When an animal or bird has been given protected status, can that ever be lifted with public support, once numbers recover? Philip Bowern looks for answers as the badger cull starts.
A long-established and learned member of the conservation community, who also happens to work for an organisation that supports game shooting, was talking wildlife protection with me the other day.
He revealed that when faced with a difficult moral question about how man interacts with animals he consults an elderly relative who was instrumental, many years ago, in helping to draft many of Britain's bird and animal protection measures.
"Should we ever," he told me he had asked his relative, "reverse the protected status of a species once it has fully recovered and no longer 'needs' the protection for its survival?"
The answer was, he said, unequivocal – of course we should, if the once-threatened species is now becoming a threat itself to the balance of nature and to farming.
Many birds of prey, once mercilessly persecuted by gamekeepers because of the risk they posed to game bird chicks, have now recovered to the point where they are more common, even than some of the species they prey upon.
How acceptable would it be to the public, however, if a species that has earned almost hallowed status, partly by dint of protection, suddenly lost that protection and could, theoretically, be controlled?
We probably had our answer last year when Defra proposed to allow the control of buzzards – currently a protected species – in order to protect pheasant chicks from predation.
The department had planned to spend £375,000 on testing control measures for buzzards, after concern that a surge in numbers was leading to too many pheasant chicks in a specific location being killed, damaging important rural businesses connected to shooting.
The outrage was swift and to the point. The RSPB said it was "stunned" by Defra's plan to allow the destruction of common buzzard nests and to permit buzzards to be taken into captivity to remove them from shooting estates.
The charity went on: "The buzzard was eradicated from large swathes of Britain following decades of persecution. Legal protection and a general warming of attitudes towards buzzards and other birds of prey on the part of many lowland land-managers led to buzzards recovering across the UK: a fantastic conservation success story."
There is no question that protection for buzzards has indeed been a big success. The same can be said for sparrowhawks, which are now a fairly common bird of prey. But some believe that now both species are having unacceptable impacts on songbird numbers.
However having had their fingers burned once already, are ministers at Defra – also treading very carefully on the issue of badgers – likely to relax the rules surrounding any other protected species?
There were strong rumours at last month's Game Fair that Owen Paterson, Secretary of State at Defra and notably supportive of robust management of wildlife in the countryside, would be announcing a relaxation of the rules covering the shooting of cormorants, that now take numbers of fish from inland waterways, well away from their traditional coastal haunts. So far there has been no announcement.
And the biggest issue of all in this debate, the future of badgers in bovine TB hotspot areas, perfectly sums up the difficulties for legislators in reversing the status of a species – even in a limited way – once it has become protected.
Farmer Richard Foss, whose South Devon farm became one of the last in a badly hit TB infected zone to go down with the disease this month, asked, in an interview in the Western Morning News why we are allowed to shoot foxes and rabbits but not badgers?
Of course, the shooting of badgers has, in parts of Somerset and Gloucestershire, begun under tight regulation as part of the battle to control bovine TB.
The Government has approved pilot culls to test the effectiveness of shooting as a means to control the badger population and reduce TB in the wild and in cattle. The trial started in the early hours of yesterday.
Those doing the culling hope badgers can eventually be legitimately controlled everywhere, just as they were before the Badger Act gave them total protection, mainly to bring cruel baiting to an end.
Mr Foss – who is a supporter of wildlife as chairman of the South Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty partnership – told the WMN last week that if protection for badgers was lifted you would have "a smaller, healthy population of badgers."
That is clearly a view which won't be shared by the vast majority of the anti-cull campaigners. Last week their leading member suggested the badger cull was a kind of Trojan horse, designed to usher in cruel practices like bear baiting and burning witches. That comment, from Queen guitarist and the most high profile badger cull opponent Dr Brian May illustrates the depth of divisions on this issue. Can we ever bridge that divide?