Compassionate Conservation is proposed as a “growing international movement that seeks to build the welfare of individual animals into conservation practice. Achieved by promoting change, acceptance and education to reduce intended or unintentional harm to wildlife”. Its core principals are built around the assertation that, in our quest to conserve vulnerable species, humans should refrain from bringing harm to any other.
With this in mind, I agree with the principals of compassionate conservation. I, like many people, find it hard to stomach the killing of one species to protect another. Such things are brutal, unpleasant and often quite grizzly, and conflict greatly with my core motivations as an environmentalist: to conserve and project. They are, however, necessary in some circumstances, and although compassionate conservation is an altogether noble and admirable ideal, it is also terribly unrealistic in the present day.
As stated in this brutally honest article by Mary Colwell, humans have destroyed the natural balance in our countryside. We have extirpated, for the main part, the ecosystem engineers and top predators – the bears, wolves and lynx which previously maintained equilibrium. Namely, by dispersing populations of grazing animals and through control of smaller predators. We have also, through our own ignorance, unleashed myriad invasive species which, by following their own natural instincts, damage and degrade habitats and native wildlife populations.
Simply put, the British countryside is a mess, broken and out of balance, and, as mesopredator numbers soar and invasive non-native species run rampant, it is up to us to mitigate the effects however we can. Including through unsavoury means.
Compassionate conservationists would argue that we must tackle the root causes of natural imbalance – habitat loss, a lack of top predators and poor land-use. I agree, we surely must. Such being the only long-term way to restore any sort of natural order to the landscape (if that is still possible). The problem with focusing solely on this approach being that such things take considerable dialogue, resources, legislation, political and public will and, above all else, time. Time which many species currently hurtling towards the edge of an abyss in this country, simply do not have. The curlew, for example.
We know all too well the impact which wildlife populations, forced out of kilter by our own actions, can have on one another. Presently, an ever-increasing number of deer decimate our woodlands, rendering them unusable as breeding habitat for a plethora of vulnerable birds, and predation by a suite of tenacious generalists – foxes, corvids and some mustelids – strangles populations of ground-nesting birds, isolated and vulnerable due to more far-reaching changes. Elsewhere various native species are pushed to the brink by predation or competition with invaders – Water Voles and Red Squirrels – and island ecosystems are disrupted by the presence of ‘native’ British species which never, under natural circumstances, should have existed there.
Whether we like it or not, the act of killing is, in many cases, the only thing which stands between a plethora of wildlife populations and collapse. And whether it is carried out by farmers, gamekeepers, forestry managers or even our wildlife NGO, few can argue that it performs a vital function. Casting a lifeline to threatened species as we debate, argue, plot and plan the wider solutions to Britain’s ecological apocalypse.
Wider changes are needed if we are to truly solve the ongoing biodiversity crisis here in the UK, though is it acceptable to fiddle as vulnerable wildlife populations burn? No, I think not. And that is why I cannot buy into the idea of compassionate conservation, which would see us make the justified and necessary push for landscape-scale change while accepting the loss of some species as collateral. In situations relating to invasive species, killing is the only answer; while with regards to our native mesopredators, it is an Elastoplast which cannot be peeled until all with a stake in the countryside sit down and iron out something which vaguely resembles a master plan. Failing that, it may be the only thing which, in the future, stands between certain species and extinction, thus it must be discussed openly.
The good-intentioned will always argue against the control of gulls to protect seabird colonies; the killing of foxes in aid of capercaillie and slaughter of grey squirrels to conserve our native reds. They will always scoff at the direct benefits of corvid control for wading birds and will doubtless never cease their calls to halt the shooting of deer to protect our woodland ecosystems. That is fine – we’re all entitled to follow our own moral compass – but really, are the lives of individual animals, whether we’re talking deer, squirrels or crows, more important than the fate of entire local or national populations?
Is it really compassionate to ‘save’ one animal at the expense of a species?