Life

Killing in the name of conservation is tricky business. Because we can, does it mean we should?

If we are to tackle the complex problems we humans have created, then we need to do so in a manner that minimises suffering, as Hugh Warwick's book Cull of the Wild explains

Hugh's career has been heavily weighted towards hedgehogs Image: Alexas_Fotos/Pixabay

I know I am right – and most people know that they are right with the same level of certainty. Yet it is clearly impossible for us all to be right as the views we hold are often diametrically opposed. The easy way to deal with this conundrum is to stay safe within our bubbles – from where we will be reminded, constantly, that not only are we right, but that we are in fact quite moderate in the strength with which we hold these opinions.

The first draft of my new book, Cull of the Wild, began with the word ‘prejudice’ – it has slipped a little into the body of the text now, but I was keen to establish at the start that I recognise I carry views that lead me to leap to conclusions. 

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So, I am a vague-an – no, that is not a precious way of pronouncing vegan… did 10 years of that when it was not quite so fashionable… I am vaguely vegan. Soya milk in tea, oat milk on muesli, but it takes a will far stronger than mine to turn down the cakes of the Women’s Institute. Which is not as random as it sounds; my passion for hedgehogs has made me a staple of the circuit of talks of the WI, Townswomen’s Guild, gardening clubs and anyone else with a good baking reputation.

I feel physically sick at the thought of people taking pleasure from hurting and killing animals (and people, of course – though that should not need to be said as we are also animals!). 

When it comes to conservation superficially it is all about, well, conserving. But my career – heavily weighted towards hedgehogs – has shown that it is not that simple.

The conflict began with the attempt by the RSPB and Nature Scotland to remove hedgehogs from the Uists in the Outer Hebrides back in 2003 by killing them. This was in order to protect the ground nesting birds, on whose eggs hogs will happily munch. I ended up doing research that helped stop the cull. But at the same time, conservationists were killing the descendants of the hedgehogs sent to New Zealand from England by the misguided acclimatisation societies, for the same reasons. And I could see no reason not to support the cull.

Killing in the name of conservation is a tricky business; both practically and ethically. If we find that we can does that mean we should? 

For me this investigation has resulted in a great collision between my heart and my head. Like I said, killing animals is something that deeply upsets me, but when not killing animals results in increased risks of localised or even complete extinctions, then I feel it has to be considered. 

One of the greatest threats to biodiversity around the world comes from invasive non-native species – so whether that is rats on a south Atlantic island killing the bird life or American mink depredating the water voles of British waterways we have to realise that not intervening, not killing, does not mean that there will be no death. It just means that we can feel slight better about it because we are not directly involved. 

Of course, we humans are the cause of these problems. We are the ones who took rats with us as we chased the whales and seals to near extinction. We are the ones who decided that the fur of a mink looked better on us than a mink. We are responsible. To then jettison the responsibility when the awareness and capacity are right there in front of us is irresponsible.

However, this does not mean that killing is the only option. In fact, the move towards a more compassionate view of conservation has been one of the redeeming features of this work. If we are to tackle the complex problems we humans have created, then we need to do so in a manner that minimises suffering and avoids unintended consequences. 

For that we need both a robust ethical framework, and also a much more serious attention to the detail of ecology. Politics and economics seem to get all the attention when I would argue, as I do in Cull of the Wild, that ethics and ecology are just as important, if not more so. 

But more than even that, I think it is vital we reconsider what baggage we are bringing to the debate. Are we willing to be honest? Are we willing to accept that we might have to change our mind if we are confronted with evidence that confounds our prejudice? Because the essence of argument is not victory, but progress. And if we are willing to work together it is just possible we might be able to help heal this rather damaged world. 

Hugh Warwick is an ecologist and spokesperson for the British Hedgehog Preservation Society

Cull of the Wild: Killing in the Name of Conservation book cover

Cull of the Wild: Killing in the Name of Conservation is out on 28 March (Bloomsbury Wildlife, £18.99)

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play


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