On Friday we went on a field trip to The Lake District Wildlife Park. In Alex’s lectures we’ve been studying the behaviour of animals in captivity, so visited the park to see if we could see any of the same signs in the animals they kept there.
It hadn’t been too long since my last visit to a zoo, but maybe it was the presence of four other wildlife students that instilled different feelings in me this time. The small size of the enclosures seemed more obvious and I couldn’t help feeling uneasy as I watched the lynx pace up and down and the raptors attempt to fly off the metal perches they were tied down to. I could photograph the bald, golden and tawny eagles in vivid detail, but I knew deep down it was cheating and the photos I was taking were no different to those of hundreds of other visitors.
The reason I love photography is it captures a moment in time that cannot be exactly replicated ever again. It freezes a memory and provides a very intimate insight into the photographer’s mind. So as I stood in front of a tethered bird that couldn’t escape my camera or my gaze, I soon realised this was not how children should experience wildlife.
Ticking off birds from my wish list was part of the charm that got me interested in wildlife. It was going out, tracking a bird and watching it live its life that gave me a sense of pride. Not only had I had an adventure in the great outdoors, but I’d discovered a species I’d never seen and sometimes got photos to show for it. During my time on the Isle of Carna we attempted to track down golden eagles on a boat trip on Loch Sunart. We were extremely lucky to get a glimpse of the magnificent bird as it perched high up in the tree canopy.
Anyone with £8.95 in their pocket can go to the Lakes Wildlife Park and see a golden eagle, but where’s the fun in that? If the same children who see a captive golden eagle were to see one in the wild, I’m certain that experience would last a lot longer in their memory.
Of course, I’m just talking about British wildlife. None of us in the UK are going to see a wild red panda or lar gibbon no matter how impressive our tracking skills, so in that respect zoos offer children the chance to see what wonderful animals roam our planet. While this is all well and good – and with the rate of extinction as rapid as it is, this may soon be the only way that the next generation can see certain species in the flesh – it’s just not “wild” life. And isn’t that the point? What next, we round up indigenous tribes and keep them in pens for people to stare at? Although some zoos have done wonderful work for conservation and provide a safe place for endangered animals to live unharmed, should it be up to us to decide whether a long, captive life is better than a short, free one?
I was scanning the Science headlines in BBC News recently and saw a piece about a family of squirrels in Edinburgh. Immediately I presumed the problem was the American greys causing more havoc with our native reds. After a year studying Wildlife Media and being told that many of the issues in our British countryside are the result of grey squirrels and sheep, I am automatically ready for more doom and gloom.
I was surprised therefore to discover that this story was a heartwarming one, of a family of albino squirrels that had taken up residence in an elderly man’s back garden. There were at least four of the snowy-furred mammals bouncing around on the grass. The film coverage by Cameron Buttle was less than two minutes long, but throughout the entire clip not one mention was made about how destructive the introduced grey squirrels have been in the UK.
I have the distinct impression that although science and environment is being covered in new stories, the content is very PG. Stories such as that of the squirrel are made frivolous, fun little stories that are mentioned at the very end of news coverage. It’s little wonder that so few of us are informed of the problems that are becoming more and more severe, such as the impact of grey squirrels on populations of red squirrels. The greys are larger and can survive in much denser populations than reds. According to Red Squirrels Northern England, “greys [can] achieve up to 15 individuals per hectare… and reds up to 2-3 per hectare”. In many cases, greys outcompete reds for food and territory.
And then there’s the disease. Grey squirrels are carriers of the squirrelpox virus, which has proved devastating to the more vulnerable reds, with the majority dying 15 days after having been exposed to the virus (Northern Red Squirrels, 2015).
Sadly, there was no mention of deadly skin ulcers or facial swelling in Buttle’s charming little article. The owner of the garden was described as a “lifelong nature lover”, yet didn’t seem perturbed by an invasive species taking over his lawn. In fact, he told the BBC he was “pleased and happy” about the new arrivals.
Why does the BBC dumb down its nature reports? Wildlife is a topic that desperately needs more coverage and exposure in the media, so why only include the “cute” stories and not the serious ones that desperately need addressing? Or, if there must be a heartwarming element, there could at least be some reality too.
Read this for more information on the squirrelpox virus, or visit the BBC to watch the clip on albino squirrels.
To broaden my understanding of the conservation work that is going on around me, I visited Langholm Moor in Dumfries and Galloway. The moor is a man-made habitat and has been completely deforested. It is home to an ongoing project to resolve the controversy regarding raptors and grouse. Grouse shooting is the main source of income for the site, and raptors such as the Red-listed Hen Harrier are being persecuted for predating on multiple grouse species. I got to meet Simon Lester, one of the site’s gamekeepers until his recent retirement. He showed me round the site and explained some of the problems the moor is experiencing.
The Demonstration Project on the moor aims to restore “grouse moor management… as a way of meeting the conservation objectives of the site” (Langholm Moor Demonstration Project, 2010). There are several elements to the programme:
The habitat will be controlled using measures such as heather burning, heather restoration and control of livestock and feral goats. The heather is burnt down for several reasons. Simon explained that the grouse can only feed on heather when it is cut short. Also, heavy grazing from livestock in past years has severely reduced the quality of the heather that grows on the moor, so it is regularly reseeded and sprayed with fertiliser. I asked Simon how he controls the burning process, as it seems an extreme way to manage heather growth. In response, he said burning is a lot easier than cutting, but occasionally they do lose control of the flames. The process needs to be carefully planned and carried out over time in a mosaic pattern, so as to keep a variety of heather plots of different ages.
There are now no sheep present on the moor, but a small population of feral goats remains. In past years a mass culling of some four hundred individuals was carried out, leaving two hundred goats remaining. While the population size has now undoubtedly increased since then, goats are a lot less damaging to vegetation than sheep who, to quote George Monbiot, leave the habitat “sheep-wrecked” (Monbiot, G., 2013).
Another part of the project involves controlling populations of predators that prey on the grouse. While common species such as foxes, crows and stoats are culled on site, protected species such as the hen harrier are unaffected. Simon showed me a snare used to trap foxes. By law, the snares need to have stops fitted, which lock the snare mechanism and avoid strangling the animal. Simon makes a daily round of some three hundred snares, and shoots any trapped foxes he finds. This is a more humane approach to dealing with the problem, a combination of the stop-fitted snares and a quick death.
Measures to control disease amongst grouse have been put into place on the moor. Simon explained how birds such as grouse digest the fibrous food they eat by swallowing grit found naturally on moorland. To combat the nematode worm Trichostrongylus, which has a devastating effect on grouse numbers, gamekeepers provide the birds with medicated grit, which protects them against infection and prevents crashes in populations. However, as stated on the Raptor Persecution Scotland blog (2015), grouse often deposit faecal matter in the grit boxes, which can result in the spreading of disease. When I visited Langholm Moor, there was faeces present in the box Simon showed us, suggesting perhaps that there are flaws to the plan and in fact disease can still be spread even with the medicated grit.
Another measure to conserve the grouse on the moor is diversionary feeding. This involves providing food for nesting hen harriers to deter them from predating on grouse chicks. For the first two to three months of the breeding period, gamekeepers provide carrion – namely rats and cockerel chicks from nearby farms – for the harriers to lessen grouse predation. This seems effective, but Simon told us the technique doesn’t actually affect grouse numbers, as the population tends to decrease in winter not summer. Therefore, the expense required to feed the harriers seems largely wasteful, if there is no measured improvement in grouse stock.
So where does Simon want the project to go? He wants to see all buzzards killed, as the species is so abundant. The priority on the moor is grouse, and any species that threatens its wellbeing is either culled or, in the case of the protected hen harrier, discouraged from including grouse in their diet.
After visiting Langholm Moor, I am left with mixed feelings. Simon seemed such a passionate naturalist with knowledge of a broad range of species, yet he supports the death of a native British species for sport. The grouse that are shot on the moor are left where they fall, not even eaten. I am not a vegetarian, and believe that we as a race were designed to eat meat, but killing animals for the pleasure alone is a travesty. How different is this to poaching lions? Money changes hands, a bullet is fired. Perhaps I have not yet grasped the full intentions of the Langholm Moor Demonstration Project, but from what I have learnt on the trip and during my research for this post, I have come to the conclusion that sustaining an area of upland moor by shooting a species that lives in it, seems a very sad way to maintain our country’s biodiversity. It just goes to show how little our government cares for wildlife, when grouse shooting is the only source of income for a site of nature.
One of my university modules, Wildlife Conservation in the UK, often addresses the topic of rewilding, a relatively new concept that has rapidly become a hot topic in ecology and conservation. I’d heard of rewilding previous to starting my degree course, but my understanding of it was limited. Our lecturer told us about George Monbiot, a rather outspoken but incredibly valuable contributor to conservation. Monbiot writes for the Guardian and has published multiple books, including Feral: “Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding” (Monbiot, 2011).
Once Feral arrived, I started the first chapter as late night bedtime reading, but after six pages I decided to wait until morning. I could tell it was going to be a book that required my full concentration, and I wanted to give it the attention it deserved.
After hearing the term ‘rewilding’ for the first time, I constructed my own definition. To me it meant repopulating habitats with species that dwelt there in times past, in an attempt to reawaken lifeless ecosystems and attempt to reverse some of the damage we have caused through our use of fishing nets, saws and rifles. I defined rewilding as increasing biodiversity, giving things more wildlife so to speak, going back to how the world used to look before mankind exploited its resources.
Monbiot describes it differently. Instead of restoring ecosystems to a previous state, rewilding will “permit ecological processes to continue” (Monbiot, 2013). The natural world is ever changing – predator/ prey interaction, intraspecific competition (members of the same species competing for food or mates), as well as constant seasonal changes that in many cases affect the survival of the animals and plants that depend on resources that may or may not be available. Rewilding then is not a case of trying to prevent an ecosystem from deteriorating by injecting a new predator or top herbivore. Instead, it should be about providing the protection that enables the ecosystem to recover itself, without further interruption from us. Monbiot describes it as “resisting the urge to control nature and allowing it to find its own way.” This makes perfect sense to me. We have caused crippling destruction to our planet – what could we possibly know about replenishing the habitats we have had no respect for? We should step back and let rejuvenation occur without excessive input from us.
If rewilding is successful, I share the view of Monbiot that the ecosystems that emerge afterwards may not necessarily be what they were originally. Instead, they may evolve in a countless number of ways, making the concept of rewilding such an interesting one. We cannot be certain what the outcomes will be. “While conservation often looks to the past” Monbiot explained, with regards to how we strive to restore aspects of nature to what they were, “rewilding of this kind looks to the future”.
There is also the possibility of rewilding human life, where we adapt our way of living to experience what life was like before technology took hold of us in its metal fist. Again, there is a balance to be struck. We do not need to abandon the extensive progress we have made, but simply adopt some more old-fashioned ways of life simultaneously. Relinquishing all that science has achieved would be madness; there must be a way we can still benefit from modern living and at the same time appreciate a wilder, more adventurous side of life. Here in his book Monbiot quotes Byron: “Love not man the less, but Nature more” (1818).
I can tell Feral is going to be a really insightful and intriguing addition to my bookshelf. It was so interesting reading Monbiot’s opinion on the topic. I’ve come to realise that I didn’t quite appreciate the scope of rewilding and just how much it will affect our way of life if it’s carried out successfully.
Byron, G. (1818) ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’, Verse 178.
Monbiot, G. (2011) Books. Available at: http://www.monbiot.com/books/ (Accessed: 22 February 2016)