Compassionate Conservation or admirable ignorance?

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?


6 Comments Add yours

  1. Ashley says:

    Excellent post and now is the perfect time to continue this discussion. I’m reminded of that saying about when is the best time to plant a tree…….20 years ago! We need to act now!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. An interesting piece, and certainly a fascinating and divisive topic. My issue would be that these are the same justifications that so many trophy hunters use to excuse traveling to foreign lands, sticking a bullet in unfairly positioned animal, posing for a profile pic with its corpse and hacking off its head to mount on the wall when they get home. In these scenarios, my logical / ecology-led frame of mind goes out the window, and my ‘compassionate conservation’ head comes straight into play. Maybe different scenarios call for different conservation methods? Compassionate conservation is often good for raising awareness — Cecil, Harambe, Tilikum were all examples of compassionate conservation marketing and reached tons of people who don’t necessarily engage in conversations about species survival, but now care about megafauna at least. Hopefully in some cases (though I accept nowhere near enough), that’s a gateway to understanding the delicate balance of ecosystems, and therefore could ignite an interest in wildlife at large? Idealistic, yes; but it happened like that in my case :).


    1. James Common says:

      Hi Kate, as you say, different scenarios undoubtedly call for different conservation methods. And I would agree that compassion has played a key role when it comes to global megafauna populations: those threatened by poaching, overexploitation etc. I would also agree that compassion is also a key driver of young people getting involved in conservation! 🙂

      The difference here is that declines in large animals, whether that be whales or lions, are seldom caused by a separate wildlife populations; thus there is no need to commit to any control measures and definitely less of a ethical dilemma. Issues caused directly by humans are quite easy to divide into black and white, wrong and right. I, personally, can draw no parallels between trophy hunting and legitimate (and necessary) population management. One is carried out for ‘sport’ and the other as a necessity, or last resort. I cannot condone the former.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. David says:

    Great article, James! Provoking thought on a divisive topic. There is a case for preserving endangered species from the threat of non-native, or uncontrolled (by nature due to humans) species. This could be considered only if it is to be supported by long-term strategy to create sustainable populations, in viable environments. Humans are Britain’s ecosystem engineers and top predator and perhaps should take responsibility for this position, while working to restore a more natural balance. Will Britain ever be restored to its natural state? A time before rabbits, house mice, rats, squirrels, several deer species, pheasants, little owls and many more? Probably not. Is it appropriate to ‘control’ native wildlife (foxes, corvids etc.) that has had the audacity to thrive under the new reality of what Britain is? That is a question that many will struggle with, until they see a clear strategic pathway for restoring a wild countryside and green cities. My recent visit home to rural Essex left me feeling heartbroken at the tiny pockets of wildlife in otherwise green deserts. No gnat bites, few moths, few bees and wasps. I found myself happy to see a Grey squirrel and a Red fox, because there isn’t much else left. At the end of this ramble, I guess my concern is that without a coherent strategy we, the environmentalists, are in danger of inserting ourselves in a cycle of killing with no defined end.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Tony says:


    A wonderful read, James.

    We speak often about “Shifting Baselines”, how about we start talking about, “Shifting Mindsets” then we might see those much-needed changes for the positive.

    Sorry, for regurgitating below, something written by moi, back in 2013 or thereabouts but it still feels appropriate to this day, don’t you think?

    And I quote ” For what seems like years now, the bird species have been segregated into two separate parties, a bit like politics I guess. In one camp, the generalists continue to sing to the tune of “The only way is up…up”. The specialists’ drone “why does it always rain on me”. Oh and to illustrate the specialist’s plight further, there is a verse which goes “I can’t sleep tonight everybody saying everything’s alright”. I don’t do politics, I don’t segregate blacks from whites, and it seems we don’t converse enough about the need for modern-day conservation, either. Things need to change and we need a scientific basis on which to form the new way forward. Best Wishes naturestimeline”

    Kind Regards


    Liked by 1 person

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