Bird Haunts and Nature Memories/Chapter 19
THE PRESERVATION OF OUR FAUNA
ENTIRELY distinct from the question referred to in the last chapter, the influence of game preservation on our fauna. is the vast and complicated problem of the preservation of a fauna and flora, for the two cannot be separated, in a civilised land, or in a new country that is undergoing the destructive process of fitting it for the habitation and exploitation of the colonist.
Economic questions loom large; there is little need to urge control of certain animals and plants. But the word "control" is misunderstood, and is usually construed as synonymous with destruction. Some particular creature or plant is harmful to some particular interest; "Sweep it away," is the cry, "Swot this fly," "Root out this weed." In our wholesale methods of removing an assumed foe we may also get rid of a valuable ally. The destruction of a food plant may mean the end of those creatures which feed upon it; the annihilation of one particular insect may destroy the plant that it fertilises.
Our fauna includes two main constituents—the native or ancient. and the colonist or alien; it is with the first that we are most concerned, those animals which inherited this land of our birth before we, mostly descended from alien invaders or colonists, decided that the land was ours, not theirs. It is a strange ethical question this of proprietorship, and man, thinking himself Lord of Creation, demands, like "Cunning old Fury," the right of life and death over all so-called lower animals.
"I'll try the whole cause. and condemn you to death," is the usual verdict.
Maybe man has the right of might, whether by strength or learning, of cultivating certain plants and animals at the expense of others, and condemning those which are in his way as "weeds" or "vermin," but he is apt to overlook a very important point. Knowledge is progressive, and, as the historian knows, the acme of knowledge is a matter of the age; what is wisdom to-day may be foolishness tomorrow. The learning of the past, in some cases at any rate, is ridiculous in our twentieth-century eyes; in each era there were philosophers who believed that they had reached the top of the tree. Alas for their folly!
Just as the scientific manufacturer, generally through the chemist, constantly finds fresh use for his by-products, the rejectamenta of former years, so the economic zoologist finds value in the condemned weed or vermin. Furthermore, there is at the present time a growing belief in the interrelation of all life, and though the study of ecology is in its infancy. and so far has failed to throw strong light upon the so-called balance of nature, it is on the right track. When it becomes the life work of many more philosophical naturalists, and is not merely treated as something to dabble with during years of preparation for some more lucrative career, we shall have discoveries which will make us very diffident about destroying or even attempting to destroy organisms which at the present time we think are in our way.
What is the object of protection or preservation? Why do we endeavour to maintain one plant or animal, or urge that all should have consideration? There are four main arguments brought forward in support of protection. and though the first three are for specialising, or selecting individuals or groups of individuals for care, the last applies to creatures as a whole. The one which perhaps appeals to the largest number, and which gets most support in that agent of popular propaganda, the Press, is the Economic argument. The lay and commercial mind understands this line of reasoning. Your animal is or may be of value—to whom or what?—to mankind in general; of value commercially; of value as a means of checking the increase of, or even of destroying, something else which appears detrimental to human welfare; of value as food for some other creature whose body or products are a commercial or agricultural (one and the same thing) asset for man. It must therefore be protected, not for its own sake, but for the welfare of another, must indeed be exploited for that other—man. For this reason (and, are we ashamed to say, for this reason only?) exists our Board of Agriculture and Fisheries, striving to regulate the numerical proportions of certain creatures, and to instil its doctrines into a rather slow and old-fashioned constituency.
So far so good: since man has a right to exist, even though we class him as but a competing animal, he must use all his arts and sciences, the product of his superior brain, to accomplish his ends. I do not condemn him; indeed, I strongly uphold the study of economic zoology and botany, and especially advocate that sensible assistance should be given with this end in view to our schools and universities. Unless we treat such delicate matters in a truly scientific manner we shall find ourselves in a more parlous state than we are at present. It is not to the academic mind that we need to appeal, but to the great body of electors whose duty it is to send as representatives men who will realise that science is the driving power in life, and that science without education is impossible. The economic argument may not be disinterested, but it is important, very important indeed.
The second argument for protection is the Æsthetic one, and this, with a few exceptions, is confined to propaganda on the subject of bird preservation. Bird protectors, both in societies and Parliament, are largely backed by the economic issue, and many, who are influenced purely by æsthetic stimuli, make use of the economic argument; for that they know will appeal when their own desires tail to attract. The bird protector, however, is fully alive to the value of the æsthetic argument in certain circles, and gains much support from the sympathy and purses of ladies and others who are mainly concerned with "the poor, pretty little birds." From the purely æsthetic side there is much to be said in favour of maintaining all birds of bright plumage or pleasant voice, and there is, perhaps, nothing else which will combat that depraved commercial spirit which fosters the pseudo-love of the beautiful in the head-gear of unthinking woman—a survival of barbarity. When it is a question of the plumage trade, use the æsthetic argument for all it is worth.
The third argument, which may be called for want of a more descriptive title the Humanitarian argument, appeals most strongly against the cruelty of destruction. There is sound good sense in it, too, but it is often marred by a strange lack of balance. Men and women who sicken at the sight of pain in animals they admire will ruthlessly inflict it upon those they class as vermin or merely consider ugly. Here again, where there is cruelty in destruction, it is safe and right to use the humanitarian argument for all that it is worth, but we must avoid faddism; the massacre of the plume-bearing herons for the "ospreys" of commerce entails the slow torture and starvation of young birds as well as the cruel death of the parents, and this gruesome fact has, when pointed out by reasonable advocates, influenced many tender-hearted women to deny themselves the ornaments they coveted.
The last and least popular argument is the Scientific, or, to put it in other words, the argument for scientific reasons. It is, apart from economic arguments, most difficult to advocate, and yet, I must confess, it is the one which appeals most to my mind. It is an ethical question, and it is fair to say that its force cannot be urged without admitting an element of all other arguments. Why should it mean any thing to us if a species becomes extinct, ceases to exist? Nature's competitive struggle has swept away untold forms without any call upon man's influence, swept them away before man appeared upon the earth, brushed them aside, the "thousand types," actually to allow the development of the better fitted creatures, amongst which man ranks so high. If man be merely looked upon as a competitor in a highly competitive world, there is no reason why we should bemoan the fate of such types as were an impediment to his development. Yet, I am sure that many share my feeling of regret whenever they see evidence of depletion in numbers of any species; probably they also share my inability to explain why, when wanton destruction or the influence of purely natural forces is causing this reduction, a wave of sentiment, which has in it something of the feeling of chivalry, impels them to uphold the cause of the oppressed. Frankly it is not the death of the individual which matters—thus the humanitarian impulse fails to apply—it is the threatened destruction of some existing form.
We cannot argue, at any rate with ease, that we suffer personally because the great auk foolishly refused to develop wings and would persist in placing its egg on a shelving rock up which men with clubs could climb as easily as itself; is it a matter of inconvenience to us that the Greenland right-whale possessed more blubber than sense, and so allowed itself to be outwitted by the northern whalers, who in their rapacity destroyed their own livelihood? Does it really matter that we never saw a living dodo, or that Wicken Fen was made a preserved area too late to save the large copper? Yet these and many other creatures have passed but a few years, comparatively speaking, before our time, and others are passing now. We, who look at the question with what we may term scientific sympathy, mourn the loss. It is because we know that within recent years species after species has vanished, and that we know that man's rapacity is in many cases responsible, that we are so anxious to check his evil influences whilst yet there is time.
There are two methods of stopping or at any rate retarding destruction—legislation and personal influence; each has its place, and as a rule one without the other fails. Protective laws cannot be passed without the strong use of the economic and humanitarian arguments, and the last has often failed to gain a hearing. Laws, too, are useless unless the sympathy of legislators, and of the public servants whose duty it is to enforce them, is strong and constant. Our House of Commons is filled by men whose tenure of office depends too much upon topical political issues for it to spend much time upon questions that are only appreciated by the minority of voters. Thus, if we get a good sympathetic naturalist in the House, and he advocates some useful protective measure, the chances are against his success; his Bill is crowded out by matters which appear more imminent but yet may have transitory importance, matters which appeal to the immediate interests, usually pecuniary, of the majority. The struggle for the Plumage Bill is a recent case in point. It was through the indifference of the majority of members who nominally supported the Bill, men of all shades of party, that for so long it was impossible to combat the small but powerful interests of the plumage trade. Time alone will show whether in these days of economic struggle there is sufficient true sympathy with the intentions of the Bill to secure its legal enforcement.
Legislation for the protection of the fauna is not viewed with much intelligence by some of those who are sent to act as our representatives. During the second reading of the Expiring Laws Bill, in August, 1921, one Member made what he considered a witty speech, in which he poured scorn on the work of protectors. This is what he said, as quoted by Hansard:
"Then we come to the Sand Grouse Protection Act, which inflicts penalties for killing, wounding. or selling sand grouse. We are getting very near the 12th, and I suppose there are some honourable Members who know something about grouse. I believe that the object of this Act is to acclimatise a species of bird which, when this Act was passed, was supposed to be the sand grouse but which is now recognised by ornithologists as not being a grouse at all, but a form of pigeon. The amusing part of this Act is that it was passed to protect sand grouse in this country. There has never been a sand grouse seen in this country since the Act was passed. It is called the Sand Grouse Protection Act and, apparently, like all protection Acts, it had the effect of destroying the thing which it was intended to protect. There are various forms of grouse—the red grouse, the willow grouse, and others—but the one thing that does not exist here is sand grouse, and why in the name of common sense we are going on year after year with the object of acclimatising a form of grouse which is not a grouse at all I cannot understand."
It is perhaps unnecessary to say that every sentence uttered is erroneous; it is true that the Act, passed in 1889, was too late to save the birds which came in the 1888 invasion, but there have been seven irruptions or invasions since that date. The object, of course, was to protect a species, not to acclimatise a sporting asset, as the gentleman who appeals "in the name of common sense" seemed to think. But he was not content with that; he continued by attacking the Grey Seals Protection Act of 1914, and, though an Irishman, he was absolutely ignorant of his own native fauna. "Its object is to protect the species of seal known as the Halichœrnus grypus" (this is the spelling as it appears in Hansard). "I do not know what we are protecting when it is so described. I am advised that there is no such thing in the waters of this country as the Halichœrnus grypus. It is a variety that is found only in Scandinavia. It sometimes swims over as far as Denmark. The humour of this legislation is that there is no such thing in this country to protect." Comment is unnecessary.Those who have followed since 1880 the repeated muddling alterations, amendments, and orders of the Wild Birds Protection Acts must realise that the passing of laws alone will accomplish nothing. The law must be backed, and backed with determination. by public opinion. Then the constable will feel that he is supported in his efforts, that the Bench is behind and not against him. It is true that many of the officers require instruction; they are not ornithologists, and may easily make mistakes about the identity of species; it is equally true that our magistrates, supposed to be educated men, are frequently more ignorant than the constabulary. There are, of course, magistrates and magistrates, and we cannot expect that all should at sight be able to tell the difference between a protected and unprotected bird, but that is no excuse for doubting the word of a constable. I have in mind one local case. A bird-catcher was summoned for trapping protected redpolls, and his defence was that the birds were not redpolls but "jitties"; the constable, a Cheshire man, asserted, quite correctly, that "jitty" was a local name for the redpoll, but the magistrate, somewhat sharply, demanded how he knew, gave the accused the
benefit of the doubt, and dismissed the case. Can we expect that that officer would again expose himself to unjustifiable ridicule?
It is, as was shown, possible to ride roughshod through the existing Acts, but many constables, by bluff alone, have carried out the meaning and intention of bird protection, though they were aware that strict adherence to the letter of the law would have spelt failure. In other cases the law has been upheld by public interest and agitation; those in authority were quick enough to feel the popular pulse, though personally they cared nothing about birds.
Looking back at fifty years of struggle to legislate on behalf of wild birds we see some strange examples of the futility of human efforts and some curious and unexpected results upon our fauna. To no man, perhaps, does bird protection owe more than to the late Professor Newton. He was a rare type of philosophical ornithologist, and largely to his determination was due the first really unselfish legislation on behalf of wild birds—the Sea-Birds Protection Act of 1869. There were earlier protective measures—indeed they date back to medieval days, but in every other case the Acts were tainted by personal interests, and partook of the nature of game and forest laws; the bittern, heron, duck, or other bird was protected in order that some privileged few might destroy it; the peregrine, hobby, and merlin were not to be exterminated, for they were required by certain noble sportsmen for hawking. Other laws were openly intended to prevent trespass; only those in high places might kill, might enjoy blood sports.
Newton, though no sentimentalist, was touched by the sufferings of the sea-fowl. To the big breeding stations, especially those of Flamborough and Speeton, excursion trains were run in the nesting season from London and, to our shame, from Manchester and other Lancashire centres; these trains were filled not with ornithologists, but with "sportsmen," who shot the trusting fowl when they refused to leave their precious eggs or young. It was butchery of the grossest kind, and the drain on numbers was beyond all calculation, for the young perished of hunger on the ledges. In many cases no effort was made to gather the spoil; gull feathers were too plentiful to make the labour profitable; the excuse of commercialism could not be given; it was sheer brutality.
"If this is not cruelty, what is it?" was Newton's indignant cry. "Can men blaze away hour after hour at these wretched inoffensive birds and call it 'sport' without being morally the worse for it? We thank God that we are not as Spaniards are, who gloat over the brutalities of a bull-fight. Why, here in a dozen places around our own coasts we have annually an amount of agony inflicted on thousands of our fellow-creatures to which the torture of a dozen horses and bulls in a ring is as nothing."
The railway companies advertised the opportunities for sport, and then the subtle trader stepped in and created a fashion in gulls' feathers; the price went up, the dealers were able to offer one shilling per kittiwake, so Cordeaux states, and one man alone boasted that he had slain 4,000 adult birds in one season. Taking into consideration the number of eggs which might have been laid and hatched, the number of young which certainly must have been starved in the nest, and the wounded birds which escaped to slowly perish, it is probable that that single butcher was responsible for a reduction in one year of at least 10,000 birds. "Fair and innocent as the snowy plumes may appear in a lady's hat," says Newton. "I must tell the wearer the truth—she bears the murderer's brand on her forehead."
But why agonise our feelings with things of the past? The Sea-Birds Act, though repealed, as was the later Wild-fowl Act of 1872, was, after many struggles, replaced by a better and more sweeping measure, and all birds are now protected. Are they? It is just because what Newton foresaw has taken place—the substitution of a nominally better Act with much wider scope, framed by men who were either indifferent or not disinterested, has failed in a great measure to preserve those species which were most in danger. It is true to say that the Act of 1869, converted into that of 1880, has saved the kittiwake, but it has not converted the sinners nor roused a better spirit in the general public. Egg-snatching on the Yorkshire cliffs is still a trade, and though under proper regulations it would not do serious damage to the various species which still nest there in large numbers, it has the result of delaying the nesting period and turning the young out at the end of the close season when still unable to escape the guns of the "sportsmen." I have seen in early autumn a boat load of immature kittiwakes and other gulls brought in at Flamborough; I have seen young loafers, men with money, no doubt, lounging about the jetty at Knott End and shooting at every unfortunate young gull or other bird which ventured within range.
"Would you stop the poor man's sport?" is a common cry; yes, and the rich man's too if he is endangering the existence of a national asset.
What happened with the Bill of 1872 is this: it was made too all-embracing to be functionable. After a British Association Close-time Committee had carefully considered all points, the Bill was framed and passed without consulting any real ornithologists. Newton, writing to his brother, says: "Mr. Herbert, on the 21st of June last, laid a cuckoo's egg in the carefully built nest of the British Association Committee, and the produce is a useless monster—the wonder alike of the learned and the layman, and an awful warning as an example of amateur legislation."
In order that the sentimentalist might be propitiated, such birds as robin and dunnock received protection, and a small fine, which included costs, was imposed for an offence against common birds and those which were threatened with extinction. The collector smiled, took the risk, and if caught cheerfully paid, knowing well that such fine was a minute discount off the price which he could obtain. So, in a few years the Act died, and the better framed Act of 1880 was passed, but its scheduled birds were not sufficiently protected, and in a few years so many amended clauses were added that it became necessary to describe the measure as "the Acts"; no one but the lawyer was any the wiser or better off, and few lawyers found it worth while to study the complicated problem. Until protective legislation is framed by scientific, students of bird life, who ignore the plea of the sentimentalist and weigh with caution the enthusiasm of the economist, the depletion of bird life—that is, of the species we most wish to preserve—will continue.
The law has failed to reach and check the depredations of one class of criminal (it is justifiable to use the term for any law-breaker), the greedy collector and his agents, those who supply him. The professional collector, the man who trades in specimens, is constantly blamed for the damage he does, for his looting is wholesale, but he would very soon turn his attention to some other method of gaining a living were he not patronised; it is the hoarding private collector, the man who pretends to be, but so seldom is, scientific, who is really responsible.
It must, however, be admitted, as even Newton was forced to admit, that the Acts, in spite of their blundering. have accomplished much. Public feeling was and is strong, and, backed by indifferent legislation, it has so far checked destruction that many species have benefited. Here comes an anticlimax: some of the species, actively or passively protected, have increased so enormously that they have exceeded the natural limits, overweighed the balance, and it is questionable whether further protection is or is not desirable. The æsthetic and humanitarian school are shocked at any suggestion of relaxation; the economic and scientific are in doubt, the first because personal interests are affected, the second because of the uncertainty of interference with nature's balance.
The world is a big place, but it is a very varied one; its inhabitants, whether human or otherwise, are unevenly distributed. Vast tracts are sparsely populated. others are sadly congested, but there is reason for the irregularity. The unpopulated areas are unfit, at any rate during a portion of the year, for a crowded population; the congested areas are the ones where food is obtainable. When we exclude from our thoughts colonising man, who has the power to some extent of altering the whole face of a country, we see that the lower forms must either remain in or travel to and from the best food-supplying districts or perish. Britain is a typically crowded area, and is so well stocked with various forms of life that we may treat it as a fair example of a food area. It supplies just the necessary amount of food to make life endurable for just that number of creatures which it can support; in other words, there are enough and not too many of each form existing within its bounds, and this required number depends entirely upon the seasonal supply of vegetable food, and the balanced and regular supply of animal food which depends upon the vegetation. Any shortage, due to climatic variation, of the vegetable food supply is immediately followed by famine, which means not only famine for the phytophagous, but for the carnivorous forms; a good year, an increased output of cultivation, the introduction of a new or alien crop, is followed by an increase of vegetable feeders, an increase of their natural enemies, and of the creatures which subsist upon them. What is the result? The numbers are raised above the normal, and when the normal food supply returns, famine follows as surely as when the supply was short; there are too many months to be filled. Thus, taking an average of years, the necessary average is maintained, and this is nature's balance.
It is fair to say that there cannot be in any civilised, indeed in any, country populated by man a real natural balance; man is the great disturber of nature. But in a country like Britain, where civilisation has been working for the ends of man for ages, there is what we may call a human or artificial natural balance; a point at which, under the present artificial system, the interrelation of plants and animals, cultivated and domestic as well as wild, remains more or less constant. It is our duty to maintain that present-day balance so far as we can consistently with our actual requirements, for if we fail mankind as well as the lower animals will suffer. It is with this end that economic zoology and botany should be studied.
The increase beyond the normal proportions of any species of bird, due to protection which has not taken into consideration consequences, may be a tragedy. It may, probably will, affect our life interests; it certainly will have influence upon the relative numbers of other forms. Need I mention as problems of the day the extraordinary increase since 1880 of the black-headed gull and the sterling, two species wholly valuable in their proper proportions, but threatening other forms, actively or passively, now that they have become so numerous.
Dr. Ritchie has supplied a fascinating study in faunal evolution in "The Influence of Man on Animal Life in Scotland." I know of no better exposition of the need for sensible and well-considered protection than is supplied by this book.
Dr. Ritchie divides his subject into two parts—deliberate and indirect interference with animal life. In the first he groups domestication, intentional destruction of animals for various reasons, protection of animals for other reasons, and the introduction of new forms. In the second he deals with changes in natural environment and the influence on animals, cultivation, civilisation, and the accidental or unintentional introduction of creatures for the most part classed as pests. An entirely different method of grouping or analysis of results would be the dividing of those from which man derives benefit from those which are detrimental to his welfare. Deliberately or unintentionally man has in his dealings with animals derived profit and loss, and he has by no means invariably succeeded in attaining the ends that he desired, or which, at ﬁrst blush, seemed likely to result. Animals, consciously or unconsciously, treat man as a competing species, and, however warmly a Krapotkin may advocate mutual aid, or a Drummond urge the harmony of nature, the painful fact remains, man and the primitive protozoan alike strive and have to strive to exist at all.
So long as the disturbance of nature is confined to cultivation of land or domestication of useful animals, necessities for man's existence, this disturbance is not only justifiable, but a duty. It may mean, it is certain to mean, destruction of many existing forms as well as individuals, but the loss cannot be helped; it is true, however, that in few cases has the cultivation for food or the destruction of animals for the same reason been the cause of extinction; it is when commercialism demands wholesale and usually wasteful methods that this undesirable end is evident. The African native, who in his pitfalls slew wholesale for the sake of obtaining food, did less havoc than the trading sportsman who found ivory and other products meant wealth—in other words supplied more than was necessary for his welfare but not for his desired wealth. The Red Indian was not gifted with foresight in his attack upon the bison, but he failed to destroy it until commercial Western civilisation took a hand; then the vast herds soon ceased to exist. Mr. H. J. Massingham says that "in many ways, our attitude to animals is still very barbarous and very imperfectly consistent. But it must be remembered that these barbarisms are partly vestigiary relics of an unenlightened past and partly the consequences of the detestable predatory spirit directly encouraged by commercialism." Not only do I endorse this, but I would add my belief that the ancient barbaric attitude, cruel, wasteful, blind though it was, was more in harmony with nature than the greedy, commercial, devil-take-the-hindmost spirit of the so-called intelligent man of the present day who, for his own gain, exploits the weaker brain power of less highly developed creatures. Granted, however, that a certain amount of disturbance is bound to follow any effort for advance, it is all the more necessary that we should take steps which will involve change only after carefully considering the cost; this cannot be estimated until we have so studied, to the best of our ability, the life history of all living creatures, that we may gain some knowledge of how far one depends upon another. Furthermore, any interference with what I have called the artificial natural balance must be watched with an open mind.This last point may be illustrated by a practical case. One of the questions which has constantly puzzled those
who are framing laws for protection has been how far the taking of eggs of the lapwing should be prohibited; the usual conclusion is that the lapwing is wholly insectivorous, using this word in that wider sense which means invertebrate-ivorous, and that therefore it should receive the fullest protection. But two other interests are taken into consideration—the one commercial, for the eggs are in demand in the market, the other a matter of policy, the attitude towards the farmer and his hands; it is unwise to add restrictions which it is difficult to enforce. Therefore, in most cases eggs may be taken up to a certain date, but after that they are protected. But supposing that full protection is granted to the bird, and it increases, are we sure that increase is desirable? The lapwing may, when in its normal numbers, confine its attention to certain food, say the larvæ of root-eating moths, larvæ of phytophagous diptera and coleoptera, such as crane-flies and wireworms, or to the small molluscs which certainly do damage. But does the bird confine its attention to these? Does it sagely examine and leave unmolested the larva of a carnivorous beetle? Can it, or indeed any bird which follows the ploughman, between the grub of a cockchafer and that of the fertilising dung beetle? And, it it could, have we any reason to suppose that it would leave the so-called useful insect for our benefit? And in particular, does it or does it not eat earthworms, and it it does, is it doing us good or harm? Darwin, the great earthworm's advocate, showed the utility of this despised creature, but may we not have too many earthworms? It is an unsettled problem. Leave the worm problem to the mole, some say; but do we? We destroy the mole, yet not, if we are honest, because it devours the worm, but because it throws up unsightly and awkward mounds, obstacles to tillage, or, in many instances, because it has a pelt which has commercial value. But does not the worm-devouring mole do exactly what the worm accomplishes, aerate and moisten the ground through its tunnels, and throw good topdressing to the surface? In short, we must remember that those creatures which appear to be of service by destroying pests do not discriminate; they also destroy other useful checks on these same pests. The bud-destroying bullfinch eats also the seeds of troublesome weeds, the tit kills the spider which itself ensnares alike the troublesome fly and the parasite which keeps it in check, the moth, parent of the caterpillar, and the ichneumon which destroys the grub. It is all very complicated, very confusing. All the more reason for careful, study of all animal life; we never know where and when we may hit on fresh light, a new link in this complicated, tangled chain of nature.
Without entering into the ethics of war, we can look back and review the lessons of the recent struggle, when interference with nature was rampant. First consider food shortage apart from political and economic causes; it was deemed necessary to encourage internal resources; we strove to increase our food supply, especially of wheat, potatoes, and vegetables. We sowed wheat everywhere, but we did not always reap the harvest; in certain soils for long unsuited to or at least unused to this crop, the wheat bulb-fly appeared and worked its wicked will. It was not, as Dr. A. D. Imms pointed out, that Hylemyia coarctata was a new-comer to our lands, but that wheat had been sown on unfavourable ground, following in incorrect rotation; we were, in fact, very ignorant about the life history of this ﬂy, and unwittingly gave it an opportunity of increasing before its natural parasites had a chance of reducing its numbers to the normal. With a little more knowledge we should have avoided the catastrophe; but had we continued to grow wheat in spite of the set-back, we should probably have discovered that we had in time reached an artificial natural balance, when man would have got some wheat, but neither would the bulb-fly nor its parasites have entirely vanished. We may, in cultivation, force the pace, we do it constantly, but ultimately natural forces assert themselves; a stable condition is reached.
Game preservation has wrought many changes in nature's balance, and these are often closely connected with the introduction of alien creatures. A new and complex situation arose during the war; its effect is still noticeable. Apart from the previous interference with animal life caused by game preservation methods was the fact that a large number of men were engaged in continuous efforts to decrease the numbers of certain creatures, called by them "vermin," and simultaneously to increase the head of game, a persistent effort to upset natural balance. Many of these men were drafted into the army, artificial rearing was almost entirely neglected, and much of the seasonal shooting or sport was discontinued. Immediately a change was noticeable; predatory animals such as hawks, owls, crows, magpies, jays, stoats, weasels, and foxes increased; rabbits became a nuisance in spite of controlled prices, rats were a perfect plague, and small birds decreased. Unfortunately the issue was confused by a natural catastrophe, the abnormal winter and spring of 1916-17, when so many birds suffered from starvation, and in direct consequence insect life had a chance to increase. If, however, some measure of the decrease in bird life was due to the abundance of predatory creatures, which I believe it was, we can see why the wheat bulb-fly increased, and why the forest trees for several years have suffered defoliation, by the larvae of species of Hibernia and Cheimatobia and other insects. Possibly, too, it was a factor in the abnormal invasion of the upland pastures by the larvæ of the antler moth.
One remarkable, significant, and, in some quarters at least, unexpected result is that the stock of wild pheasants—that is to say, of birds which nested and reared their young without artificial aid—is greater than before the war. It has often been asserted that the pheasant, an introduced bird, could not exist without protection; I believe that it is so firmly established as a colonist that it has reached that position when it is fitted to maintain its own natural balance. The wild birds not only could exist, but actually benefited by the absence of competition with their hand-reared brethren; there was no longer overstocking.
Game preservation, a very ancient source of interference, has altered the constituents of the fauna more than most agencies, the cultivation of land and domestication of animals excepted; it has too often altered it for the benefit of the minority. Yet we must face the fact that the destruction of predatory creatures and the provision of shelters for game—woodlands, coverts, and moors—have proved advantageous to innumerable creatures, mammals, birds, and insects, for example, which were innocuous to game or beneath the notice of its guardians. We have no vivid faunal picture of our land before the days of forest and game laws, but we can imagine what it was like from analogy. A friend of mine who served as a doctor during the East African campaign was much struck by the apparent absence of small birds and the visible abundance of raptorial species. He argued that there must be a wealth of bird life to feed all these carnivorous vultures, kites, eagles, hawks, and falcons, and soon arrived at the correct solution of the problem; small mammals and birds sheltered in the dense jungle, the predatory birds "waited on," as the falconer would say.
When a possible victim ventured from its shelter it was at once hunted, driven back, or captured. Our forests and woodlands, now reduced to a minimum, must have been similarly crowded with timorous creatures; the open country was free to the larger and more powerful forms. Man has altered all this, man with his axe and hoe has let light into the jungle. What says Stevenson, the roadmaker?
"'Mid vegetable king and priest
And stripling, I (the only beast)
Was at the heart's work, killing; hewed
The stubborn roots across, bestrewed
The glebe with the dislustered leaves,
And bade the saplings fall in sheaves;
Bursting across the tangled math
A ruin that I called a path,
A Golgotha that, later on,
When rains had watered, and sun shone,
And seeds enriched the place, should bear
And be called garden."
When others, long before Stevenson, hacked their way through the primeval forest, "bathed in vegetable blood," they let in the predatory beasts and increased the struggle. But man, too, is predatory, and from craving for food or desire for sport he helped the lesser folk at the expense of the greater, especially when he realised that these powerful creatures competed with him in blood lust. How well he succeeded in driving them from the face of the earth may be realised by the study of history. Here in Britain the white-tailed eagle and the osprey have gone, the golden eagle survives because it is useful as a protector of other game or rather as an assistant on the deer forest; the kite, once a useful and very familiar scavenger in our medieval towns, and the harriers are reduced to a few strugglers, solely maintained by private protectors; the pine marten, badger, and otter are threatened with extinction; the polecat and wild cat have within our time followed the wolf and bear. The raven once nested in our midst, but now only exists in the wilds; the lesser fry have suffered, too, though in a smaller degree. It was woe to many creatures when gunpowder came into general use, it was the end when the lethal weapon was "improved."
When engaged in warfare against the smaller creatures, especially those which are in reality his parasites, man usually fails to destroy, though he may succeed in keeping them in check by materially reducing numbers. But when he pits his science and cunning against the less developed intelligence of the larger forms, he can entirely wipe a species out, and often does this in his greed to secure wealth in advance of his human competitors. Thus the rat, sparrow, house-fly, and louse defy his efforts, and until his whole moral outlook changes, for sanitation is a moral question, his cleverest devices will fail to utterly check their ravages. Even then it is doubtful if he will ever destroy the fly and mosquito, though he may render their attacks innocuous. The rat, indeed, persistently following man, has often undone his best work. Its arrival on Lord Howe Island has resulted in the ruin of that successful Australian bird reserve.
With larger and less numerous animals the fight is more one-sided, for they are not numerous because he is numerous. How effectually he can destroy is shown by the extinction of the vast hordes of passenger pigeons, the Eskimo curlew, the great auk, and many of the Australian parrots. But we need not go beyond the limits of our own land for examples. It has often been argued that drainage of marshes or cultivation of land explains the extinction as breeding species of the bittern, ruff, black-tailed godwit, great bastard, Savi's warbler, and crane. Yet the bittern, after long absence, is nesting once more in the marshes, where it derives protection, private protection be it remembered, and the ruff, too, has returned; there are many suitable places still remaining where these birds might nest if allowed. What has happened with another marsh species, the black-headed gull? Driven from place to place by the drainage of one after another of its haunts, it has still found sites to colonise and wherein to increase. True, there may be factors which explain the increase of one species and the decrease of another which have no connection with the influence, at any rate direct, of man; we can, for instance, explain the increase and spread of the great crested grebe, at one time nearly swept away by the demand for its soft breast plumage—protection gave it the start it needed. But it is hard to imagine that the same factor operated in the case of the turtle-dove. A change of habit and of breeding range may have influenced the godwit and black tern. It is, however, certain that immediately these and other species were seen to be rare their commercial value rose, and they were hunted out of the country by the collector. When Seebohm pointed out that the St. Kilda wren differed from the mainland form it was an evil day for the little islander; one prominent bird protector, now no more, did his utmost to help in extinction of this subspecies.
The Rev. F. C. R. Jourdain recently called attention in The Times to the havoc of commercialism amongst the eiders of Spitzbergen. The motor on the sailing sloop is the engine of destruction, for it enables the egg and down hunters to enter bays and inlets which were unsafe before its introduction. One sloop, at the end of last June, had on board "no fewer than 15,000 eggs." The remnant of the Spitzbergen eiders may be saved when there are so few that it no longer pays to exploit them, but, unfortunately, even this has not saved every persecuted species.
One of the worst destructive features is the intentional introduction of animals to a land to which they are alien. This is usually due to sentiment, but often to a desire, apparently harmless, of improving the fauna by the addition of attractive animals. The result of this well-meaning but mistaken policy is never satisfactory, at any rate for many, very many years. There is no middle course. The introduced creature either finds life so hard in the new land, and enemies so numerous that it dies out at once, or it finds conditions so favourable and natural checks so few that it increases rapidly and some less fitted native succumbs to give it room. Many efforts have been made to improve and increase the variety of our game stock, but whereas the Barbary partridge, the willow grouse, the colin, bob-white, button quail, and even tinamou have been tried and failed, the red-legged partridge has established itself, and the various pheasants have settled down. Amongst mammals the reindeer, wapiti, and beaver rank amongst the failures, the rabbit is perhaps the best instance of a successful colonist; so far has it established itself that we now count it as native, and realise that it has reached that stage when an artificial natural balance with other forms is stable. But can we not guess that awful dislocation of the balance amongst native forms occurred before the rabbit found its level; how many creatures whose absence we mourn may have owed their decline to competition with the rabbit? What it can do when placed in an alien land we know, for is not Australia still faced with the problem? And have not other efforts to check it by introducing its foes—stoat, weasel, dog, cat, and fox—all had bad results?—the destruction of the native fauna or the colonists' stock, but not of the prolific alien.
Later enthusiasts have brought us the little owl and grey squirrel, and we have yet to see the full results of the folly of introducing successful colonists. At Woburn already it has been necessary to have a squirrel drive, and though neither squirrel nor little owl may be guilty of all the crimes laid to their charge, it is certain that as both are rapidly spreading some other creatures are suffering. l have heard complaints from Hertfordshire and Northants, where the little owl flourishes, that the tawny and barn owls are decreasing; there is only a certain catchable quantity of owl food, and the smart little owl is getting the pick. The bird has now reached our area, where during the last ten years or so the barn and tawny owls have increased; what will the next decade show?
There are many introductions for which we are not intentionally responsible, creatures which travel with and in our food supplies. Many of these come merely as stowaways and perish in an inhospitable land, but others, the hangers-on of civilisation, follow man wherever he takes or sends his supplies. The codlin moth, estimated to cost America at least £2,000,000 annually, we sent from Europe, and in return we have to thank America for the American blight. Cockroaches travel from various parts of the world, for they are great navigators, and colonise wherever they land. The Mediterranean flour moth is everywhere, its land of origin is uncertain, and that small weevil, Calandra granaria, is a similar cosmopolitan pest. These and many others, too numerous to mention, increase and spread as trade increases and spreads. We must investigate their life story and take whatever course we can to reduce them to their original status.
Having realised that man not only has been, but still is, responsible for great changes in animal life, many of which entail the passing of species, two questions may with reason he asked. Why should we endeavour to preserve any of those animals which are so feeble that they can no longer compete? To that I would answer with other questions. Do we desire to see any of the existing forms follow after those which have gone? And do we look forward with joy to a land, nay a world, peopled only by man, his domesticated slaves, his animate commercial assets and his parasites? If this is not a pleasant outlook, then what must we do?
There are, as I have said, two ways of dealing with protection—legislation and public opinion. If we foster the latter the former will follow. But we want our legislation to be wise, and to achieve this our advocacy of the cause must also be wise. Newton, as bird protector, was sarcastic about many methods of its advocates. "The worst is that people will gush and be sentimental… the sentimentalists give far more trouble than anyone else." He also refers to the extravagant assertions, over-coloured statements of letter writers: "Our wild animals have no great reason to be grateful to their ordinary defenders in the newspapers." It is true. We need moderate, cool statement of fact, based on the study of life in field and laboratory, and the philosophical application, after careful experiment, of what we have learnt. Above all let us so order our behaviour towards the lower animals that it may not be asserted by the generations to come that the thoughtless, selfish men of the present era destroyed or allowed to be destroyed, for their own commercial ends or for their sporting pleasure, creatures which belonged to all time, the men of the future as well as the men of to-day.
In conclusion. Do these creatures belong either to us or to those who will follow? Have they not equal rights to a place in the sun? If so, we are justified only in destroying when and where we are forced to maintain our own competitive position.
Until we have fathomed that great problem, the evolution of the mind, we have no right to he dogmatic in our assertions that animals cannot understand and even think. What may be their attitude towards us and our boasted civilisation? There is sound common sense in Edward Carpenter's allegorical lines "Squinancy-wort":
"What have I done?
I am a little flower,
Out of many a one
That twinkles forth after each passing shower.
"Many an age agone,
Before man walked on earth, was.…
Web-footed monsters came
And into the darkness went
In ponderous tournament.
"What have I done? Man came,
Evolutional upstart one!
With the gift of giving a name
To everything under the sun.
What have I done? Man came
(They say nothing sticks like dirt),
Looked at me with eyes of blame,
And called me 'squinancy-wort.'
"Yet there is hope. I have seen
Many changes since I began.
The web-footed beasts have been
(Dear beasts!) and gone, being part of a wider plan.
Perhaps in His infinite mercy God will remove this Man!"
- Wollaston, "Life of Alfred Newton," 1921.
- Wollaston, op. cit.
- Massingham. "Some Birds of the Countryside," 1921.
- Now Delia coarctata (Wikisource contributor note)
- Man as the sole factor is now doubted. Cf. P. R. Lowe, Ibis, p. 137, 1922.
- Lowe, P. R. (1922), A Reminiscence of the last great flight of the Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) in Canada. Ibis, 64: 137-141. doi:10.1111/j.1474-919X.1922.tb01303.x (Wikisource contributor note)
- Now Sitophilus granarius (Wikisource contributor note)