Britain’s wildlife is trapped between traditional Tories and their neoliberal counterparts, who think any green regulation a burden.
Robins. Starlings. Pied wagtails. Badgers. Herring gulls. Buzzards. Cormorants. Grey squirrels. Foxes. The kill list created by the UK government is getting so long it is starting to look like the work of a psychopath. What can be compelling the coalition to be so brutal?
The biggest challenge for nature lovers remains all the things that we and our politicians are not doing – our passivity when faced with habitat loss and climate change, which is creating a sixth great wave of extinction.
But confronting these profound problems is more difficult when conservationists are forced to perpetually fight off the steps the government is taking to exterminate specific species. But what are the official reasons for each slaughter?
• The government agency responsible for protecting the environment, Natural England, wants to amend regulations to permit the rapid destruction of robin, pied wagtail and starling nests when they present “a health and safety hazard”, such as being found in ventilation flues.
• Defra (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) is persisting with a four-year pilot badger cull in Somerset and Gloucestershire because scientists have shown that culling badgers produces a small reduction in bovine TB in cattle over nine years.
• The “removal” (Defra’s preferred word for kill) of 475 breeding pairs of herring gulls and 552 breeding pairs of lesser black-backed gulls in the Ribble Valley was sanctioned by the environment secretary, Owen Paterson, last year because BAE Systems made a request to reduce risk to aircraft at an aerodrome.
• In 2012 Defra was forced to withdraw £400,000 of funding to research controlling buzzards around shooting estates, including removing nests and taking birds into captivity. The wildlife minister at the time was Richard Benyon, owner of a 20,000-acre estate with a pheasant shoot.
• Paterson has repeatedly spoken of his desire to control cormorants. “I am on record as saying we must never be frightened of managing our wildlife where appropriate,” he told recreational anglers, who complain the birds are taking their fish.
• Paterson and Prince Charles also backed an “accord” in Scotland to undertake “targeted and sustained action” against grey squirrels to stop them further encroaching into land where red squirrels live.
• The Conservatives hoped to increase the pressure on their traditional adversary, the fox, by amending the hunting ban to allow farmers to use more than two dogs to flush one out and kill it, only for the Liberal Democrats to scupper the move.
It’s not hard to see the common themes in this kill list. Paterson is on a one-man mission to reshape the environment by removing wild animals, from badgers to squirrels. “Give him time and he’ll work his way through the alphabet,” says my mole (a human one – another endangered species) inside government.
If it were just Paterson it might all be a bit of a joke, but wildlife today is caught in a pincer movement by the character of the contemporary Conservatives. On one side of the party, Paterson is crucial for David Cameron in reassuring traditional country supporters that modern Tories are not all effete metropolitan globalisers with no feel for hunting, shooting and fishing.
On the other side, the Notting Hill neoliberals led by George Osborne view the countryside as a barbaric relic and free to be exploited, with any green regulation a “burden” and a “ridiculous cost” to British businesses, as the chancellor put it in his autumn statement a few years back.
Between them, these Tories ancient and modern are doing more to “bear down on wildlife” (as Paterson once famously let slip in parliament) than any government in history.
Environmentalists can attempt to price up nature and appeal all they like to concepts such as “ecosystem services”, in the hope that Osborne and others might learn to value wildlife.
But predatory capitalism will always bear down on the long-term health of our environment. As every species bar the grey squirrel on the kill list shows, our current leaders are unwilling to tolerate any living thing that inhibits anyone from maximising their profit.
The only consolation is that this nasty rabble of animal killers are such poor predators. The Lib Dems have sabotaged some of the most audacious attempted murders, including a wider rollout of the badger cull. Britain’s army of animal lovers have done their bit too.
But some of the most effective resistance has been put up by the creatures themselves. Badgers have proved notoriously difficult to shoot, grey squirrels continue to flourish, and foxes still outfox. Robins show no sign yet of bearing arms but here’s hoping they get tooled up in case of a Conservative majority next spring.