A bug’s life

Another trip up to the Lakes and another chance to reflect on some of the more confusing elements of exactly what conservation should be all about. The opportunity for pause for thought this time came from Rachel Carson’s, seminal book “Silent Spring” and a fly infestation at the farmhouse we were spending the weekend in!


Carson’s book describes what sounds a bit like a wild west of pesticides and herbicides across the states in the 50s with descriptions of planes flying overhead liberally spreading chemicals not only over crops but them landing on people, in gardens and killing wildlife and livestock.

She powerfully describes the rapid and almost indiscriminate spread of chemicals as a method of controlling ‘pests’. Whilst there is no question that pesticides have served a valuable purpose in increasing food production they have also caused many problems. Interesting angles which Carson considers are how we come to label certain species as pests – and also how their wider role in the ecology of an area can be forgotten. Or alternatively how, in an attempt to kill off a pest, we can actually kill off another species which was actually helping us kill off that very pest. She points to an amazing example of this with the ‘scale’ a bug which was causing major damage to the California citrus industry, until the introduction of an Australian beetle which managed to control the scale in just two years… until farmers began to experiment once more with pesticides and managing to kill off the beetles with a resulting resurgence in scale.

With all this running through my mind an insect infestation of the house where we were staying was an ironic and eye opening coincidence. As we reached immediately for the bug spray (and what else can you do when opening a curtain releases hundreds of flies to swarm all over your bedroom?!) I wondered what roles those flies where playing in the ecosystem, and what effect the fly spray was having…

Unfortunately for anyone who has spent any time with me recently that got me back to thinking about the badger cull (I have become a badger bore in recent weeks). The farmer and his gun is really only showing the same reaction as me and my fly spray, the desire to remove an annoying and potentially disease spreading pest. I started all my thinking on the badger cull (and I am not sure it has changed) with a simple, but I think important premise than killing wildlife to save cattle is wrong. A challenging question was, how far do you push that philosophical point, what if the UK dairy industry was about to be wiped out by TB. To extend the argument further, where do you draw the line on wildlife. If we could wipe out the female anopheles mosquito overnight and stop malaria in its tracks – surely we wouldn’t be complaining too much about the mosquito’s right as wildlife and I think if we are honest we’d all love to see an end to midgies – so are we left with the uncomfortable conclusion that my principle is just killing nice fluffy wildlife is wrong – but annoying, little wildlife is fair game… It feels a slightly trite argument – it probably is ok to want to save badgers, but not mind losing mosquitos or midgies, but perhaps we are, as usual wandering in a large grey area with more questions than answers.


About domhall

I have spent the last 15 years juggling careers in education publishing, expedition leadership and safety training. It has involved a careful balancing act of dreams of expedition travel, a love of climbing, walking and the outdoors and the the realities of life - and the later has definitely come off worse. I've run an adventure travel and expedition training business and lived in the sometimes sunny Lake District. Having taken a year out to complete an MSc in Environmental Technology I am now working for The Conservation Volunteers, working on engaging communities in their local green spaces.
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