I was sitting in the chiropractor’s waiting room last week, thumbing through the magazines on the table, and happened to pick up the March issue of Reader’s Digest. To my horror, I found an article by Rachel Smith, with the tag line:
“There’s nothing wrong with letting foreign species stake a claim to our countryside… even if it’s at the expense of the natives.”
Upon reading it, I couldn’t help but feel that Ms Smith was, at worst, being deliberately controversial for the sake of journalism, and at best, writing with ‘authority’ about a subject for which she was not in possession of all of the facts.
Because Britain is an island, which has natural buffers against colonisation, we islanders place much more emphasis on the terms ‘native’, ‘indigenous’, ‘naturalised’ and ‘invasive’ than do our continental counterparts.
As Britain was once covered with ice, with relatively few animal species living on it, it’s fair to say that all species arrived here at SOME POINT in the past. Drawing an arbitrary line and saying “everything that appeared before this date is NATIVE, and everything after is not” is a moot point.
UNLESS you’re focusing on HOW that species arrived here. At the end of the last ice age, there was still a land bridge between what is now Britain and France. The retreating ice sheets were followed by waves of colonisation by plants and animals. Soon enough, the weight of ice that was pushing down on the north of Britain (and pushing UP the south – like a see-saw) became incrementally smaller, and the land bridge sank back down. This, coupled with meltwater, eventually removed the land bridge entirely and created the English Channel. All of these colonial species, which arrived without the aid of humans, are considered by the GB Non Native Species Secretariat to be native species.
Those species that are ‘non-native’ under this definition, that have adapted to our environment and climate and become established here WITHOUT causing any direct damage or hindrance to populations of native, indigenous flora and fauna, are often called by another term: ‘Naturalised’. By this I mean species like Fallow Deer and Rabbits (We consider these to be archetypical British species, but I’m afraid that rabbits were introduced in the 13th century, and Fallow Deer the 1st century AD. Our only native species of deer are Red Deer and Roe Deer.).
Culturally, we have seamlessly integrated the Fallow Deer and the European Rabbit into our picture of the British Landscape. So why exactly are these species accepted and others vilified as ‘aliens’ or ‘invaders’…?
Ms Smith stated, rather flippantly: “…if they crowd out and hunt native species, isn’t that just a good example of Darwin’s survival of the fittest?”
Er… not exactly. If these creatures (say, mink) had reached here under their own steam and were causing pressure on other populations (say, water voles), then the above would be the case. However because humans introduced mink as part of the fur industry, and many of them were released into a countryside in which they had no natural predators, it is no wonder that our native water voles have fallen prey to species introduction – they had adapted to the British environment, where there were no mink, and so never developed physiological or behavioural traits which would provide nature’s own innate system of BALANCE to protect them from such predators.
And that, in a nutshell, is what we’re talking about here – it is to be expected that we would, over time, introduce ‘non-native species’. But it’s not ‘non-natives’ that conservation organisations like the NNSS are trying to control – they are trying to control INVASIVE non-native species.
Ms Smith’s arguments that we shouldn’t control rhododendron as it overcomes our native moorlands because it is ‘colourful’ and our native vegetation is ‘green-and-brown’, or that we shouldn’t control Japanese knotweed because our native oak tree roots ‘can undermine house foundations’, or that we should embrace ring-necked parakeets because they ‘brighten up the drab, pigeon-dominated skies of London’ is a weak, and frankly, shallow argument.
Her article argues that ‘trying to pre- serve an authentic British countryside is chasing an imaginary ideal’ because ‘Every patch of land in this country already shows the scars of previous human actions’ is a valid one – it is true that most of our British habitats exist as a result of human actions and landscape management – but it is also true that our native species have adapted to and come to rely on these managed habitats. For example, if we didn’t manage heathlands actively (as we do on several sites in Walsall) we would lose our heathland specialist wildlife, and biodiversity in Britain would drastically decrease.
So, instead of, as Ms Smith states, embracing invasive species and letting ‘Britain’s wildlife future unfurl… in its own organic way’, we should acknowledge that our introduction of invasive non-native species has taken the whole environment out of Darwin’s Loop, by putting our indigenous wildlife at an un-natural disadvantage, and that we should do our utmost to restore the natural balance of our beloved landscape.