Once again crows find themselves at the heart of controversy, in England at least. The television naturalist, Chris Packham, has certainly ruffled a few feathers. His new group, Wild Justice, has persuaded Natural England to stop the shooting not only of crows but rooks, magpies, jays, Canada geese, and a whole range of birds considered by many to be pests.
Natural England, the body that Government looks to for advice on wildlife announced that it was revoking licences that permit landowners to control sixteen species of birds in all. Therefore, anyone wishing to control those birds would have to apply for individual licences to cull them. As a result there has been a furore amongst farmers, gamekeepers and landowners. Opinions on this and many other issues seem these days to be extremely polarised and now the Government has removed the issuing of such licenses from Natural England's remit!
Predictably, there was immediate retaliation presumably on the part of the pro-shooting lobby who hung the bodies of two dead crows to Mr Packham's front gate, the loch of which they also glued shut! Thus, the extremist views that are infecting more and more aspects of daily life for us all, have arrived in the rural landscape creating conflict between those who own and work the land and those who want to conserve our natural resources. Incidentally, these may, in many cases, be one and the same!
Conservationists can be well meaning but sometimes misguided. However, those who shoot do sometimes seem to be a law unto themselves. Recent reports for instance reveal that 300,000 hares are shot annually in Britain and that as a result, their numbers are falling alarmingly. Both brown hares and mountain hares are protected in Scotland, there being a close season between February and September when hares breed. Similar legislation is long overdue in England and Wales. Perhaps it would be better if we admired and respected our wildlife rather than killing it!
Ironically, I also read a few days ago, that there are those in the south who have ralllied to the cause of grey squirrels, demanding that they should not be culled. The opposited view, widely supported, wants grey squirrels to be exterminated on the grounds that they are an invasive species. Indeed, there is a European Union edict that aims for the eradication, population control or containment of grey squirrels. Apparently DEFRA is committed to maintain that position whether or not we leave the EU.
As most folk know, grey squirrels were introduced to the UK from America during the latter half of the nineteenth and the early years of the twentieth century. Being larger and more aggressive than our native red squirrels, the greys were soon out-competing the reds for food, taking over their territories and causing the demise of these smaller but more attractive native animals. The alien greys also carry a pox virus, to which they are immune but which is fatal to reds.
Those who wage war on grey squirrels regard them as 'tree rats' that pose an existential threat to red squirrels and cause wide-scale damage to the timber industry. However, there is an irony here for history tells us that the red squirrel had become so abundant in 1903, at a time when the introduction of grey squirrels was nearing itst peak , that the Highland Squirrel Club was formed as a means of controlling red squirrel numbers. Over the course of the next thirty years, some 85,000 red squirrels were killed! Meanwhile, grey squirrels were being released willy-nilly all over Britain, including Scotland! Now thankfully there is a nation-wide drive to encourage red squirrels.
Indeed, most people therefore rejoice in the recent arrival of pine marten in many parts of Scotland and now in Englad, Wales and Ireland too. These arboreal predators have certainly made serious inroads into grey squirrel numbers, and the void created has been happily filled in many places by native red squirrels. Tha surely is a case of nature working for nature in the best possible way, without direct interference from us....except of course that pine marten, once persecuted, are now protected!
The question might legitimately be asked, "What is a native species and what may be condidered to be 'introduced'"? The newly introduced generation of beavers, now officially accepted and indeed given the protection of the law, was truly native many centuries ago but is this new generation of them universally welcomed? Not so it seems by farmers in parts of Perthshire where beavers have been pesent for a goodly number of years having been surreptitiously released into the wild there years ago. Some farmers allege that the activities of beavers are causing grain-growing farmland to flood very much to the detriment of farm incomes. More conflict! So divergent views on the subject of re-introductions are exposed!
Of course, the release of sea eagles to parts of the Highlands in recent years has also become a setting for innumerable apocryphal tales of lamb losses. However, if they were taking the numbers of lambs suggested, we would see these 'flying barn doors' incapable of achieving lift-off simply because, allegedly being full of lamb, they would be too heavy to fly!
However, although such apocryphal tales abound, with of course, foxes also being blamed for colossal lamb losses, these stories are often concocted as a means of promoting the war on the 'enemy' - the fox et-al. Understandable perhaps, when you consider how precarious crofting and hill farming can be. Lambs are very vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the weather, losses can be high and foxes are quick to exploit such resources. Ironically, we keep killing foxes yet their numbers continue to rise.
The rabbit - a creature which has also been with us an awful long time whether brought by the Normans or even the Romans, as recently claimed - was responsible, before and during my lifetime, for crop damage amounting to millions of pounds annually, as their numbers soared. What had perhaps been unforeseen was that whilst rabbit numbers had remained relatively low for centuries, once the tide of the Agricultural Revolution had begun to run, the impact was enormous. The rapid availability of mountains of more nutritious food had such an impact upon rabbits that they certainly went forth and multiplied way beyond anyone's imagination.
Then in mid-1950s came myxomatosis, a disease deadly to rabbits! The sight of emaciated, blind rabbits in their millions wandering about in obvious distress was too much for many people. The desease had been deliberately introduced in a desperate attempt to control a rabbit population which was then literally off the scale as far as numbers were concerned.
Now there are few rabbits to damage crops yet the sight of a field full of crows or rooks may be the cause of apoplexy in some farmers' minds. However, such a sight may not necessarily indicate that crops are being trashed as they were when there were so many rabbits. Indeed, we might pose the question as to whether the crows' liking for pests such as wireworms and leatherjackets makes them not pests but pest-controllers?