Monday 28 August 2023

Beak, Tooth and Claw, Mary Colwell

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Conservationist Mary Colwell examines human responses to predators and the ways in which our collective actions impact wildlife in Britain. She begins with a general introduction on the meaning of predator, and the way in which our attitude to them depends on how cute or fearsome they are, and indeed how they are portrayed in popular culture. She then goes on to discuss the specific challenges facing the conservation of the fox, ravens and crows, badgers, buzzards and hen harriers, red kites and white-tailed eagles, and seals. You do not need any prior knowledge to read and enjoy this book as it is written in a very accessible manner.

Colwell dives into the world of people on both sides of the argument when it comes to predators. She goes on shoots, meets people who train corvids, a man who attempts to live like a badger, and farmers who perceive many predators as a real risk to their livelihood. There are no final answers provided by this book, but it leaves you with a lot of questions and things to consider. She attempts to reveal the truth in the numbers, and the impact that each of these predators have on the other. Controlling one species naturally has a knock-on effect on others, and they can’t be considered in isolation. This comes to the fore in her chapter on attempts to re-wild Britain. It is a delicate balance to do successfully, and in some cases would sacrifice one species in favour of another. She also acknowledges the impact re-wilding can have on human activity - loss of the right to roam, reduction in tourism, perceived danger. It is a difficult truth that if we want to see wildlife flourish then we must lose some of our own control and freedom, actions that have led us to this dearth of animals. 

Emotive issues are discussed. Some charities carry out culling activities as part of their conservation efforts, a controversial practice that many do not advertise. Those who are opposed to it can behave in a way that is intimidating and even dangerous to those employed to carry out the actions. Farmers tend to over-estimate the damage predators do to their livestock, Colwell claims that evidence suggests most either only attack weak sheep that would otherwise likely have died anyway, or scavenge corpses. It is a recurring theme for many of the species discussed that their negative impacts are over-amplified in the public’s mind. Indeed, we have false ideas about the numbers of predators roaming the country. Many of us see foxes on a regular occasion and so may feel that they are growing in number when in reality their population remains fairly stable, and we actually have greater numbers of badgers, a creature most commonly seen on the side of the road. 

This is an interesting read by an author who clearly cares deeply for the wildlife of Britain. It makes you think about the implication of human development and the issues surrounding re-wilding and conservation, and the decisions that need to be made about how we share the planet with other species. Her experiences of meeting the various people included in the book are conversational and open, making it easy to read and relate to how she felt in various situations. What is clear is that if we want to live harmoniously with predators we must all take the time to learn more about them and consider the danger of extinction. 

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