A letter in the Isle of Wight County Press (CP 12/4/19) from Steve Shaw raised a query about the Island’s red squirrels that had some readers reaching for their inkwells. Steve asked “If the grey variant is the superior, stronger breed, why must we protect red squirrels?”
Even if the piece was a brilliantly-crafted spoof, I’m going to rise to the bait, because it’s actually not as iconoclastic a question as it might seem. Let me jump right in and say that I think Steve’s got a point – if not the point he intended to make. His arguments against the red squirrel are feebly based purely on what use they are to humans. My answer to that is that squirrels are not here to be useful to us, any more than we are here to be useful to them. The antediluvian ideas that man has dominion over the animals and that this means he was required by God to subdue the earth, are not really very popular these days, even with Christians, and rightly so.
A more interesting question is the slightly abstract one which Steve by implication poses: on what basis do we humans decide which species and habitats are good and in need of conservation; and which are bad and in need of eradication?
This is a question that I have had thirty years or so of practical work as a countryside manager to consider. I remember a day working as a young ranger felling hazel in a coppice woodland. This is a common conservation activity around here, beneficial for dormice, bluebells, primroses and more. Two women rushed up to me, and begged us to stop “destroying the rainforests”. I couldn’t persuade them that what we were doing was a good thing, and they left dissatisfied, asking “What gives you the right?”
Thirty years and a lot of coppicing later their reasonable question still returns to me. The answer is that I did not then and still don’t now have a right: no moral or divine power allows us to label other living things good or bad. Consider the recent discussion about the reintroduction of sea-eagles to the Island. Some people thought it was a good idea, others didn’t. It was a typical debate about species conservation – absolute rights did not come into it.
The remarkable truth is that species and habitat conservation choices are never anything more than a matter of opinion. We can, I hope, weigh up the evidence and form a view, just like anything else. I’d prefer to do that in a scientific way but that’s not the only way by any means. There will be a range of views, and sometimes we will change our minds (like we did about that former beloved ornamental flower, Japanese knotweed). Calling red squirrels, or any species, ‘inferior’ just doesn’t make sense in this context. Squirrels are just squirrels, they live on the earth by just as much of a right as we do, and they don’t care what you think of them.