Snakes Alive?

What will become of this young snake?
What will become of this young snake?

I am gradually learning through an exchange of blogs with Nicholas Milton of the Guardian that the greatest thing a conservationist can do is identify a problem. Contrarily, the most foolish thing he can do is suggest doing anything about it.

If I understand his blogs correctly, Nicholas Milton has discovered that the adders in his area are declining, and that a major contributing factor of this decline is predation. Predation in this case comes in the form of a buzzard (or buzzards) which have developed a taste for snake. This has now been framed twice in blog articles as a baleful, tooth-sucking dilemma which is given a spark of excitement by the fact that writing about it seems to stir some lucrative controversy. Never at any point has he ventured any possible means of resolving this situation, and for all his prevaricating, I wonder if Nicholas Milton sees any irony in the fact that he works with a charity called “Practical Action”?

In his latest article, featured on Mark Avery’s blog, we receive another dose of fretful hand-wringing in which Milton effectively explains that saying bad things about buzzards is a political minefield. Raptor enthusiasts don’t like to hear anyone saying rude things about their birds and refuse to listen to anything that has not been systematically peer-reviewed, and some people within the shooting world are looking for any excuse to call for the legalisation of buzzard control. In the swirling mess of controversy and excitement, Milton has actually put his finger precisely on the most important fact of all; that the prevailing political situation in this country makes it impossible to have an objective conversation about birds of prey.

We are so set in our ways that anyone who discusses birds has to be filed into one of two camps and appropriate bias apportioned. You either light a cigar and shoot prodigious numbers of game birds or you peer into a scope and gaze at red kites on a feeding station. Anyone entering a discussion on conservation is greedily gobbled up into one side or another so that it is surprisingly difficult to stand alone and voice a perspective from outwith the exchange. And besides, anything I say is irrelevant because I personally release 75 billion pheasants into the countryside each year.

I am probably fonder of adders than anyone else I know. I would be devastated if they were no longer found in Galloway, but the issue of adder conservation is part of a much larger picture of wildlife in Britain. Buzzard predation is only a small part of this tiny microcosm, and having found a fox earth filled with headless adders, it is clear that there are many species which enjoy eating a snake. The irony is that if I wanted to relieve this specific predation pressure, the law would back me to kill foxes without end – I could sit out on the hill every hour that God sends, snaring, trapping, bolting and shooting foxes until their bodies were heaped before me like Little Bighorn, and I could do all this without even having to provide an official reason for it. In a world where there is such a legal precedent in favour of predator control, isn’t it perverse that the very sniff, overtone or suggestion of getting involved in any way with a relationship between snakes and another of their predators sets the very banshees of hell alive with horror and fury.

To be quite honest, I don’t think I am arguing for the control of buzzards, but I would like to think that we could honestly discuss ways to proceed without being met by prejudice and politics. Nicholas Milton claims to seek “rationale” debate, but only with people who agree with him. I am 28 years old and have several questions that I would like my father’s generation to answer about their custodianship of Britain’s wildlife. I dread to think what my children will ask me in another 28 years. Is it really more important that we score points, or should we focus on doing our honest best for every species?

One thought on “Snakes Alive?

  1. Tom

    Why don’t you apply for a license to protect your adder population? I can see why they don’t hand out licenses to protect pheasants, but adders on the red list. You have the evidence, why not try to preserve them for your children?

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