Guest blog – I wish I had swatted it by Jonathan Wallace

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.   

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25 Replies to “Guest blog – I wish I had swatted it by Jonathan Wallace”

  1. I have similar concerns with all the wildlife rescuing that gets promoted on social media as it seems there is no real thought for the wider ecological implications. To take just one example, an injured or sickly Hedgehog might make an easy meal for a Badger (or a scavenger if it dies) but if it is gathered up into captivity for treatment that will not happen. So the Badger goes after a slightly more healthy individual, or perhaps it (and its cubs) go hungry. Ultimately the number of Hedgehogs out in the countryside is set by the available food and habitat. The large numbers of rescued animals simply add to the competition when they are released back into the wild and likely lead to higher levels of suffering and death through starvation. They are not pets but they are treated as such simply because they are nice to look at and easy to catch. And ultimately this does them no favours.

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    1. ‘Ultimately the number of Hedgehogs out in the countryside is set by the available food and habitat.’
      And farmers who don’t appreciate them eating game bird eggs. And traffic making road pizzas. And people who don’t move bonfires before they set light to them. And people who still insist on using slug pellets.
      Other than that, they are fine and need no help from us at all.

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  2. Brilliant blog Jonathan, thanks. I SO agree - one of the things that got lost in last week's Mt Hare and wildlife debates in Scottish Parliament - huge public support for 'iconic' and beautiful hares and their welfare etc. (and great this is now licensed at least). But no mention of the tens? hundreds? - unknown - thousands of weasels and stoats and corvids etc. killed continuously on our moorlands by the worst predator (humans) - legally and illegally. Just because people (mostly men) have to be 'in control' and artificially increase grouse numbers for 'sport' killing. Buzzard is just a dirty word round here; red kite not much better. And the whole 'control' mindset is embedded in much of conservation too - hollow laughs at the 'lethal control as a last resort' that has just led to killing of c. 1/5th of Scotland's wild beavers. Education education education - I think the next generation are going to do better than us. Keep the photos coming please!

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    1. Yes Nonie, I think the first impulse to reach for the shotgun seems to be being applied in the case of the Scottish beavers I am afraid. It's not just predators that suffer from this attitude.

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  3. I think this attitude that Jonathans blog alludes to is sadly very common. I can remember being asked several times at public ringing demos how to stop "damned" Sparrowhawks taking birds off feeders. My answer was always the same, " Its part of nature and Sparrowhawks are fantastic birds learn to like them , if you really don't want to take the feeders down. The Sparrowhawks are taking advantage of an opportunity you create and only doing what nature designed them to do."
    Folk like Lions, Tigers and Dolphins on film but predators in "our" environment they are less keen on. Its sometimes a lesson never learnt, notably by the "game lobby" or fishermen about Otters and Cormorants. The thing is predators are usually by their very nature more or just as interesting to watch.
    There is only one answer EDUCATION, EDUCATION, EDUCATION and Mary Colwells Nature GCSE should help enormously as has already been said.

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    1. In the main I agree with pretty much everything above, and especially that education is important. But, taking myself as a case-study, there is another factor : emotional response. I don't lack education or reason or open-mindedness to other opinions, but I still cannot stand idly by and watch a pair of magpies doing their thorough searches of my hedges for nests. I like magpies, they are attractive, characterful and interesting with a full entitlement to exist. But I also really like my garden songbirds and consider their welfare in almost everything I do in the garden. At least these days I don't cause the magpies any mortal harm, but I do run out waving and shouting like a maniac. I doubt I will ever change that. The emotional response is also (erroneously) bound up in lots of gamekeepers actions. I 'm just saying it is a hard habit to break...with or without education.

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      1. Yes, I agree that emotion is another factor and I appreciate your honesty in describing your own attitude to the birds in your garden, Sphagnum! But emotive responses often lead to poor decisions (see for example how various demagogues around the World - choose your own favourite bogey-man - rely on pressing emotional buttons rather than reasoned argument to achieve their ends). We can't ignore emotion (and it can be a good thing too) but we do need to learn to see beyond it.

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  4. I agree with the main points made. However, we do not have many of the top predators anymore and in most of the UK it will not be possible to have wolves, bears and lynx again, for example. So, if we are to have some sort of balanced nature we do need to "play god" to some extent. Some stuff does have to be killed - you can only do so much with anti-predator fences. Almost all the nature-interested people I know here in south Suffolk think we have too many badgers; alas, thinning badgers out (as the top predators we no longer have would do) would be politically unacceptable, not least to the person who would like to swat a jewel wasp. That some in the shooting community distort the facts and break the law is a red herring as far as the need for responsible predator management is concerned.

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    1. Bob,
      Wolf is in the process of recolonising The Netherlands, they may already have Lynx and are more densely populated than the UK. Not having them back here is not about the ecological or practical possibilities, it is due to emotional responses. There are plenty of places that could accommodate Lynx and Bear, Wolf may be more difficult but nowhere near as impossible as many folk would have you think.

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      1. Thanks Paul. It would be wonderful where it's possible but we do need to be realistic. For example, if I remember right, there is space for 3 Lynx territories in Thetford forest so that would be pretty pointless. We couldn't even get White-tailed Eagles reintroduced in Suffolk! Having spent a nervous couple of hours alone on foot in Denali NP in Alaska I'm doubtful bears will ever roam free here; wolves in Scotland are certainly possible if the political will is ever there. In most of the UK we will still have to take on the top predator role ourselves to some extent if we want a diverse natural world.

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        1. Having been involved with wolf conservation in Europe and large carnivore conservation globally, one thing that has always struck me is their appalling ability to read a map. If we release wolves in Scotland (yes please!) then they will expand to cover the whole of the UK. The habitat is there already, they do not need large forests. I've sat in Brasov (350 000 people) in Romania and watched wolves walk down the main street at night. It may be comforting for people to think that wolves will stay up here in the Highlands but they won't. They'll be *everywhere*.

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    2. What a superb blog! It sets out the issue very concisely.

      The human emotional response to nature red in tooth and claw is a big issue, very many people are so remote from "real life" that they have little understanding as to how the natural world works and see things in a dichotomy of "good" and "bad" organisms.

      Unfortunately this is also true of real life in general, one only has to witness the response to Covid-19 to see that the public's perception and understanding of risk and death is woeful.

      Yet if there is to be any chance of saving nature and the environment, we need these people on board somehow. Just as we need the many farmers, shooters and dare I say it gamekeepers who are responsible, comply with the law, understand conservation and the natural world and do much to help it thrive.

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    3. A gun only partly replicates the effect of missing apex predators - it fails to have a behavioral impact on prey species. This is why in some circumstances using dogs instead of guns can be more effective.

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  5. Bob W, I am sure my neighbours and their gamekeeper regard themselves as moderate members of the shooting community and think they are being responsible by eliminating the local magpie population using Larsen traps. I do not. Leave the responsible predator management to those with the appropriate training - I would not include gamekeepers in that as they are conflicted by having to produce ‘sport days’ for their employers.

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    1. I agree with you except that in my experience gamekeepers are hardly / if ever conflicted, but you are right the standards (we regard humane principles as a standard; they don't) of their "predator management" are crap...because their guiding principle is purely about opportunity and expediency. Like many others with a bit of close experience, I often laugh out loud to read the BASC or GWCT "best practice guides" on various aspects of predator control, knowing full well that in the real world almost no keepers ever read or care to adhere to these.

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    2. Thanks Geoff. The problem with shooting is the intensification which has taken place and the wish for big bags. This is most obvious with driven grouse shooting of course but now the focus is turning to all driven shooting. Not much will change in England under the present government but if shooting doesn't clean up its act, after that who knows. There is no reason why people cannot enjoy excellent sport and enrich the natural world; the question is, will they be sensible enough to take that course. Either way, gamekeepers will always do what their employers want them to.

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      1. Bob W - you say 'not much will change in England under present government' but that does depend on what possibility there is under existing legislation, using the law, to make things different. But we're quite a long way from swatting things now.

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        1. Thanks Mark. I did have that point in mind - originally I put "nothing will change"! The shooters are so well connected that my guess is that if they lose the legal cases there might be an attempt to change the law in their favour. But it's difficult to know what the Cummings government might do, especially with Carrie being in No 10. However, I'm sure the Tories will get rid of bumbling Boris well before the next election so perhaps all bets are off.

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      2. Low ground, or for that matter any, rear and release shoots, are not in the slightest way affected by Corvid predation , it has no bearing on the seasons bag of gamebirds.
        Springtime control , using Larsen traps etc, is done partly through tradition ( from times when it did matter), and not wanting to be seen to be harbouring Verm... predators, but also
        from a genuine, if sometimes unfounded, belief that it is helping the " little birds".
        In many cases, especially where wider measures are put in place, it is helping the little birds,
        and some not so little ones also.
        Much of this work, carried out by keepers, is approved of, and gladly paid for by enlightened
        employers.

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        1. Trapit, earlier this week I was in a garden in the middle of a low-ground rear and release shoot. There was a Redleg with perhaps 10 small chicks which was great to see. I'd love to know how many will survive to adulthood. I was also thrilled to see the spotted flycatchers visiting their nest on the wall of the house and relieved that I didn't hear any Jays calling in the adjacent wood, as there were last year when the nest failed at the chick stage. Buzzards are frequent overhead there, and kites nest not far away. Deer are controlled, so there is an understory in the woods. There are too many badgers of course, but nowhere is perfect.

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  6. There would be a lot more food for all the predators if people kept their pet cats indoors or under control but this point often seems to get ignored. A lot of fuss is made about natural predators killing a cute animal to survive but when a cat does the same thing it's being cute and bringing their owners a 'present'. If you think gamekeepers and shooters are protective of their activities though try tackling a cat owner...

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