The bloody truth about conservation: we need to talk about killing


A civilised debate on predator control is the first step towards protecting Britain’s ever declining number of wild species


Everything eats to live, but some creatures compete with human interests. They eat our crops and livestock, attack the wildlife that we want to protect, or the game that we want to shoot. The most common predators we routinely cull are foxes and crows followed by stoats, weasels, magpies and rooks. But other species protected by law are increasingly under the spotlight – including ravens, buzzards and badge.

There is an imbalance in the UK’s suite of predators. We have disrupted the natural order over centuries, by taking out many, if not all, of the top predators – wolves, bears, eaglesgoshawks etc – that would naturally keep the others in check. Today the question of which predators we kill, where we kill them, how many we kill and who decides all this is one of the most divisive that conservationists face.

Predator control is often brutal and bloody. It means killing some species so that others may live. It may mean shooting a fox that is hunting to feed cubs, so that a colony of Arctic terns can nest. It might require killing hundreds of crows so that sheep can lamb in peace. A life for a life.

During the recent warm weather I went on a train journey. We slowed down in the middle of large fields. Close to the track was a Larsen, or “calling bird”, trap: a spring-loaded device for catching magpies and crows. The sun beat down on the steel cage with its lone prisoner. It was a stark image amid the heat shimmer and the short, green crops. The train lurched forward and the scene receded, but the image stayed with me because I knew what would happen to the corvids that answered the call of the captive and entered the trap. Either their necks would be broken or their heads smashed against a wall or the side of a vehicle by the farmer or gamekeeper.

It is a quick and, I hope, painless death if done well, but it is still disturbing to picture birds killed in this way. The decoy is used time and again until it ceases to be effective. It too is then killed and a new bird takes its place. It is an efficient way of catching “pests” or “vermin”, as corvids are often called.

Crow populations now stand at around 1 million breeding pairs throughout the UK. Their numbers have risen steadily since the 1960s. They have readily adapted to our intensively managed landscapes, and numbers are on the up – as are Larsen traps.

The same tension between pragmatism and compassion is found in our attitudes to foxes. Around a quarter of a million now live in the cities and wider countryside. Many tens of thousands are shot each year, including those that are rounded up from city streets and released “humanely” into the green belt. Foxes can have a devastating effect on colonies of ground-nesting birds, such as curlew and lapwing, birds in serious decline, as well as poultry and lambs.

Throughout the UK, farmers, gamekeepers and nature reserve managers kill an awful lot of animals so that others may live, and many nature lovers rail against this slaughter of our native wildlife. Compassionate conservationists, as they are called, say crows and foxes are not to blame; the problem is the way we use the land, and we should put that right rather than kill anything. An easy first step, many believe, is for the game industry to stop the release of 35m pheasants into the countryside each year, boosting numbers of predators by providing easy-to-hunt food and roadkill for them all year round.

We live in a small country with myriad interests and cultural biases and where 75% of the land is farmed, much of it intensively. The harsh reality of our stewardship of nature is an ever declining number of wild species. Picking all this apart is incredibly difficult, and this is a void to be filled. The world of conservation is sorely lacking strong, honest, courageous and visionary leadership that speaks the truth and is unafraid of opening dialogue. At present it doesn’t come from the wildlife NGOs, which worry that membership may fall if the realities of predator control – which sometimes they have to practise – are widely known.

To help start a civilised conversation, we need a common language that eradicates derogatory terms such as “vermin” and “pest”, which degrade wildlife. The dialogue, currently polarised between the shooting, landowning interests and anti-shooting voices, should instead be positive and inclusive, not accusatory and finger-pointing. A very good starting place is the recognition that we all want the same thing – a nature-rich country – and we must work together despite our differences to overcome the challenges of climate change, a growing human population and diminishing wildlife.

If we are to tackle our reputation as one of the most nature-depleted countries on earth, a civilised debate on predator control is badly needed.

• Mary Colwell is the author of Curlew Moon

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