It should come as little surprise that the majority of issues initially billed as human/wildlife conflicts actually centre more on conflict between stakeholder groups. Between humans and other humans, as opposed to man and beast.
Wildlife, as a rule, is not overly confrontational, whereas people are. Thus many of the “big issues” in the realms of ecology, conservation and animal welfare – whether that be driven grouse shooting, pest control, fox hunting or canned hunting – actually boil down to our own conflicting views over how we should engage with the natural world. And, ultimately, how we as individuals perceive wildlife. Something which has proven a major focal point during the first few weeks of my Masters degree, and has caused me to contemplate, in depth, just how I, personally, view the creatures with whom we share our countryside. If only to decide, in the future, my stance on topical issues.
One thing has become quite clear during my background reading (and ample discussion) on the subject, is that there is no clear answer. And no right or wrong way of viewing the natural world. Sure, I find some outlooks distasteful, but taking a minute to assess my own views has resulted in the conclusion that our perceptions vary incredibly. Even among those sympathetic to nature. And that hypocrisy is often part of the norm, based on a whole suit of factors: from charismatic appeal of certain species to our own financial and emotional investment. While disagreement is inevitable, and polarised views common, I have come to believe that understanding alternate viewpoints is key. Especially when so many conflict situations can, at best, only result in compromise, and rarely produce an outcome deemed satisfactory to all involved.
Though I have also realised that it is almost impossible to place yourself entirely in one category, however hard you try.
But what are the broad outlooks that must be considered and understood?
- Humanistic – Those who view animals as sentient beings, believe fully in animal rights and believe man and beast to be unequivocally equal. Oppose the exploitation, control or killing of wildlife on moral grounds. Emotionally invested in wildlife.
- Conservational – Those who view wildlife as part of the wider ecosystem to be protected and safeguarded for future generations. Motivated by biodiversity and a belief that we are obliged to protect the natural world.
- Utilitarian – Those who view wildlife as a resource, to be exploited for personal or monetary gain. Viewing certain species as a threat to be removed and others as a direct source of income or sustenance. Interested in the practical value of the land.
- Dominionistic – Similar to the above but believing that, as the dominant species on earth, humans have a right to alter the land as we see fit. Exploiting the natural world as a resource, to be developed, consumed or likewise. Interested predominately in controlling nature.
- Aesthetic – Predominantly interested in the aesthetic beauty and appeal of wildlife and the countryside, for recreation and personal enjoyment.
- Negativistic – Those who possess a fear or aversion to wildlife and/or view species as an inconvenience to daily life.
An interesting graph from a university slide giving a broad outlook on how different groups invested in the countryside view nature. Though for many, myself included, the lines become blurred from time to time…
How do I personally perceive wildlife?
As a conservationist, I, of course, possess a predominantly protectionist outlook, and desire to maintain the countryside in a “natural” state – though I use this term loosely as, for the large part, all hope of this has been lost. This mindset, of course, often puts me at odds with a number of other groups: namely those who exploit wildlife too harshly, or take an over dominionist approach to species, to such an extent that it seems detrimental to their conservation status. It does, however (funnily enough) also set me on a collision course with those boasting a humanistic outlook – though animal rights and conservation are often unfairly lumped together from time to time. Conservation often involves the abandonment of sentiment – whether you’re killing foxes to prevent the predation of rare birds or enacting lethal control measures to stem the time of invasive species. It is not nice, but it is often necessary.
I am, however, not prone to bouts of sentiment, and thus find myself adopting a humanistic approach from time to time. Something which, at times, leaves me looking rather hypocritical – my stance varying depending on the appeal of the species in question (many will not admit to this, but I suspect the same goes for others). Prime examples being my all out hatred for whaling and the killing of protected hen harriers but my willingness to control grey squirrels, and at times, my openness to removing pest species from the home. Whether they be rats or ants. The latter leading me to believe that dominionist tendencies do exist somewhere in there. And also posing questions with regards to whether or not I take a negative approach to certain species, which I almost certainly do. I am not above using the term pest with regards to rats gnawing through my household cables and am unashamed to admit I am actively scared of wasps. Is a rat costing me money through household damage any different to a fox costing a farmer money through the killing lambs? Not really when you think about it.
Examining things, I have also come to the conclusion that at least part of me is also a wildlife utilitarian. I eat meat – the prime example of supporting practices seek to exploit the land, and also consume game. Something which leaves me unable to broadly label all those involved in its production as “the enemy”. I also engage in wildlife tourism which, despite its obvious links to conservation, could also be seen as utilitarian. The money from which may go to good causes but more often than not, I suspect, also ends up lining the pockets of one individual or group.
I am also invested in the ascetic beauty of the land – who isn’t? Though my perception of beauty ofter varies with that of others. My ideal vision for a “wild” Lake District, for example, vastly different to those who view its current visage fondly. Which, again, links in with the conservational approach to things and leaves me at odds with those who utilise the land for their own financial gain.
I, like so many others, am a big fat hypocrite with regards to wildlife and find myself falling into all of the above categories. Albeit to varying degrees. Motivated, on occasion, by each, yet still confrontational to each from time to time. Not that this is a bad thing, and the decisions of each group must be questioned on occasion, though absent sweeping generalisations. Everyone is entitled to view the natural world in the way they see fit, and often the labels we attach prove unfair. A farmer or gamekeeper actively invested in the land may still appreciate it for its beauty, and find themselves motivated, on occasion, by the principals of conservation. Whereas an ecologist, dedicated to the preservation of nature, may also exploit wildlife to a varying degree for food or enjoyment. It is all rather complicated, isn’t it?
Conflict when it comes to wildlife is inevitable, and in some cases healthy, though unless you are the staunchest member of each group – which few are – we must avoid the tendency to stereotype. It is possible to reach common ground with almost any stakeholder when one looks hard enough, and no individual is exempt from hypocrisy.
While we most challenge others perceptions, it is almost always necessary to understand what motivates others before doing so. There are very few clear-cut “bad guys” when it comes to wildlife, and even fewer wholly good ones.
Just a few thoughts – I apologise for the rather rambling post.