Friday, 25 April 2014

I miss the Great Auk

Reposted in celebration of World Penguin Day....

I think it was Jeremy Clarkson (funny and clever, but an ass) who wrote a piece a while back asking if anyone missed extinct species, and why should we care. Well, I do. I miss them badly. Not the ones which died out a million years ago, but the ones I just slightly missed, whose time on earth almost overlapped with mine but not quite. The Great Auk is a classic example.

Once found throughout the North Atlantic, including Britain, the Great Auk was the original penguin. The latin for the Great Auk was Pinguinus, and the very word Penguin may derive from the Welsh Pen-Gwyn, or white head. When sailors from Europe sailed to the south seas and encountered flightless birds, they named them after what they already knew. That the thing we now call penguins are seen as exotic, while the creature they were named after is extinct is as good an example of baseline shift as I can think.

Biologically, the Great Auk was basically a fat razorbill that had lost the power of flight, and their similarity to what we now know as penguins is a wonderful example of convergent evolution - a process by  which animals evolve similar forms to fill the same ecological niche in a different part of the world. Like hedgehogs and porcupines or tenrecs.  

Sadly the Great Auks were hunted to extinction, with the last two killed on Iceland in the 1800s. 
The thing is I love penguins, but think of them as something far away and exotic. It saddens me to think that we had our own unique version just a few lifetimes ago, but I missed it.  I saw one stuffed in the Natural History Museum, and it made me feel sad. 

So anyway. I do care if animals go extinct. I can and do give scientific explanations for this in my work all the time, but I don't think I need to. The death of any species diminishes all of us.

Updated in April 2014

Monday, 7 April 2014

The end of the badger cull could be a turning point

Last week the Environment Minister Owen Paterson – O-Patz to his friends – announced that he would not now be rolling out badger culls across England, after the two pilot culls mounted in Gloucester and Somerset failed on every single level. Of course he did not admit the last part, and still clings doggedly to the idea that killing badgers is essential to tackling TB (it’s not, according to all the scientific experts) but this was a u-turn nonetheless.

In fact it was more than that. It was a crucial moment in our battle to alter the relationship people in this country have with the natural world. All around us our wildlife is beset with difficulties. Habitats are being destroyed. Subsidized agriculture strips the soils. Birds of prey in Scotland are being shot. Wild boar in the South West are facing calls for heavy culling or eradication. The oceans are being dredged for fish.
Yet in the midst of all this, there has been a  small victory. Not just a victory for science or for common sense, but a victory for the ability of people to face down the government. 
If we had simply let the badgercull go ahead, if we had resigned ourselves and moved on, it would still be getting rolled out. It would have told the government, and governments to come, that they can do what they like. That they can continue to carve up control of the countryside between developers and farming interests. But we did not. People wrote letters and blogs and took to social media. They talked to their friends. They organised rallies, and followed the hunt, documenting evidence of its failure. The fact that marches were held for badgers all over England is astonishing. That people were willing to stay up through the night to patrol the cull zones is heroic.
Common political thinking says that issues like wildlife do not matter much to the public. We are all supposed to be too interested in the economy and our own material well-being to care. But the point is that people do care, very, very deeply. For many of us this became something of a line in the sand, and just for once, it has partially held.
This is not to say that everything is now okay. It is not. None other than Princess Anne has called for gassing and there is still a danger the culls will rear their ugly head again. At the same time all of the other problems I describe remain. But we have made progress. The NFU has been humiliated for its hubris. Politicians now know that this is a dangerous subject. Hundreds of people have been motivated, perhaps as never before. With any luck we will be able to use some of that energy and momentum to push the wildlife agenda, to save the boar, to protect the otters and the beavers and bring back the lynx. To get our marine conservation zones, and expand the forests.

Because at the end of the day, it matters.