“Nature red in tooth and claw”, a phrase sealed into the consciousness of the English language in Alfred Lord Tennyson’s epic search for meaning In Memoriam – A.H.H., has come to symbolise our unease when confronted by the violence of nature. It is in some ways emblematic of the Victorian tendency, which persists today, to take the less palatable, less decorous elements of life and put them out of sight, out of mind.
A debate last night, hosted by Writers’ Centre Norwich, took “Tooth & Claw” as its title and sought to examine our attitude to one particular example of nature’s violence – birds of prey. Putting the case for raptors was Mark Avery, a key voice in the campaign to improve the fortunes of the Hen harrier. Opposite him in almost every respect was Robin Page, whose Daily Mail article last Monday broadcast his strident anti-predator views to a wide audience. Sitting, buzzard-like, on the fence post was Jake Fiennes, whose work on habitat creation at Raveningham Estate is held up as an example of conservation-minded game management. Renowned naturalist and writer Mark Cocker was in the chair, envied by no one.
I suspect most of the sizeable audience left with the same opinions they’d brought. Mark Avery’s opening gambit, “I don’t know why we’re here – birds of prey eat things; get over it” neatly ruled out one area of fruitless discussion. Robin Page clearly wasn’t about to be swayed – common sense, he said, demanded that we control raptor numbers, creating biodiversity through artificial balance given the lack of space in this country. Jake Fiennes agreed that raptors such as Buzzards and Sparrowhawks are more abundant now than at any point in his previous 20 years in Norfolk. He attributed this to recovery from the effects of now-banned pesticides such as DDT and said it was unrelated to a reduction in gamekeeper numbers of over 80%. However, he felt the burgeoning raptor population was having no impact on numbers of smaller birds.
It did feel as though Robin Page was swimming against the tide with his contention that raptors are devastating populations of small birds. But the main underlying theme, which could easily have occupied us for another hour or three, was our sense of the human role in nature. Robin Page called for “artificial balance”. A contributor from the floor declared, slightly hyperbolically, that there was no real nature left anywhere on the planet and we had to manage everything as man-made habitat. Jake Fiennes, under pressure, admitted that comprehensive “legal predator control” was a key element of his approach to conservation. Even Mark Avery was ready to support fox culling in a situation where “it worked” (on an RSPB reserve), although he generally seemed to favour a non-culling position.
To my mind, the era of “predator control” and “management” deserves to be pensioned off. It is the approach of the last thousand years (and before that, although less intensively). It has delivered a country shockingly poor ecologically, with an anaemic wildlife often reduced to clinging on in scattered outposts. Recent successes like the Red kite re-establishment, show how our countryside (AND our towns and cities) can be made vastly more interesting and diverse by giving nature a quick leg-up and then letting it get on.
The future needs to be with those who will let nature be nature. Yes, it will be red in tooth and claw. No, we shouldn’t fear that. The era of a “managed” “theme park” (to turn one of Robin Page’s phrases back on him) countryside has had its chance and it has been found wanting.
Feel free to chip in, disagree, comment etc.