A Weblog monitoring coverage of environmental issues and science in the UK media. By Professor Emeritus Philip Stott. The aim is to assess whether a subject is being fairly covered by press, radio, and television. Above all, the Weblog will focus on science, but not just on poor science. It will also bring to public notice good science that is being ignored because it may be politically inconvenient.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Compassion not sentimentality.....

Unfortunately, where wild animals are concerned, sentimentality is too easily the enemy of true compassion. Failing to act with respect to diseased animals is a facile option, one that, in the end, leaves the animals to suffer, unprotected and in silence, and one which can even damage the survival of native species.

Today, two stories illustrate this most vividly:

The first, for once, is well reported in The Independent: 'Britain's vanishing red squirrels face deadly virus threat' (The Independent, June 20):
"The dwindling population of red squirrels is being threatened by a virus that can kill them within 15 days.

Squirrel pox is being spread by grey squirrels, which are immune to the virus, and it is infecting red squirrels living in Scotland.

Conservationists say the estimated 160,000 population of red squirrels in the UK will almost certainly decline, since it has been noticed the virus was being spread by grey squirrels spreading north from Cumbria. The Moredun Research Institute near Edinburgh discovered the virus after taking blood samples from grey squirrels.

Red squirrels with the virus will suffer skin ulcers, lesions and scabs, with swelling and discharge around the eyes, mouth, feet and genitals. Grey squirrels are seldom harmed by the virus but red squirrels have no immunity and usually die within 15 days.

Scientists say it is the first evidence of squirrel pox virus in southern Scotland and that it has serious implications for the endangered population of red squirrels. Infected animals resemble rabbits with myxomatosis and are sometimes found shivering and lethargic....."

The case for major selected culls of the introduced grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) has been with us on ecological grounds for a long time. This new, and most serious, viral threat to our native red species, Sciurus vulgaris, makes such culls imperative. We also need special approaches to woodland management and to supporting the food supplies of the red squirrel. I doubt, however, that any action will be taken. Red squirrels will be left to suffer and to die, with ulcers, lesions and supporating organs. Their populations will inevitably decline drastically. A tragedy.

The second 'story' is found in a bold 'Letter to the Editor' from a senior vet, Chair of the Veterinary Association for Wildlife Management: 'Cull badgers and stop spread of bovine TB' (The Daily Telegraph, June 20):
"Ben Bradshaw, minister for animal health and welfare, quite rightly points out that if badgers were to be culled now, healthy animals, as well as those infected with bovine TB, would be killed.

So where's the problem? A desperate and rapidly increasing need already exists to drastically reduce the booming badger population in England and Wales for many good reasons, among which is the badger's unequivocal role in the spread of bovine TB and the damage done by digging.

Add to that the protracted misery that TB-infected badgers must suffer themselves when dying slowly and unseen underground, and the case for planned and humane reduction of the badger population becomes undeniable.

Such pragmatic, instead of anthropomorphic, action would best serve the health and welfare interests of cows, dairy farmers, newborn lambs and good old Brock himself."

Again, I regret that no action will be taken, despite the recent research from Ireland showing that there can be no doubt whatsoever about the role of badgers as a reservoir for TB. Both badgers and cows will be left to suffer, not to mention farmers and their families.

In our small, compact island, human actions which encourage the introduction of non-native species and which fail to face up to the problems of population and disease explosions can lead to severe ecological stress. But, more importantly, they can also result in terrible suffering for many of the individual animals involved.

Under such circumstances, there is no option but to manage wildlife at the population level. Sentimentality about an anthropomorphised 'individual' not only denies their essential 'animalness', it also, paradoxically, results in greater suffering overall. It can even lead to the loss of native species.

Genuine animal welfare and compassion demands tough decisions and action. Government is incapable of facing up to these. In consequence, animals will be allowed to experience slow and lingering deaths, but out of sight of ministers and the public.

We urgently need some political bravery from Ben Bradshaw and his colleagues.

Philip, reminding himself that Nature cares primarily for the species and for the population. By taking the same approach to management, we can, however, reduce individual animal suffering. The utilitarian approach is the compassionate option.

[New counter, June 19, 2006, with loss of some data]

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