After studying zoology at university Jonathan was involved in ornithological research and conservation for a number of years in France, Scotland and West Africa. Subsequently he has spent most of his career as an environmental consultant, assisting industry in managing its environmental impacts. Wildlife, particularly insects, remain his first love however and he is a keen butterfly and moth recorder and an active member of the North East England Branch of Butterfly Conservation.
For me, as for most of us, the Covid 19 lockdown has had a mixture of effects. Cabin fever, frustration and sadness at not seeing family and friends, financial anxiety and so on are feelings many of us have shared during this time of Coronavirus but for me these have been counter-balanced by time spent poking about in the garden and in nearby green spaces looking for and photographing insects and other invertebrates. We have been lucky that for a fair proportion of the time since the lockdown began the weather has been sunny and bright, providing perfect conditions for finding flies, bees, butterflies, spiders and others and I have spent many happy hours peering into bramble banks, staring at walls and tree-trunks, or watching the hoverflies patrolling my garden.
A trawl through social media would indicate that I am not alone. People may focus on the different parts of our flora and fauna – the birds on their feeders, hedgehogs or foxes visiting their gardens or the butterflies exploring their flower beds – but it is clear that many of us take pleasure and solace from our interactions with nature and have found this helpful in coping with the lockdown. The success of Chris Packham’s ‘Self-Isolation Bird Club’ web-casts and the associated Facebook page are a great illustration of this. But while perusing the posts to the various social media sites, I have noticed something else that is quite prevalent alongside the simple enjoyment of nature and best illustrated by an example I saw on one of the threads.
Having found a small solitary bee I did not recognise, I was browsing the web to see if I could narrow down its ID and ended up on a Facebook page devoted to bees. One of the first posts visible on the site was from a lady who had seen a Ruby-tailed Wasp in the vicinity of her ‘bee-hotel’. For those readers unfamiliar with this species, it is a startlingly beautiful little jewel-like insect with a metallic-turquoise head and thorax and a ruby-coloured abdomen (Paul Leyland posted a lovely photograph of one on this web-site a few days ago). It is a kind of cuckoo-wasp and lays its eggs in the nest cells of other wasps and bees, where its larvae then devour the host larvae along with the stored food reserves provided by the host parent. All of this is part and parcel of the tangled relationships between the various species that share our gardens with us but for many people this makes the Ruby-tailed Wasp an evil creature with a despicable life-style. The woman who made the Facebook post that caught my attention acknowledged the beauty of the wasp but, on learning why it was hanging around in the vicinity of her bee hotel, casually commented “I wish I had swatted it”!
This attitude seems to be rather widespread and is also reflected in the frequent and heated discussions on social media about magpies and sparrowhawks. For many people it would seem that the fact that these birds can be seen predating songbirds makes them A Bad Thing and the fact that the magpie is a nest predator to boot, that feeds on cute little nestlings seemingly makes it A Very Bad Thing. Surely these monsters need to be culled before they wipe out all of our lovely songbirds? Clearly not everyone thinks this way, which is why the discussions get heated, but it is surprising and somewhat saddening to realise just how many people view predators negatively and believe that their numbers must be controlled.
As well as revealing an ignorance of the way in which ecosystems function, this anti-predator prejudice often seems to reflect a somewhat proprietorial attitude to wildlife. People object to ‘their’ blue tits, blackbirds or bees falling victim to a predator and feel an extra level of animosity towards the perpetrator. Of course, on the grouse moors this attitude is writ large; the owners and managers have a deep antipathy towards predators, a sense of ownership of the wildlife on their land and the means – legally or otherwise – to eliminate what they don’t like in favour of what they do.
It is understandable if people feel sadness when a brood of chicks they have been following in a nest-box gets gobbled by a predator, but I feel it is sadder if this then translates into a hatred of predators. Rather than dividing the visitors to our gardens into cute ones we adopt as ‘ours’ and a cast of villains we deplore, surely it is preferable to simply appreciate the small window we have into the inter-related lives of all of the wildlife that is there? Rather than despising the sparrowhawk or the parasitoid wasp as ‘cold’ or ‘vicious’ killers, surely it is better to take pleasure in their beauty and the amazing way in which evolution has adapted them to their lifestyle? Above all, we should avoid slipping into a mentality of wanting to try to mould nature to a sentimental ideal in which it isn’t ‘red in tooth and claw’ and predation is absent.
Our attitudes to nature in our gardens have implications for the wider countryside. I do not wish to suggest that there are no circumstances in which it is appropriate for land managers to kill animals that have become problematic in one way or another, but where this occurs it should be a carefully considered last resort and strictly limited in extent. All too often, as this blog has highlighted time and again, the first impulse is to reach for the shot-gun whether it is really justified or not, especially where predators are concerned. It is a favourite ploy of the game-shooting lobby to dismiss critics as ‘townies’ who don’t understand the countryside but I believe that what I have noticed on nature-loving social media sites suggests that in reality many people, both town and country-based, accept all too readily and unthinkingly the idea that birds of prey and corvids inevitably need to be ‘controlled’. If we wish to make more people understand what is wrong with what happens in our uplands it is important that we challenge such attitudes wherever they occur and encourage people to embrace a view of nature in which predation is seen as a normal feature of a healthy functioning ecosystem.