoff had to stop breeding wild boar when the local abattoir closed about four years ago. He would not transport the young boar more than 10 miles and, anyway, the larger slaughterhouses are not geared for small numbers that can be retrieved from amongst the mass butchering.
We can farm wild boar if we sort out the local slaughtering, a problem facing all of our livestock production, and thus particularly difficult for rare breeds etc. We can also make use of the land management values of wild boar as recently reported in The Scotsman. Wild boar are now living and breeding within two large enclosures in the native pine wood forest of Glen Affric. It is hoped that they will eat the tubers and young shoots of invasive bracken, creating patches of turned soil that enable the regeneration of native tree species such as pine, rowan and birch. The eight sows, one boar, and 40 young will soon be rewarded for their efforts by moving from a test plot of just over an acre to a larger home of about 10 acres. The project is supported by a range of bodies including the Forestry Commission, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, the European LEADER+ programme, the Forestry Research programme and the Macaulay Institute who will monitor the animals' progress.
Earlier this year, I saw a family of wild boar in the Parque Natural Sierra de las Nievas to the east of Ronda in Andalucia, Spain. They were playing in a clearing in the woodland, scurrying excitedly away when they sensed us. The woodland floor was turned over in places, showing evidence of their habitation, but it never seemed to unbalance the woodland ecology and it appeared adequately accommodated in that natural environment. We saw ibex there and they must also exert their management on that wooded landscape. In similar way, beavers add shape to a landscape, as can be seen in the wildland of N America and, maybe one-day, we will see again in Scotland.
I haven’t seen any of the 500 or so wild (feral) boar that exist outside captivity in England. There are wild boar in the middle ground of controlled spaces in wildlife parks, but I firmly believe that these animals will only be able to exhibit their natural behaviour if we give them enough space and natural landscape by setting up core areas of wildland that are not needed for any other purpose - like the Parque Natural Sierra de las Nievas in Spain. Wild boar do have a place in England - as a food source, as natural managers of landscapes, and for their own sake in recognition of their intrinsic value.
If you have similar opinions, then you might like to respond to the Government consultation on the management of wild boar in England (see the DEFRA website – closing date January 2006). It’s an interesting consultation, not only for its unusual use of a response form with tick-boxes. Some of the options would seem to allow nature the guiding hand, but I see an edge to the consultation that subscribes to the contemporary phenomenon of pitting conservationists against conservationists. This happened over the beaver reintroduction, and is a common problem facing those seeking re-afforestation. The consultation notes that wild boar are likely to have a significant impact on conservation interests, as they are a large and omnivorous woodland species that may affect a wide range of plant and animal species. It concludes that while their impact on woodlands may be beneficial, their disturbance of grasslands, ground-nesting birds and hibernating dormice may prove problematical.
There are so many obstacles in the way of wild nature and rewilding that we shouldn’t add to them. Can we be more trusting of nature and accept some loss when there are greater gains to be made?
Mark Fisher 8 September 2005