Predators. Killers. Humans, of course, are predators, but have lost touch with the natural cycle of killing just what we need, just enough for food. And we often have a muddled relationship with those natural predators that are so prominent at this time of year.
Predators often have many traits that we admire: cunning, strength, beauty, muscularity. We will happily give money to help save tigers, lions, jaguars, rare birds of prey in foreign lands. But, it seems, all predators are not equal.
Take the fox. To me, this is a stunningly beautiful animal. Lithe and graceful, with a beautiful rich red coat, athletic, intelligent and cunning. In the woods, the foxes are very active. The dog fox and vixen are seen together, and they are patrolling day and night, looking for prey that, at this time of year, gets less cautious in a desperate search for food. And they are successful, often caught on camera with squirrels or rabbits or birds. The foxes do us a great service: we have a lot of rabbits on our site, and they can get very destructive. By reducing the numbers of rabbits, they reduce the destruction the can cause, as well as reducing the overcrowding that can result in myxomatosis, a horrible disease that we know is in our locality, although we have never seen an affected rabbit in our woods. They also kill woodpigeons, which flock in their thousands onto local farmers’ crops, as well as our own profuse crop of acorns. And grey squirrels, which can strip the bark from young trees and older branches, and sometimes cause the death of trees.
But for some reason, many people don’t like foxes. Yes, they kill chickens if they aren’t adequately protected (as a chicken-keeper myself, I watch out for the fox!). Yes, in towns they can be noisy during the mating season, as well as spreading rubbish around while foraging. But is this enough to want to kill them?
The fact is, we need all the predators we can get. In this country, all our top predators have become extinct – the wolf, the lynx, the wildcat (except in Scotland). Large birds of prey are not widespread, confined to small parts of the British Isles – we have buzzards and occasional red kites, and three species of owl, but no ospreys or eagles in our area. We are left with the red fox, the badger (which mainly eats earthworms), and the feral domestic cat (which eats small rodents).
The consequences of our persecution of predators are there for all to see: fields overrun with rabbits, areas of forest overrun by damaging deer (including the alien muntjac, against which we have to protect our own trees), huge flocks of woodpigeon breeding unhindered, and descending upon the fertile arable fields with gusto.
We try to replace the natural predation cycle ourselves. But we aren’t very good at it; or rather we are too good at it. In a natural predator-prey relationship, the population of the one controls the population of the other – too much predation, and the prey will have more space, breed more, and make up the numbers, too little predation, and the prey gets overcrowded, suffers from disease, and breeds less. Predator numbers depend on available prey and both are regulated to the levels the ecosystem will sustain. When we try to do this, we usually kill far more than we need, and end up with an ever-escalating cycle of fast-breeding prey species and more human “control”.
We also feel the need to eliminate other predators to keep the prey for ourselves, even though very few of us now hunt for our own needs. So we also kill foxes, badgers and birds of prey, because they occasionally kill animals that we consider to be “ours” – the pheasant, grouse, partridge and other game birds (most of which are introduced to an area by humans in the first place).
In our woods, we are trying to create a natural cycle of predator and prey. We know that, given time, the numbers of predators and prey will reach naturally-sustainable levels provided the predators are allowed to live, grow, breed and develop. Any human predation needs to fit into this model: small scale, using natural methods, for food only, and sustainable. We definitely don’t need to be killing the very predators upon which this natural cycle depends.
So hurrah for our predators, and welcome to our foxes, badgers and buzzards. If only we could be more tolerant of these wonderful creatures, and the benefits they bring to the whole countryside, predator and prey alike.