Tree-huggers and nature's muggers

Nature's Keepers
February 16, 1996

If I had to make one prediction for the English language in 1996 it would be that the word "tree-hugger" will enter the popular parlance of abuse.

It was used recently by an official of the National Farmers' Union to describe all environmentalists and animal rightists in one generous sweep. Stephen Budiansky's book is a more sophisticated swipe at the same people.

His is an intelligent appeal for a scientific approach to ecology. He is persuasive in his opposition to the "leave everything to nature" brigade and, as an American, appears to have a particular downer on the hapless vice-president Al Gore, who merits castigation on more than half a dozen occasions.

Budiansky has a nice line in diatribe: "There are apparently few things quite so robustly satisfying these days as proclaiming the imminent collapse of an ecosystem, or better still the planet. A role that used to be filled by deranged street-corner prophets has now been eagerly taken over by presidents of environmental thinktanks, members of the National Academy of Sciences and the occasional vice-president of the United States." Wow!

And yet, unappealing as many of the direct-action protestors may be, which of us, after travelling through that appalling white gash on Twyford Down, can deny that they have a point? The Government and the taxpayer were not willing to pay the substantially extra cost of a tunnel that would largely have saved the area from desecration. Even the current row over the Newbury bypass causes those like me who recognise the need to provide a relief road for the town to ponder whether we have got this right. Tree-huggers may still be necessary even in such responsible positions as the US vice-presidency.

It will take a long time for Budiansky's thesis to be accepted. His is at times a tediously repetitive academic work spattered with illustrative graphs, but it is not without wit: "Chief Seattle was known to historians for his dignified refusal to allow the grateful white settlers to name their town after him; he objected that his eternal sleep would be interrupted each time a mortal uttered his name. The objection promptly vanished when the whites proposed levying a small tax on themselves to provide the chief with some advance compensation for his troubles in the hereafter."

Budiansky also provides scathing accounts of misguided - as distinct from scientific - interference by man in the course of nature. The Californian condor apparently is of such disgustingly greedy habits that after eating it requires a long clear runway for take-off. The cessation of strip burning of the chaparral reduced the number of such feathered Heathrows and brought the Californian condor into the endangered species category.

The book gives details of man's many other erroneous but well-intentioned interventions in seeking environmental balance. Most notable was the political pressure brought via schoolchildren's letters on the US Congress in 1969 to stop the shooting of elk in the huge Yellowstone Park. As they consequently multiplied the elk have destroyed the park's vegetation on a massive scale. Aspen and willow stands have failed to reproduce. Beaver and other small mammals have dwindled as the elk strip their food supplies.

The author traces the extinction of the heath-hen in America from 1840 to 1931 and attributes this to the suppression of the previous practice of grassland burning. (Indeed, Budiansky demonstrates pyromaniac tendencies throughout his work since he is a great believer in the proper role of both managed and accidental fires.) He claims 6,000 elephants starved to death in Tsavo game park in Kenya in 1969 and 1970 because of a mistaken policy eliminating both fires and culling. He points out that in 1899 five captive deer escaped from an enclosure in an Ontario provincial park. In 1973 the park authorities were pressured by animal rightists to stop culling. The result was that by 1992 the numbers had gone up to 500, stripping the forest floor of new seedlings of white pine, red oak, black cherry and hickory and bringing regeneration of the forest to a halt. The new plan to cull numbers to about 100 has resulted in the formation of the "Committee to save the Rondeau deer", deer that were artificially and accidently introduced by man in the first place.

The entire modern conception of nature," observes Budiansky, "depends upon denying her chequered past. Those who dare to point out man's overwhelming role and overwhelming responsibility in shaping even the mildest parts of the natural world are usually made to feel about as welcome as an astrophysicist at a fundamentalist Bible study class on Genesis."

He is right in my experience. Fox-hunting is widely regarded as cruel, but far more foxes die crueller deaths through inaccurate shooting. The postcards of heather-clad Scottish hills beloved by anti-forest protestors do not tell us that these moors are themselves artificial creations of man after having destroyed forests. Dairy cattle wintering comfortably in huge warm sheds instead of snow-swept fields are thought to be "unnaturally" treated. Free-range eggs, for which consumers happily pay a premium, often come from hens who, having taken one look out of the doors, retreat freely into their cramped but heated deep-litter sheds.

Budiansky describes the "back to nature" movement as "good taste but poor insight". His call for a more scientific approach to the study of animals and plants is well sustained: "If nature is not a cathedral, then perhaps it is a town meeting - a place of intellectual inquiry, give and take, and, above all, human responsibility, a place where people seek the truth, bound only by the constraints of common sense and common decency, a place where people make decisions and learn from the consequences."

Amen, I say, to that.

Sir David Steel, MP is chairman, Countryside Movement.

Nature's Keepers: The New Science of Nature Management

Author - Stephen Budiansky
ISBN - 0 297 81636 5
Publisher - Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Price - £20.00
Pages - 310

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