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Why conservationists aren’t politically correct

Have you ever noticed that the noble cause of respect for animals often seems to translate into what might be seen as disrespect for people? Take Animal Aid, the non-charity that makes its living out of animal-rights campaigning. As I type, it is Remembrance Day and most people are wearing poppies. But those marvellous people at Animal Aid cannot resist getting in on the act. In a letter in local newspapers, they burble: To commemorate all the animal victims, Animal Aid has issued a purple poppy, which can be worn alongside the traditional red or white ones, as a reminder that both humans and animals have been ? and continue to be ? victims of war.

Animal-rights activists are fond of decrying ?speciesism?. This is the notion that certain species (such as humans) should take precedence over others. In particular, animal-rights doctrine has it that a sentient mammal, such as a rat, should have the same rights as any other sentient mammal, such as a human. In theory, this should be good for the rat. In practice, it is bad for the human.

There is more to be said for denouncing the way we discriminate between animal species on the basis of how long they have been in a particular locality. In the case of animals, being accorded ?non-native? status is a passport to destruction. Bodies as politically correct as the RSPB and Natural England are enthusiastic proponents of controlling immigrants, as long as they are animals. ?Kill ?em all!? they cry.

Balance has vanished

In the UK, the problems for other wildlife caused by introduced species such as mink and the grey squirrel are well documented. But then, in heavily modified ecosystems such as our own, where any real ?balance of nature? vanished thousands of years ago, any overly abundant species can cause problems. A weed is simply a plant in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is all too easy to pretend that only alien species cause problems, while the natives can do no harm.

The use of aliens as scapegoats is the reason why the RSPB is so eager to have the eagle owl labelled ?non-native?. Eagle owls kill hen harriers. But then, the eagle owl is rare in Britain, while the hen harrier is not. Moreover, hen harriers began recolonizing the British mainland from 1900 and started to breed again in England in the 1970s. Are these harriers, therefore, mere immigrants? No, says the RSPB, because they used to be present before being wiped out by human action. But precisely the same could be said of a whole host of species, such as the brown bear. Who has the right to dictate how far back we should turn the clock?

The protectionist lobby likes to say that pheasants are exotic aliens and query why they are released without permits. But pheasants have been here for a long time ? probably since Roman times. They are an established part of what I call our ?synthetic ecosystem?. So are rabbits, which were probably introduced by the Normans. Even the brown hare may be an interloper ? there are no reliable records of them before the Romans, and the species may have been introduced from Gaul.

In the windswept uplands where I live, sycamore trees were custom planted around farmsteadings in the 18th and 19th centuries. These trees were used for shelter because they are very wind-firm. Yet the sycamore is not native to the UK, but is thought to have been introduced in the 15th century. Today, the sycamores around isolated farm buildings are a valued part of the traditional landscape of the English uplands. Many of the older specimens are protected by legislation for this reason.

In short, the mantra that ?immigrants are the problem? is often a convenient over-simplification, used to justify certain political attitudes. (There ? you didn?t know I was a lefty, did you?)