A photo under the headline “One less parakeet” was published with a letter in The Shooting Times this week. It showed a boy, aged just 4 years old, proudly holding a gun and the dead parakeet he had just shot with it, quickly prompting a predictable social media backlash, but The Shooting Times defended publication of the photo, saying:
“The reaction shows a sad lack of knowledge about the natural world and rural society.”
So, what should we make of this? Is there a problem here? Firstly, I don’t personally have a big problem with a four year old learning to use a gun safely. For me that’s not a big issue, although as a rural dweller I resent the narrative which holds that rural society is partly defined by killing wildlife. What I do take issue with is the casual killing of the parakeet, or any other wild animal, and whether knowledge of the natural world could justify such killing, as The Shooting Times appear to imply.
“But it’s a pest!” scream some on social media, dismayed by the angry condemnation of the killing from animal rights campaigners. Other shooting enthusiasts commented how pleased they were to see “a young lad learning the values of pest control, the respect and responsibility of it.” Well, yes, parakeets can be a “pest”, although it’s unclear whether this parakeet was causing problems when it fell foul of the gun-toting four year old. We know it was shot on a farm, but we don’t know what sort of farm. Parakeets can cause a lot of damage on fruit farms and in vineyards, but they pose no threat to arable farms, or livestock.
And so, one wonders if The Shooting Times enquired about the justification for killing this parakeet before publishing the letter and photo.
In fact, unless it was posing a direct threat to the man’s farm, killing the parakeet may have been illegal, since although parakeets have now been added to the General License, this still only permits them to be killed when it can be shown that they pose a serious threat to the conservation of a native species, a threat to public health and safety, air safety or are causing serious damage to growing crops.
Well, parakeets are an invasive alien species that “compete with the likes of nuthatches” claimed Patrick Galbraith, editor of The Shooting Times. Is there any truth in this? Parakeets now number at least 32000 birds in England and their numbers continue to grow. So, killing a parakeet is doing our native birds a good turn, right? Not necessarily. Parakeets do compete for nesting cavities with nuthatches in some parts of Europe, but there is actually no evidence of this yet in the UK. There is anecdotal evidence that parakeets can drive other birds away from food sources like bird feeders, but does this represent a serious threat to native birds’ survival? As far as I’m aware, there is no evidence that competition with parakeets is driving a decline in any particular species of our native avifauna here in the UK and the RSPB, while emphasising that “it is important that the spread of the ring-necked parakeet is monitored and its potential for negative impacts on our native bird species assessed” is still not in favour of a cull of them “at this time.”
Some, like ecologist Professor Chris Thomas, go even further, arguing against the idea of “irrationally persecuting” a species just because it is “alien.” They point out that animals have always moved around the world, and the composition of biotic communities is always in flux. Strictly speaking, hares are non-native in the UK, yet there is no concerted campaign to reduce their numbers, despite them having the potential to damage crops. Why discriminate against more recent arrivals?
One could debate the intricacies of this argument, but let’s assume that parakeets can be a problem, if not as a menace to our native wildlife, then certainly as a threat to vineyards, and so we may occasionally need to control them. Would this farmer encouraging his son to shoot one then be justified? I’d still suggest not, and here’s why.
In 2015, a diverse panel of 20 experts convened at the International Expert Forum on Wildlife Control at the University of British Columbia and developed a set of principles that they proposed should govern wildlife control, guiding when it is undertaken and how it is carried out, while specifically acknowledging the need for ethical and evidence‐based approaches to managing such human-wildlife conflict.
And this is where we can begin to see that the ad hoc killing of unhelpfully labelled “pest” species by self-appointed guardians of the countryside becomes problematic. In later writing up their recommendations for ethical wildlife control, Dr Sara Dubois and her colleagues determined that “efforts to control wildlife should begin wherever possible by altering the human practices that cause human–wildlife conflict and by developing a culture of coexistence.”
This is a profound point, and challenges the assumption that our first response should always be to kill wild animals that we come into conflict with. Accordingly, we might first ask, had this farmer first tried to coexist with the parakeets? What measures had he taken to attempt to mitigate the threat the birds posed, whatever it was, that might have avoided the need for lethal control? Or did he just see a chance to shoot a wild bird and justify it later as “pest control’?
If coexistence is impossible, Dubois and her colleagues go on to suggest that resorting to lethal control should then “be justified by evidence that significant harms are being caused to people, property, livelihoods, ecosystems, and/or other animals.”
What evidence do we have that this parakeet was doing significant harm? It certainly wasn’t hurting anyone. Was it threatening crops? We don’t know. Was it threatening other bird species? The evidence for this seems patchy and insufficient on the face of it to justify lethal control. Even if we assume that the parakeet did somehow pose an ecosystem threat (as is arguably the case for some other species on the General License), would that then justify shooting it, or any other so-called “pest”?
Well, sometimes, but not always, and this is perhaps why Wild Justice have recently challenged the General License conditions in the UK, regulations which currently offer a more or less free hand to anyone inclined to kill any of the animals listed as a pest, including parakeets.
Importantly, Dubois and her colleagues also recommended that control programmes have “measurable outcome‐based objectives that are clear, achievable, monitored, and adaptive” while predictably minimising “animal welfare harms to the fewest number of animals.”
Simply killing an animal because it is a pest, or even a potential pest, does not conform to this standard, but sadly many wildlife control programmes fail this test. There is no clear achievable outcome except the immediate satisfaction of “one less parakeet”, but this often has little or no impact on the population of that pest species and as such is a futile gesture at best, and causes unnecessary suffering at its worst. Many control efforts are also unmonitored and certainly fail to harm the fewest possible number of animals. Indeed, some wildlife control programmes amount to little more than sustainable harvesting regimes whereby the killing must continue year on year, ad infinitum, without ever solving the root cause of the conflict.
Furthermore, using a shotgun to target a flying bird even arguably fails to guarantee one condition of the current version of the General License – that “any birds killed in accordance with this licence must be killed in a quick and humane manner.” Birds shot on the wing are frequently injured and may only die much later after suffering prolonged pain and trauma – an issue that has prompted calls for a review of how geese are controlled on Islay.
Lastly, Dubois and her colleagues suggest control efforts should “be informed by community values as well as scientific, technical, and practical information; be integrated into plans for systematic long‐term management; and be based on the specifics of the situation rather than negative labels (pest, overabundant) applied to the target species.”
Here, we should note that many people enjoy seeing parakeets, as well as many other species currently labelled as pests in the UK, while examples of systematic long term management plans relating to so-called “pest” species are hard to find. In human-dominated agricultural landscapes wildlife control will probably always be necessary, but people are rightly beginning to question the assumption that current norms surrounding lethal control are properly justified. Instead, we should be seeking to explore better, more long term solutions to the sort of conflicts that can generate calls for lethal control.
Meanwhile the sort of casual and thoughtless killing exemplified by this farmer encouraging his son to opportunistically switch from a teddy bear target to a live wild bird may soon, I hope, be consigned to history.
Hugh Webster is an independent conservationist and the author of The Blue Hare, a book about mountain hares and the restorative power of wilderness.