Ev­ery­day ethics

For a wildlife lover it’s tricky deal­ing with 'pests' such as wasps, ants and slugs. Do you live and let live… or be­come a veg­etable patch vig­i­lante?

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - Contents - By Helen Pilcher

Is it ever OK to squash a fly, or is ‘live and let live’ the ab­so­lute im­per­a­tive?

Afew months ago I did a ter­ri­ble thing. I was tend­ing to my pa­tio plants, bare­foot, when I dis­turbed an ants’ nest un­der a pot. The feisty in­ver­te­brates were fu­ri­ous. They flung them­selves at my toes, sink­ing their mandibles into my ex­posed pink flesh. It hurt. A lot. As my foot bal­looned up, red mist clouded my judge­ment. I grabbed the ket­tle and doused my at­tack­ers with boil­ing hot wa­ter. A few sec­onds later, all that re­mained was a pud­dle full of tiny, float­ing bod­ies.

In hind­sight, I am hor­ri­fied at my ac­tions. I con­sider my­self an an­i­mal lover and pro­tec­tor of wildlife. My pes­ti­cide­free gar­den is full of wild­flow­ers, messy cor­ners and in­sect havens. The store where I keep my chicken food is vis­ited reg­u­larly by wood mice. Like a scene from Beatrix Pot­ter, they climb into the tall bin at night, then are too fat and too full to es­cape. In the morn­ing I sim­ply let them go, ser­e­nad­ing them to the tune of Que Sera, Sera.

Moths I’m kind to as well. I have a light trap, which I put out at night to lure them for a closer look. The in­sects are un­harmed and of­ten I care­fully trans­fer them to clear plas­tic pots while I iden­tify them. Some­times, a gravid fe­male will lay eggs and, al­though it may seem ridicu­lous, I feel a sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity. Many’s the brood of cater­pil­lars I have raised be­cause their mother ‘gave birth’ in my care.

If a spi­der or la­dy­bird is spot­ted in my house, it is du­ti­fully caught and re­lo­cated to the out­side world, yet I have, in the past, flattened flies and mas­sa­cred mosquitoes. What dou­ble stan­dards are these? I am a hyp­ocrite wrapped in a tan­gled web of con­tra­dic­tion and dou­ble stan­dards. I call my­self a wildlife en­thu­si­ast but have blood on my hands.

I am not alone, how­ever. Our at­ti­tudes to the so-called ‘pests’ we share our spa­ces with are var­ied and com­plex. They range from the laid back ‘live and let live’ ap­proach, where nib­bled cab­bages are the price paid for happy wildlife, to the veg­etable patch vig­i­lantes, an elite hor­ti­cul­tur­al­ist corps that come armed with spray guns and chem­i­cal weapons. There are those who would, lit­er­ally, never harm a fly; and those who are pre­pared to Il­lus­tra­tions by Michelle Thomp­son/Hand­some Frank lynch wasps guilt-free be­cause, they would have us believe, “it’s either us or them”.

Like most peo­ple, I am some­where in the mid­dle, with an eth­i­cal bound­ary that os­cil­lates wildly de­pend­ing on the species, con­text and swelling of the af­fected body part. I don’t imag­ine there is a BBC Wildlife reader out there who hasn’t, at some point, de­lib­er­ately killed a pest of some sort.

Con­flict like this is un­avoid­able, (al­though I con­tinue to beat my­self up about the pa­tio ants). The word ‘ecol­ogy’ de­rives from the Greek word oikos, mean­ing ‘dwelling’, and our homes and gar­dens are in­deed their own lit­tle ecosys­tems. These are cre­ated via the in­ter­ac­tions that oc­cur be­tween the com­po­nent species.

In our hu­man-made ecosys­tems, we call the shots. “It’s your space to oc­cupy, so it’s up to you to set the rules,” says sci­en­tist and gar­dener Martin Coath of Ply­mouth Univer­sity. “You get to choose what stays and what goes, what lives and what dies.”

Some ant species, for ex­am­ple, can be­come a gen­uine prob­lem. “Their nests be­come so en­grained and wide­spread and pop­u­lated that the soil be­comes

un­der­mined,” says Coath. “Things don’t grow and peo­ple can no longer en­joy their gar­dens.” Left unchecked, these up­start ants could rise to power in our back gar­dens, wrest­ing con­trol of the ecosys­tem from our fin­gers.

It’s a sim­i­lar sce­nario for wasps, slugs and other pu­ta­tively trou­ble­some an­i­mals. If we let them reign unchecked, they can be­come a nui­sance. “It be­comes a di­rect case of com­pe­ti­tion be­tween two po­ten­tially dom­i­nant species,” Coath says. So we have a choice. Either they take con­trol, or we do.

Things are no dif­fer­ent in other, more nat­u­ral, ecosys­tems that were not cre­ated by hu­mans. In­side the USA’s Yel­low­stone National Park, for ex­am­ple, wolves are top dog. They con­trol the deer pop­u­la­tion, which in turn in­flu­ences the growth of plants and num­bers of many other an­i­mals. In the North Pa­cific Ocean, sea ot­ters prey on urchins, which in turn helps to reg­u­late coastal kelp forests. In the fresh­wa­ter rivers of Devon and Scot­land, beavers fell trees to make dams, cre­at­ing habi­tat for count­less other crea­tures.

Species com­pete, and as a re­sult there are al­ways win­ners and losers – ex­cept that my hu­man brain helps me to pon­der the im­pli­ca­tions of my ac­tions. Wolves may well be wily, but they don’t con­sciously de­cide how to man­age their ecosys­tem. We, how­ever, are dif­fer­ent. We are ca­pa­ble of thought at a deeper level and make con­scious de­ci­sions about how best to man­age the ecosys­tems we main­tain, and are ca­pa­ble of real­is­ing there is more than one pos­si­ble course of ac­tion. And yet, our be­hav­iour is some­times far from ra­tio­nal.

Of­ten it’s vis­ceral. I have a friend who swats blue­bot­tles be­cause, and I quote, “they’re just so an­noy­ing”. When I was at­tacked by ants on my pa­tio, the log­i­cal re­sponse would have been to re­place the plant pot in its orig­i­nal po­si­tion and walk away. Then put some shoes on.

Mean­while, in the veg­etable patch, it could be ar­gued that the log­i­cal re­sponse to cater­pil­lars that feed on bras­sica plants would be to go back in time, Ter­mi­na­torstyle, and hunt down the par­ents that will one day pro­duce them. But do gar­den­ers charge around killing cab­bage white but­ter­flies? No, they do not. In­stead they tar­get the lar­vae, which through no fault of their own have sim­ply hatched in what is deemed to be the wrong place. Which brings me to an­other point. We are ‘ugly-ist’ and ‘species-ist’. We are prej­u­diced against the an­i­mals that we find unattrac­tive. We love but­ter­flies, but we hate cater­pil­lars be­cause they’re creepy and crawly. Spi­ders can’t win be­cause they have eight legs. Slugs can’t win be­cause they are slimy and have one foot. All too of­ten, we tar dif­fer­ent species within the same tax­o­nomic fam­ily with the same dis­mis­sive brush. The same friend who swats blue­bot­tles tells me he kills all wasps and spi­ders and slugs at his prop­erty be­cause “they’re all a nui­sance”. No, they’re not. There are more than 9,000 species of wasp of which but a few are the colonyliv­ing, nest-build­ing, ha­ranguers of pic­nic night­mares. Most don’t even have stingers. None of the UK’s 650 or so spi­der species are dan­ger­ous, and there are around 40 species of Bri­tish slug, of which only a hand­ful are gen­uine pests. It’s time we cut them some slack. This species-ism reaches new heights when peo­ple put down slug pel­lets. It’s a loath­some and short-sighted strat­egy that in­dis­crim­i­nately kills all slugs. When they are poi­soned, then con­sumed

by preda­tors, the tox­ins pass up the food chain. Hedge­hogs, frogs and birds such as song thrushes are all af­fected, yet the poi­son­ers turn a blind eye. These preda­tors need your un­der­stand­ing and your gar­den needs slugs; they play a vi­tal role break­ing down de­tri­tus and re­cy­cling nu­tri­ents.

Wasps are im­por­tant pol­li­na­tors and preda­tors. Spi­ders eat a lot of in­sects and are them­selves a tasty snack for preda­tors fur­ther up the food chain. “All these an­i­mals are needed and all of them play vi­tal eco­log­i­cal roles,” says Paul Hether­ing­ton of Buglife. “Yet we de­monise them. I re­ally think we need to be more un­der­stand­ing.”

I blame gar­den cen­tres. Gar­den cen­tres are pur­vey­ors of the fake and the ster­ile. Just as trashy mag­a­zines pro­mote a skewed re­al­ity of im­pos­si­bly beau­ti­ful women with im­pos­si­bly suc­cess­ful lives, so too gar­den cen­tres sell an im­age of im­pos­si­bly per­fect plants. They are not nib­bled, wilt­ing or brown around the edges. They are not dusted with in­sect eggs or laden with in­ver­te­brate stow­aways.

In­deed, a friend once told me that when he worked at a gar­den cen­tre, any snails that were spot­ted were re­moved and then lobbed into a bucket of salty wa­ter.

Gar­den-cen­tre plants are rather like the Pho­to­shopped mod­els of women’s mag­a­zines; re­touched to the point where they no longer re­flect re­al­ity. Real plants are not uni­form and blem­ish-free. Out­side my win­dow, a strag­gly bud­dleia, or ‘but­ter­fly bush’, lolls lop­sid­edly onto the pa­tio. Its leaves are pock­marked due to mullein moth cater­pil­lars, but that only makes me love it more. I like my per­fectly im­per­fect gar­den the way it is; warts, snails, slugs and all.

Per­haps it’s no sur­prise that these an­i­mals are at­tracted to our pri­vate and pub­lic spa­ces, when we fill them with such de­li­cious and ir­re­sistible fan­cies. Cer­tain slug species, for ex­am­ple, are at­tracted to the fresh shoots of newly sprouted plants, as this is what they have evolved to eat.

“We breed veg­e­ta­tion that smells nice to them,” says Jon Ablett, a se­nior cu­ra­tor of mol­luscs at the Nat­u­ral His­tory Mu­seum. “We plant spine­less plants that are eas­ier for them to eat. We re­move the weeds for them and we till the soil so it’s eas­ier for them to move around. We make our gar­den a nice place for slugs to be. We might as well put up a neon sign say­ing: ‘Slugs! Get your free all-you-can-eat buf­fet here!’”

It is ridicu­lous to think that we can seg­re­gate plants from in­ver­te­brates. It’s in­ver­te­brate apartheid and it needs to stop.

Some peo­ple tell me that killing the odd in­sect here or there mat­ters lit­tle when you con­sider how nu­mer­ous they are, and that in­sects don’t feel pain any­way so “it re­ally doesn’t mat­ter”. But these ar­gu­ments hold no wa­ter. A study of Ger­man na­ture reserves last year found that three-quar­ters of fly­ing in­sects have van­ished over the last 25 years. It’s been dubbed an “eco­log­i­cal Ar­maged­don”. The UK is one of the most na­ture-de­pleted coun­tries in the world. We should be turn­ing our gar­dens into wildlife havens, not wildlife deserts.

Nor does the knowl­edge that other in­ver­te­brates are far­ing bet­ter give us the right to kill them. Al­though no one knows for sure whether in­ver­te­brates feel pain – and it’s likely they do, since pain is one of the old­est and evo­lu­tion­ar­ily most im­por­tant sen­sa­tions – this too is a moot point.

The thought­less, blasé fashion with which peo­ple swat flies, poi­son slugs or squash spi­ders per­pet­u­ates the mind set that these an­i­mals are worth­less. This is wrong. Chil­dren pick up on these cul­tural bi­ases so it be­comes a dan­ger­ous at­ti­tude that tran­scends gen­er­a­tions. We should be in­spir­ing our chil­dren and each other to tol­er­ate and live along­side the species that share our do­mes­tic ecosys­tems.

It’s time we stopped vil­i­fy­ing these an­i­mals and in­stead be­gin to ap­pre­ci­ate them for the evo­lu­tion­ary mar­vels that they are. It’s time we learned to love the spi­ders in our bath­tubs, the ants on our pa­tios and our mot­ley rag­bag veg­etable patches.

I’m not proud of the ant in­ci­dent on my pa­tio, but can re­port that a few days af­ter I lost the plot, the colony had re­cov­ered. I’m pleased. I acted with­out thought and al­lowed emo­tion to trump logic, yet our past ac­tions need not de­fine our fu­ture be­hav­iour. We’re all con­flicted over the way we treat these ‘pest’ species, but it’s never too late to adopt a more re­laxed at­ti­tude. Next time I dis­turb an ants’ nest I will think be­fore I act… then re­place the plant pot and leave them alone.

WANT TO COM­MENT? How should we ‘man­age’ the so-called pests in our do­mes­tic ecosys­tems? Email us at wildlifelet­ters@im­me­di­ate.co.uk

“It’s time we learned to love the spi­ders in our bath­tub and ants on our pa­tios.”

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