Killing the ethic of killing.


(Grey Squirrel, photo by me)

“We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realised then and have known ever since that there was something new to me in those eyes, something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.” Thinking Like a Mountain, A Sand County Almanac.

Death. We know it as an inevitability. There’s no elixir, to date, which grants us immortality. Death cannot be denied to all things that live. Hunger, senescence and biological weakness are the undeniable ways of this world.

That we humans, as part of nature, take life away from other beings is not always a wrongdoing. Peace on Earth is never going to be do-able when ecological violence and pain exist innately within the evolution of how life acquires energy; largely by the consumption of others.

More, we humans cause death by accident, neglect or ignorance. We might accidentally step on an ant, or a dandelion growing in a crack in the pavement. We might buy clothing from a retailer who sources stock from a place where river life is killed by dye run-off. We might choose to take our own life. We may even help others to end theirs.

Whether our actions are morally right or wrong lies somewhere within the depths of consciousness, control, intent and consequence. It’s a minefield of conflicting values, cultures and sensibilities. One might kill in self defence, for food to survive, but how many other circumstances are so arguable?

Conservation killing weighs particularly heavy on my consciousness. As the need to counter biospheric destruction grows greater than ever, the protection of one species directly against another seems a compelling act of penance for our stupidity. We are witnessing huge declines in biodiversity and abundance, catalysed now by an exponentially and rapidly changing climate. Species, both flora and fauna, are on the move, whether it be by our own hand or their own volition.

As environmentalists, I think we need to choose our responses carefully, avoiding self appointed Godliness driven by guilt, picking out who live or die by the fate of western one-upmanship, scientific drive and population data-sets. Please, just stop and consider the ramifications. How does killing really put a wrong right? Are we ever going to be so sure of outcomes, when we consider the vast complexity and interconnectedness of life? Rarely, I would suggest.

Some may say the outcome of no action is a dead end. I agree. As I see it, we need to act and fast. Non-lethal approaches ought to be paramount, providing space and place for suitable habitat, refugia, safe passage. We do not need to reach first for the gun, trap or poison.

I assert the killing of species not for food, in Western culture at least, stems from an archaic, patriarchal system of domination over the environment and control over other people, bleeding unnecessarily into modern life. These days, we appreciate there are the obvious psychopaths who maim and kill for selfish pleasure. They post images of themselves alongside their trophy-victims in acts of ultimate narcissistic revelry. But look again at our culture. The great, white hunter lives on, among the pest control ads in the newspaper, the farmer’s son with his shotgun after crows, the modern game keeper and, tragically, some conservation biologists and educators themselves. Allan/Allana Quartermaine’s of colonial expansion and profit assume an entitlement, that what they do is morally right, no matter what criticism is levelled at them.


(Shot corvids on sticks, photo by me)

That women have adopted the culture of killing is no surprise. One can admire and feel pride in a father’s ability to assert dominance and emulate as an equal. It’s a type of feminism we can all recognise, if honest. But it is hugely strong to reject the father’s ways for something better, and no act of kindness is ever wasted.

I seem impossibly both Kantian and Singerian when I state that we do ourselves injury by deliberate cruelty and murder of others, but also recognise that others are intrinsically valuable in themselves. And I cannot for the life of me see why this conflicts. But neither is it certain that other lives, apart from humans, are mere unconscious automatons (Kant), nor the greatest good be granted only for the greatest number (Singer). So I can reject both. Instead, I perceive all as dynamic process and by preventing the flourishing and interaction of the flow of life, we do wrong. The opposite is true when we aid life and help all.

I can’t bind this argument to whether conservation killing serves speciesist purpose. There is a wider problem. By making killing appear normal, those people of influence direct others, some of whom are not particularly ecoliterate and would act broadly and on impulse in any given situation.

I once heard from a neighbour of mine as we stood in the village square waiting for our chips to be cooked by the local postman (another story). The man had been out shooting grey squirrels and he said he was feeling very happy. I asked him why? To save the reds, was his response. It was in the Telegraph! I explained to him that the nearest red squirrels were at least 60 miles away. How would taking pot-shots at some of the local greys help those reds? It seemed mightily unfair on those individuals he randomly shot! In any case, to completely exterminate all two million grey squirrels in Britain would be a blood-letting so enormous as to traumatise all. It didn’t seem to register with my neighbour, as he began to complain about his trees being bark stripped. But I explained this is tree-squirrels’ ecological purpose, in the death and renewal of tree-communities. Pox! He insisted. Well, the random killing of greys, sick or not, reduces the chance of them ever developing natural resistance.

I told him he might think about planting native pines (far more suitable habitat for red squirrels), 60 miles from Mid Wales to his front door. He pulled a face. To top it, I also mentioned pine martens. Game keepers and land managers have pretty much wiped them out, yet apparently they do a good job of predating greys, able to catch them whilst lighter reds can escape by climbing to smaller twigs. He immediately bagan twitching, saying he’d worry about his chickens if the pine martens returned. I sighed and carried on with my day. Conservation NGOs and their allies in the news business, carry a huge responsibility to be ethical role models in their decision making, as well as being scientifically adroit.

So it was with great disappointment, a deep sinking and frustrated knot in the pit of my being, that I read of Red Squirrels United, an NGO front for a purge of a sentient creature, the grey squirrel, in claims that this will save the reds from extinction.

Greys were introduced by humans onto our islands way back in the 19th Century. They may well have arrived in Britain sooner or later, given the huge expansion of human technological development of transport, especially in trade and tourism with North America. The movement of species around the globe is inextricably linked to capitalist globalisation, with tentacles reaching back deep into Western exploration, scientific species collecting and colonial exploitation.

The reds were persecuted long before the arrival of the greys. In the New Forest alone, during the 1880s up to 2,800 reds were killed annually, by way of example (Silent Fields by Roger Lovegrove p 96). But consider this. The total red squirrel range is huge beyond our islands. There are eurasian reds from Ireland to the Russian coast on the Bering Sea. Like so many species, they are impacted by human actions and development, of course. Logging and the decimation of native pinewoods for non-endemic softwoods have cost them dearly. But we are not witnessing their extinction from the face of the planet. Not yet. Western Australian numbats, or New Zealand Maui’s dolphins, are down to the last few tens in number. That’s a crisis which may warrant more drastic action, not the plight of the red squirrel in Britain.

Red Squirrels United, which includes the Wildlife Trusts, are led by scientists with the notion that red squirrels in the UK are more valuable than greys, as enacted by the public/EU/lottery funded and “robust” conservation scheme to employ an extra 5,000 volunteers, a pro-amateur combo, to bludgeon to death the latter. How can this be a good thing? Far from being an enlightened, progressive measure, this is speciesism at its most determined, and heinously aggressive. More, that we have a culture who might vote to “save the reds” on account of their good looks and nostalgic value alone, seems ever-more anthropocentric. Ecosystems would suffer terribly by repetitive acts of cutism, or kawaii as the Chinese refer, where the weak, doe-eyed and unfathomably pretty are selected disproportionately to all else. Ah, but cute ‘Bob’ engages the people, I hear the NGO brand managers chant. Eco-systemically, this is crazy, an ethic which would skew food webs to hell and back. The scientists know it, and the argument soon falls away.

Conservation biologists are reductionists by training. Emphasis centres on population quantification and habitat availability, not the sentient physiology of any single being. When someone kills a living being, they assert their needs and wants over and above the value of the other. We hear, more often than not, that saving nature is good only because it is good for us ~ ‘us,’ of course, already being a rather selfish species.

Essentially, the other’s intrinsic ability to flourish is devalued to nil. Why should we humans, beyond the need for our own individual survival, be so cock-sure that is the best way to discriminate? What if we saved nature for the good of itself, we being included? The emphasis shifts to grant all with a direct moral status.

“The biocentric outlook on nature has four main components. (1) Humans are thought of as members of the Earth’s community of life, holding that membership on the same terms as apply to all the nonhuman members. (2) The Earth’s natural ecosystems as a totality are seen as a complex web of interconnected elements, with the sound biological functioning of each being dependent on the sound biological functioning of the others…. (3) Each individual organism is conceived of as a teleological center of life, pursuing its own good in its own way. (4) Whether we are concerned with standards of merit or with the concept of inherent worth, the claim that humans by their very nature are superior to other species is a groundless claim and, in the light of elements (1), (2), and (3) above, must be rejected as nothing more than an irrational bias in our own favor.”
Paul Taylor (1981)

Nature is so complex that taking away or adding building blocks is as much of a risk as leaving matters to the theory of homeostasis, or imagining a fixed utopian ecosystem. So-called alien species have been integral to evolution. We are not living in disneyland. Nature is dynamic. It changes, evolves and adapts. Let it.

If we intervene constantly and rapidly, nature is on a short-leash to react constantly, though by slower adjustment. We are picking at healing wounds. Instead, give space and time to process for nature to respond to our foolishness, because that is an act of love and undervalued by many.

Similarly, we can do much to slow the spread of so-called ‘invasive’ and ‘alien’ species now that we have a greater understanding of our impacts, but as far as grey squirrels are concerned, they are here to stay unless blood-letting reaches maximum output. The prospect of encouraging all humans to endlessly kill them, by all kinds of means, including with bags and blunt instruments, is not only hideously cruel, but also of the worst type of anthropocentric dominion. We are not gods. Neither should we expect of ourselves the vast understanding of complexity of life by assuming we are shepherds of every other living being.

And then there is love. Where’s the love? I write not of limp sentimentality but the strongest forms of kinship, which motivate us to do good things. I ask that we learn to love greys, like a child innately does so in the city park, observing and delighting in their antics, subliminally understanding that she is not alone here in this world. There are beings going about their daily lives as we do, and they are precious. They are involved in the flows of all life, as we are. Conservation biologists seem so averse to the idea that emotion be applied in any form to the decision making. Yet emotions are relevant and scientifically empirical. Emotions have evolved to motivate us in our actions. Combined with rationale, they are fundamental to our moral consciousness.

Plus, we can no longer remain accepting of the basic tenets of this utilitarianism (after Singer, the approach that weighs the costs/benefits of alternative courses of action and leads the decision-maker to act in a way that maximises the net benefits to the various stakeholders involved). Most don’t even consider their philosophy as utilitarian, yet it is imposed upon nature without wide debate and public consent. It’s also the general attitude of holism, the ecocentric view of what holds most value in life ~ the whole is worth more than the constituent members. Therefore, those individual members are deemed expendible for the greater whole. But as Heraclitus’ Unity of Opposites plays out in nature, there can be some measure between the needs of the individual verses the needs of the greater whole. In red squirrel conservation right now, we are seeing no accounting for the former when it comes to the value of an individual, sentient grey squirrel. Neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed that killing wolves to save deer was right, says Leopold. The green fire simply dies.

Where we are culpable to a huge extent, right now (those of us more ecologically informed, at least), is the continued acceptance of deliberate, expansive human development and intolerance towards the natural regeneration of habitats for the benefit of biodiversity, abundance and process. We can also slow down our global movement of species, our ‘high’ on travel technology and international trade, and increase awareness of the value of endemic life.

Reds or greys, squirrels have been doing squirrelly things in woodland ecosystems for eons, with mutuality and beauty. Greys are here to stay, please accept this. There are other pressures on reds that we need to factor. Improving habitat and compassionate conservation are hugely more advantageous than reliance on the ethic of killing, I suggest, a win win situation for all.

For more on Compassionate Conservation, please click here.


7 thoughts on “Killing the ethic of killing.

  1. Diane Maxfield

    A really interesting and well-argued essay. Could I query what looks like a typo? (Sorry, I used to proof read examinations materials for a living!)

    Para 12 – should ‘bound’ be ‘bind’?

    I hope it’s ok to share this essay.


  2. An interesting read. Much to be concerned about.
    I’m all for science, yet it’s not good to be totally detached.
    Words have power. Plantlife recently had a press release about thuggish plants taking over verges.
    The real reason of course was that those particular plants are more sucessful under the harsh conditions caused by pollutants.
    Yet how many people will go out and destroy nettles, brambles and dock were ever they find them because they are considered thuggish.
    These particular plants are an important food source for many animals. Some of our rarest plants are a ragwort and a dock.
    Thuggish should not have been used.
    There was also a few years ago a research group asking the public to kill wasps for study, after all wasps are a nuisance.
    When Buglife pointed out that wasps are an important part of the ecosystem and killing them because you didn’t like them was not that nice, they got told they wern’t proper scientists and they were being emotional.
    It does appear that it is ok to use emotional language at times. The thuggish plants, grey squirrels being called tree rats, vermin, weeds, cold blooded killers.
    Yet if you point out the cruelty of culls, the overuse of chemical sprays etc you are called emotional, unscientific, hysterical, a tree hugger.
    And what many people don’t seem to realise is just how much of our wildlife is non native, yet has been here for thousands of years. What do we kill off. What do we keep. The Little Owl is non native but is protected. But if an eagle owl dares to try and introduce itself it must be eliminated despite eagle owls having lived in Britain in the past.
    Ecosystems are not static. Some animals and plants in the UK have always been at the edge of their range. Others were driven to near extinction by habitat destruction and hunting. Destroying a more sucessful animal or plant isn’t going to bring back lost habitat.
    Red Squirrels were already gone from most of the UK before the greys were even here. Grey squirrels are just a handy scapegoat.
    Habitat loss and pollution are huge threats. Yet people will happily kill slugs in their garden with pellets and then wonder where all the hedgehogs are or destroy wildflowers with weedkiller and complain there are no butterflies. It’s easy then to blame some introduced species for the problem than admit it’s their own fault.
    There are conservationists that do see there is a problem with the way things are going. Hopefully more will join them.
    Sorry for the long rambling post.

  3. Thank you, all very interesting. The motivation for the interest in red squirrels in Britain is worth questioning, there’s certainly some nationalistic myth coming into play. It would be interesting to know what sort of equilibrium would be reached between them if pine martens were able to return in significant numbers. I’ve never had the pleasure of seeing one alive (only stuffed, sadly). And would wolves also take a toll on the more ground-dwelling greys?

    Very minor point, but ‘kawaii’ is Japanese, not Chinese.

    1. I think there’s a new push in the UK towards giving nature a monetary value. The idea is that we don’t seem to recognise the need for something unless it contributes to the economy in some way.

      Red squirrels are currently seen as “eco tourism” they attract visitors and their money. However if they were abundant with no Greys to blame, I suspect they would be culled to protect trees etc.

      Really good article!