All Things Being Equal…

Let’s talk about equality. Last month was, after all, Pride month, and many people in the world are still struggling to achieve equality, based on gender or their preferences in who they love. And there isn’t a formula, we just are who we are, and as long as we’re nice, where’s the problem? After all, there is a slime mould, of all things, that has (we think) 720 different genders. So the world isn’t built in black and white, rather in all sorts of wonderful colours and variety. But this blog isn’t really about this, it’s more about how we perceive stuff around us, and the value we give it.

An orange slime mould

There is a famous George Orwell quote ‘All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others’. Working with both animals and people, this rings very, and sometimes depressingly, true. Take midgies for example. I do not love them, they make my summer an itchy misery. But just because I don’t like them, it doesn’t mean they aren’t important. Without insects like these, we wouldn’t have swallows, or bats, or fish (that eat the larvae in the water), or frogs, and so on….so my likes and dislikes should be irrelevant here, as the insects are a large and vital link in the food web.

Midge swarm

Or clegs. Now there’s an insect it’s hard to love! The chew itchy, leaky holes in you and have even made it into mythology. Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir, had a shorter handle than intended, as Loki, in the form of a gadfly (cleg), bit the smith making it and distracted him. Having tried to work in still, humid cleggy weather, I sympathise, and yes, I will swat a cleg if it’s biting me. But it does make you think, too often we seek to eradicate species because they inconvenience us.

Cleg or horsefly

And slugs. How often have you lamented holes in your strawberries or the loss of a favourite plant to munching molluscs? But many slugs are detritovores – they eat dead and decomposing stuff – so have a valuable role in keeping the world clean.

Great black slug. Rather usefully, eats dog poo.

Away from insects, probably the commonest example of disliked wildlife are gulls. I find it sad, with avian flu killing up to 75% of some birds in some areas, to hear a fairly common reaction of ‘hope it kills all the gulls, they squawk all night and crap on my car’. I’m not saying that people don’t have the right to dislike gulls, but actually wishing them dead because they do something we dislike is a strong emotion – and not, if we are to reverse biodiversity loss, a helpful one. Gulls are smart, adaptable birds, and most of the time that they are in conflict with people, it’s because they are taking advantage of our profligate habits. Yes, they are a nuisance at 4am, but have you ever walked through a main street in a town at kicking-out time? The food waste you see is a magnet for something with a dustbin diet, and of course attracts gulls. Perhaps it’s ourselves we should be looking at more closely!

Herring gull with chicks

But it’s easy to convince most people of the value of other animals. Here, most people like seals, largely based on their cute appearance – look at that wee face! But the fishermen don’t like them, as they may eat salmon.

Seals

Or sea eagles – they are a rare treat here, a magnificent predator soaring through the skies, a taste of the wilderness on their rare visits. But, out west, the farmers view them with suspicion – they are top predators, take lambs and cost the farmers money. So here are yet another couple of examples of valuing or not valuing a creature based on our interests.

Sea eagle

So, what do we do about it? All animals are clearly not equal, and a lot of the value we give them is based on whether they affect us economically, have an irritation factor or, mostly, just look dramatic or cute. Seriously, don’t underestimate the cute factor – policies on certain species have been made, and taxpayers’ money spent, based on public opinion on whether we like something or not!

But that’s where we start hitting problems, because nature and ecology isn’t based on cute. It’s based on a complex and and interwoven series of relationships that we still don’t fully understand. So it’s not like you can pick and choose what you can and can’t have in the natural world. It’s like a giant Jenga stack – yes, you might pull out a few blocks and the thing still stands, but sooner or later, some key block is going to go and the whole thing will come crashing down. Our natural world is so interlinked that we have to take care our likes and dislikes don’t cause us to forget this.

Puffin – the one bit of wildlife everyone likes!

So, we’ve established that in our eyes, all wildlife isn’t equal. Further to this, our relationship with the land is similarly lopsided. We rightly celebrate our nature reserves – oases of naturalness (for want of a less clumsy word!), and sanctuaries for our beleaguered wildlife, in a landscape highly modified by humanity. But the truth is that we often only set aside land for nature if it’s no good for our own ends. Consequently, most of our prized and much-loved reserves lie on land that is simply too wet, too dry, too rocky, too salty, too windy – or indeed too sandy – to be of use for anything else. And even then, we like to think that we’re doing nature a favour!

Our beloved Forvie – good job it’s no use for development!

But you can’t help but wonder what potentially awesome wildlife hotspots might lie under the more gentle, fertile and productive landscapes that we use for other things. Maybe, some day, we might find out – if we can manage to bring some equality back into our relationship with the natural world.