Patrick Galbraith: We are a brilliant and terrible species who messed it up a long time ago — and that means we have to do things we don’t want to

Our columnist laments the painful decisions on culling wild animals which he argues have to be taken if we're to manage the countryside and maintain biodiversity.

I was told last week by a veteran London publisher, who had just returned from the newly defunded Hay Festival, that there is a book out about the palatability and acceptability of ‘killing in the name of conservation’. Is it ever OK to trap rats in order to protect seabirds or to shoot Welsh foxes to save the last of the country’s lapwings? A farmer in Ceredigion called Charles Grisedale has one of the last breeding lapwing populations in Wales. When he was a boy, he told me, they were all over the country, from the Severn to Cardigan Bay.

As we all do when people recommend books, I said that I would read Hugh Warwick’s Cull of the Wild without delay. I even went home and ordered a copy. I’ve just got Francesca Reece’s novel, Glass Houses, to finish first, a brilliantly written exploration of life in rural Wales. It’s rare to come across a young, London-based writer who can talk at length about different types of chainsaw, but her father, like the protagonist in her book, was a forestry worker. Then I’ve been savouring for some months John Healy’s extraordinary memoir The Grass Arena, on boxing, chess and, as he puts it, ‘being a wino’.

I really will try to get round to Cull of the Wild; my issue is that the premise of it slightly irritates me (although the Country Life reviewer, a retired gamekeeper, comments that the author comes to some realistic conclusions). A podcaster who interviewed Mr Warwick said he was apparently a little nervous about the public outcry that might come from his daring even to grapple with the idea that we should kill in order to save wildlife.

“I’m coming to the end of a long grey-squirrel culling campaign and my neighbours, as well as the sparrows, seem to be delighted with the results”

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In an ideal world, where unicorns roam and book festivals can fully fund themselves, there would be no need. Nature would be perfectly balanced, Man would only take what he needed and lapwings would tumble and cry all across the Gower Peninsula, but we messed it up a long time ago. We are a brilliant and terrible species. We’ve partied too hard for too long and the duty now rests with us, through wilding, active conservation and the lethal control of animals (which is simply an integral part of responsible countryside management), to improve biodiversity.

I’m coming to the end of a long grey-squirrel culling campaign in my London garden. It’s a pretty wild place full of brambles and vines, but the squirrel numbers were nuts and I watched as they bullied the sparrows, which have had a rough time over the past few decades, into oblivion. I won’t give you my address, in case an activist bashes my windows in, but my neighbours, as well as the sparrows, seem to be delighted with the results. Katie at No 4 tells me that, for the first time ever, her window boxes have remained unmolested throughout spring and her bulbs, which usually get dug up, are still in the ground.

This afternoon, I am looking at a small meadow with a view to renting it for rabbit shooting with my spaniel. It sounds like a luxury, but the total cost, per year, will be about the same as one fee for a newspaper column. There is, at the far end — or there was — a pair of lapwings. There are also mink, a fox’s earth and countless corvids, all things that would happily raid lapwing nests. I could sit by and get on with the rabbit shooting, but that would be wrong. The right thing to do is to kill in the name of conservation, in the desperate hope of saving a bird that is already all but gone.

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