On the Ecological, Economical and Aesthetical Value of Species – Willemijn Heideman

As soon as I ride out of town on my bike, I am surrounded by meadows and canals. There are no elevations in the landscape, there are no forests near. As far as the eye can see, it is just meadows. This might seem a little boring and not very interesting to cycle through, but luckily we have 4 seasons that differ quite a lot.

Last time I was on the bike, was during the weekend; a small tour through the meadows and past some little hamlets. The meadows were almost empty; all cows are inside this time of the year. Apart from some hardy sheep, the only animal life to be spotted was avian. Most of the birds were not flying, but just merely sitting, foraging or waggling about on the meadows. The birds present were geese, gulls, swans and a variety of duck species.

As I continued my tour, I started thinking of how we perceive our wildlife.
There are a lot of ways of looking at wildlife; from an ecological view point, to an esthetical view point and an economic view point. Based on the three examples, I will look at wildlife in this more abstract or philosophical way. But first let me introduce the three main characters:

The Good (ecological view point)

Godwits (picture on top, left) and a number of other birds of the meadow have a nearly Saintly status in the Netherlands. Godwits are beautiful long-legged elegant birds, with a pretty beak and a remarkable call. They are easy to love and hard to dislike.

In spring they come all the way from Africa to nest in the meadows.  Around this time bird lovers trek into the meadows, equipped with binoculars and sticks. These tools are not meant to catch the birds, they are for marking the nests on the ground. We go all the way to protect the nests with little flagpoles so that farmers are aware of the presence of nests when they set to harvest grass for the first time of the season early in May. Because of multiple reasons the number of bird chicks that reach adulthood is in decline in our meadows.

Climate change is one reason, since spring comes earlier each year. As a result many insects are also having their peaks earlier in season when the birds are still sitting on their eggs. The insects are gone by the time the chicks need to be fed. Another reason is that farmers changed over to monoculture high yield grasslands. They can often get one or two extra harvest(s) per year nowadays because grass starts to grow earlier. Harvesting early in season is tricky for the birds since their chicks are still warm and cosy in an egg or they are too small to flee.

The Bad (economical view point)

The presence of the geese (picture, middle) in autumn and winter is quite a different story. There are more and more geese in the Dutch meadows. Most of them come here in autumn, when temperatures in their Siberian breeding grounds plummet. The meadows are like heaven on earth for them. The same grass that is causing the problems for the Godwits, is a feast for the geese thanks to the protein-rich monoculture grass. The geese land on a very well laid table, food is everywhere. At the same time our agricultural landscape is low in predators. There is an occasional fox but other than that all other predators such as falcons or buzzards are too small to catch geese.

Some geese like the meadows so much that they don’t even bother to fly to Siberia to breed anymore. They have started breeding in the meadows, and by doing so their numbers are increasing even more. All these geese are a threat in the supply chain of grass (or hay) for our cattle, because a single goose eats up to a kilo grass a day. Their insatiable appetite is a farmer’s nightmare.

We want to cull the geese, because of the economic damage they cause. We want to cull them, because they thrive on the changes we made….
(or we try to get protection laws changed in order to be able to cull).

The Ugly (aesthetical view point)

Gulls? Ugly, noisy and aggressive birds if you are to believe the general opinion. I personally have a weak spot for them. They are incredibly smart and I like every species that is able to withstand humans (well, apart from mosquitoes).

The herring gull (picture, right)is a protected species in the Netherlands. The number of gulls in their natural habitat is declining somewhat, but this gull is adapting nicely to the changed environment it lives in: it is becoming a city dweller. Herring gulls are remarkably intelligent, they learn exactly where and when garbage is collected in cities. We know of one female gull that was nesting on the island of Texel but flew 75 km to Amsterdam every day, to the exact same bridge to collect food. She left her young on the island and commuted to the city: how humanlike of her!

So we try to cull the gulls. In this case, we cannot claim financial losses, but the fact that they are bloody nuisance is considered a good enough reason….

 The good, the bad and the ugly

Now dear reader, remember our key players; the Good Godwit, the Bad Goose and the Ugly Gull. I am going to shuffle their cards a little.

The Ugly Godwit?

What if our beautiful Godwit migrated from Africa in equally small numbers every year to nest in our meadows. But now it would not feed on tiny insects any longer, instead it would forage on our garbage in the cities. It would tear up garbage bags with it’s pretty beak and toss the waste around while looking for food.

What would we do? Would we still want to deter this Godwit like the Ugly Gull?
My guess is that we don’t. Instead of culling the trouble maker, we’d all go to garden centres to buy feeding stations for these lovely Godwits. A pretty bird like that shouldn’t eat waste.

The Good Goose?

What if our goose would still fly over from Siberia in huge numbers every autumn, but instead of devouring ‘our’ grass it would now feed on mosquito larvae that it gathers from ponds or canals…

Would we still want to cull this Goose?
Again, I don’t think we would. I think we would welcome them on our fields, because they keep mosquito numbers in control. For that, we would like them.

The Bad Gull?

Now, our gull has drawn the unlucky card. Their numbers would remain more or less equal, but instead of feeding on garbage they would feed on grass…
What would we do?

In this case I am afraid the verdict will remain the same. We would want to cull the gull for the economic damage it does.

Now, sit back and rethink the whole situation. Is it possible that in our judgements we are just a little bit biased? Could it be that we value species on superficial criteria. Is it even our place to make such judgements?

Evolutionary science tells us that ALL species present on earth today have evolved from a common ancestor 2 billion years ago. This means that each species has been adapting to life on earth just as long as we have. More over, each species has a role in the earths ecosystem.

I think we should be very, very cautious giving species a negative label. There is more about them than we know. We shouldn’t judge them solely by our economical or aesthetical standards. Instead we can only use ecological standards and if we do, all species are equal (to paraphrase George Orwell).

I still love gulls. They are neither bad nor ugly.

For more from the author you can check out her LinkedIN profile here: willemijn heideman

1 Comment

  1. Tony says:

    Hi there,

    A most thought-provoking article Willemijn/James and a topic which I can most definitely relate to. I think if most, if not all threatened species (particularly in the case of the birds) are to thrive we need an educated youth and conservation sector willing to understand the connection between the good, the bad and the ugly. Not all species live contently with each other; humanity does have its pest species too. The best way and most efficient way to move nature conservation on is to accept we sometimes need to put a management system in place. Where we do so, it brings results. Doing nothing is never an option in conservation circles.

    Best Wishes

    Tony Powell

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