Little to say for myself

Monday, April 07, 2003


The Today program carried a report this morning about the imminent cull of hedgehogs on the Hebridean island of North Uist. Only in Britain, and possibly only on Radio 4 (and perhaps Newsround), would this compete for air-time with the war in Iraq.
OK, so I know that on the one hand they're cute, harmless balls of bristles with little scuttling legs and pointy noses, and on the other hand they do a useful job of eating slugs and other less-cuddly animals, but per-leeeze.
  • Are they an endangered species? No - we probably kill far more than the whole population of North Uist on Britain's roads every day.
  • Are they part of the established fauna of the island? No - they were introduced 30 years ago. The anti-cull lobby can equally argue that Snipe, Redshank and Lapwing aren't exactly rare treasures either, but I think they have the edge since the birds were there first.
  • Are they going to be hunted down and killed for sport? No.
  • Are they going to be inhumanely clubbed to death like those cuddly baby seals? No - they'll be trapped and lethally injected (the anti-cull campaign want to trap them too, but then transport them overseas to "safety").
The nub of the issue lies in the name of one of the organisations campaigning against the cull: St. Tiggywinkles Animal Hospital.
There seem to be two categories of animal: those about which lots of children's books have been written, and the rest. We've all grown up with images of Mrs. Tiggywinkle: little gingham apron tied round her ample waist, reading glasses perched on her snout. Nobody can remember any stories about Roddy Redshank or Sammy the Snipe's Egg.
To me the issue isn't the imminent slaughter of lots of cuddly toys, or the alternative of whisking them off to a hedgehog paradise (where they'll all grow old, whiskery and wise, and finally slip away peacefully in their sleep with their grandchildren round the foot of the bed) - the problem is the short-sightedness that introduced them to the island in the first place. They were brought there to get rid of pests, and they've now become a pest themselves - just another example of how we stupidly think we can solve a problem by intervening in Darwin's scheme of things.
Get rid of them as quickly and painlessly as possible, I say. Not by introducing rattlesnakes or komodo dragons, and not by "releasing" them into an environment somewhere else. Where-ever they would be taken would already have exactly the right number of hedgehogs appropriate to the conditions - a delicate balance between the amount of habitat and food available, the number of predators and the speed of local traffic. This balance would be restored in the long run, so any extra animals introduced would either have starved to death, been eaten by predators, got squashed under the wheels of a truck - or caused one their resident cousins to suffer that fate instead. I'd rather they went out on a morphine high.

Incidentally, I have to declare an interest in the plight of the birds whose eggs will be protected by this measure. I was out walking with friends at Wicken Fen last year. It was a beautifully still twilight in mid-May, full of birdsong. One of my friends, who is something of an ornithologist, pointed out a snipe performing its characteristic mating flight - vibrating its wings during a short dive to produce a throbbing sound like a distant Rolls Royce Merlin engine. He said "That's a snipe" and added, in his best David Attenborough voice, "which, of course, is an anagram of penis."

posted by Plig | 15:14 |

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