Letting nature take its course.

I’ve heard varying arguments for and against human interventions in wildlife populations.
Some people appear to feel that life must be preserved at all costs. Whilst in practice as a veterinary surgeon I have been presented with many injured or diseased wild animals for which I have felt that rehabilitation was unlikely to be successful, but which a visibly upset member of the public really wanted me to “save”.
On the other side of the coin, there are arguments made against any kind of intervention, by people who feel that nature must be allowed to take its course.
While I have sympathy with both sides of this argument, as is the case with so many things in life, there is no one rule to fit all situations. From a veterinary perspective, where the welfare of the animal in question is paramount, wildlife rehabilitation should only be undertaken if the chances of successful rerelease are high. If this is not the case, then attempts at rehabilitation may result in unnecessary suffering for an animal. In some cases, therefore, the only humane action to be taken is euthanasia.
From a wider, ecological perspective, some species are so rare that attempts at rehabilitation may be made, even with lower chances of success, because the consequences of the loss of that animal to the ecosystem as a whole could be catastrophic. In such cases, potential suffering by the rehabilitated animal is thought to be outweighed by the potential benefit to the wider ecosystem, should the rehabilitation prove successful. Even so, all possible measures must be taken to limit any suffering by the animal, and there should at least be some chance of overall success.
Also from the wider perspective, some species are felt to be detrimental to their environment (for example, invasive exotic species like the grey squirrel in the UK). It is in fact against the law to rerelease such species. Therefore, rehabilitation should not be attempted, since the animal is unlikely to adapt well enough to life in captivity for it to be afforded a reasonable standard of welfare. Euthanasia is generally considered to be the best option in these cases.
The argument for not getting involved at all, leaving nature to take its course is quite a powerful one. However, in my opinion it is flawed. We human beings are not apart from nature. We are involved in it. When a wild creature is injured in a road traffic collision it is clear to see that human activity was the cause of the injury. Don’t we then have a responsibility to relieve the suffering that we have caused? Not all injured or diseased animals will have such clear cut human involvement, but in many cases if we were to look at the reasons why an animal has become diseased, then environmental stressors such as pollution and habitat degradation will have played a part.
Ethics aside, human beings rely on nature every bit as much as it relies on us. We need plants for food and oxygen, insects for pollination, and a variety of predators to maintain healthy ecosystems. If we wish to survive and prosper as a species, perhaps we need worry less about the ethics of interfering in nature, and more about the necessity of managing our environment effectively, in order that we continue to have access to the natural resources we require.

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Costly predators or ecological assets?: the conflict between fisheries and otters

He rejoiced in the waves; he would hurl himself straight as an arrow right into the great roaring grey wall of an oncoming breaker and go clean through it as if it had neither weight nor momentum; he would swim far out to sea through wave after wave until the black dot of his head was lost among the distant white manes, and more than once I thought that some wild urge to seek new lands had seized him and that he would go on swimming west into the Sea of the Hebrides and that I should not see him again.”
Gavin Maxwell (1960) Ring of Bright Water. London: Longmans Green.

Gavin Maxwell’s beautiful and poignant account of life with a domesticated smooth-coated otter ignited my interest in these dexterous, intelligent and graceful creatures at an early age. Growing up in Scotland, I spent numerous family holidays in the Argyle countryside alert to signs of wild otters, and was rewarded one morning as I walked with my uncle along a quiet country lane. I’ll always remember my first sighting of a Eurasian otter (Lutra lutra), crossing the path ahead of us before disappearing into the undergrowth.
The Eurasian, or European, otter has the widest range of all otter species yet is listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as near threatened. Thankfully there is some evidence that populations in Western Europe are recovering. In order to maintain this recovery in the face of road mortalities and the effects of ongoing habitat degradation, the otter is a European Protected Species and is also fully protected under Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 in the UK.
Thus in the UK it is an offence to:
• capture, kill, disturb or injure otters (on purpose or by not taking enough care)
• damage or destroy a breeding or resting place (deliberately or by not taking enough care)
• obstruct access to their resting or sheltering places (deliberately or by not taking enough care)
• possess, sell, control or transport live or dead otters, or parts of otters.

These offences carry a potential prison sentence of up to 6 months, and the possibility of a £5,000 fine for each offence.
Unfortunately, recovering otter populations have been blamed in some areas for losses of stock within fisheries, which has led some to question whether the species is over protected. In particular, there has been concern over the rehabilitation and re-release of otters. Such rehabilitation, predominantly of orphaned cubs, still takes place occasionally in the UK, but interventions like this are likely to have a limited effect on overall otter populations. The otter project at Cardiff University estimates that 4-5 reintroductions of rehabilitated otters are carried out per year.
Persecution of otters, such as the setting of snares, may result from their reputation as predators of valuable fish. One such snare was recently found near Weston, where the trapped otter died despite efforts to treat him.

We are appealing for information after an otter was found caught in a snare by the Bleadon Sluice gate near Weston….

Posted by Secret World Wildlife Rescue on Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Otters will adapt their diet depending on what is available. It has been suggested that in lakes and ponds with good water quality, substantial submerged plant stands and healthy fish populations with good fish recruitment, otters may have limited impact. It is where the fish population is under stress due to factors such as poor water quality, little vegetation cover and fish diseases that otter predation has a larger effect.

One solution to the conflict between otters and fisheries, that both conservationists and anglers can help with, is to improve and maintain water and habitat quality in our rivers, lakes and ponds so that otter predation will be more sustainable.
The Environment Agency recommends that fisheries improve the diversity of lake habitats where they can, and consider the use of fencing where appropriate. Further guidance for fisheries can be found here:

http://www.otterstop.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/otters_and_stillwater_fisheriesv4_080501_FINAL_PRINT-CGS3.pdf