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Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Calling animal control: the monkeys have got it wrong, again

Currently in my homeland of rural Suffolk, birthplace of the potato (as far as I know) and historical headquarters of the original Anglo Saxon invaders (see Sutton Hoo, believe me, there's so much left there) there is a debate on about the 'reintroduction' of the White-tailed Eagle, a majestic aerial predator that once inhabited coastlines in the area.

Fourth largest in the world, with a wingspan measuring up to 8ft and the explicit silhouette to accompany it when it soars over dry land, the White-tailed Eagle is no doubt a magnificent specimen of avian raptor stealth and strength. This is the kind of bird, closely related to America's Bald Eagle icon and another primarily fish-eating eagle, Stellar's Sea Eagle, that dwarf most other raptor species, making it one of the crowning glories of the natural food chain.

What the current debate is keen to address is the reintroduction or settling of this particular eagle species in East Anglia, specifically Suffolk, which is perennially quite dry yet geologically it is quite wet, with marshland and swamp habitats common as you get closer to the coastline, which is rich in life itself.

Now there are two sides to this debate, as there always is, with the anti-eagle front comprised predominantly of protesting farmers, those who specialise in livestock, and the other representing the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

For the farmers who are up in arms about the proposed reintroduction there is the argument that their speciality in animal product, whether it be pigs, cows or chickens, will be significantly affected by the presence of the White-tailed Eagles in the Suffolk area. Claims range from 'spooking' of the animals leading to 'smothering' (when chickens flock towards their coops and suffocate themselves) and even motorway accidents, whereby a pig or two could potentially hurtle out through the electric fences and onto the M1, resulting in a smash-up.

Now I'm with Mark Avery (nice name for a twitcher), RSPB's conservation director, when he says all this speculation and rabble-rousing from the local rural businessmen is nonsense, because really we should be excited about bringing back a species such as this that has been nationally extinct for 300 years (according to the RSPB). But, however much I would love to serendipitously discover a White-tailed Eagle one day while walking along the sand dunes or through the marshes, I can't agree with this ongoing preaching about the reintroduction of extinct species.

Another article in the Guardian yesterday discusses the activity called 'bioblitzing', which implies amateur community wildlife observation. This is an act of human curiosity that I will always condone - sitting in bird hides at Minsmere bird sanctuary as a kid was for me more thrilling than being glued to a TV screen and experiencing social media through games consoles. I will always remember the rush I had when, on my 13th birthday, me and my father were beckoned to a particular hide where the elusive Bittern had been sighted. This was the sort of hobby I pursued, and I often ponder returning to it someday.

Nevertheless, I'm quite sure that all this fuss stirred up about 'borrowing' other nations' animals and returning their genetic line to the habitats they once occupied in the UK is not worth its mention in the press. Let's face it, these species were driven to extinction by us, in most cases. Whether it was through direct or indirect means, we killed these creatures and they were never going to return. And who could blame other relatives of these animals elsewhere for not seeking to reclaim their natural heritage in the UK - we're clearly wankers for having had them eradicated in the first place.

The fact is these wonderful animals - White-tailed Eagles, Osprey, Red Kite etc - were all threatened and no one really stood a chance of saving them. The mentality of most people is to only mourn once they're told it's a bad thing that they're gone. With anything other than our own species we share little sympathy until an activist comes along and declares it a crime that this even happened.

Sure, there are success stories. Take the White-tailed Eagles up in Scotland; they've happily grown into larger, healthier numbers since their reintroduction, which is wonderful. And those other examples, the Osprey and the Red Kite, they too represent that some good can come from human interference with nature. But for the majority of the time there is nothing good to be said about human involvement with native species in the UK or anywhere else in the world. This sounds a little pessimistic, but I say this because the majority of human involvement in nature equates to its destruction, not its preservation or conservation.

The greater offering we can make to nature is to establish borders between us and the zones where animals can freely exist without the potential to be harmed, at least within those recognised zones. We commonly refer to these zones as national parks, although you may also find areas of special scientific interest that play similar roles in protecting certain ecosystems.

As far as affecting our native species goes, we're fairly adept at crippling the food chains that operate beneath our economic umbrella. You could say that extinction is endemic wherever humans can be found - it's just that we're immune from it and it's the others that suffer. But taking an interest in nature is good, and so is trying to put a stop to the rampant dissolution of biodiversity, even if in the end it's either integrate, separate or destroy.

What I hope for the future is that we can both integrate and separate with nature; in the places we live we should gratefully welcome vegetation and wildlife and in the places we don't we should leave Mother Nature to tend to her gardens peacefully. As for the White-tailed Eagle spreading its wings and soaring aloft above the Suffolk countryside, I can't say it's not going to happen, but if it did I certainly wouldn't be so confident about letting my terrier run free in the fields on our regular walks.

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