|Ruddy by name, ruddy by colour and now, it would appear, a downright ruddy nuisance
by nature. The ruddy duck, officially Britain's most hated bird, hit the headlines
last month when the government announced its intention to exterminate it. The plan is
to kill every goddamn last mother-ducking one of them.
The reason for the killing spree -- announced, incidentally, without a second
resolution -- is to effect a case of ethnic cleansing. The ruddy duck, an American
native, has managed to establish various feral colonies in Britain from a few
individuals that escaped from wildfowl collections in the 1950s.
This would not be a problem if it weren't for the fact that the ruddy duck is
migratory and has been wintering in Spain, where it has met its close cousin the
white-headed duck and forced its attentions upon it. The white-headed duck is one
of the world's most endangered wildfowl, and this dilution of its bloodline could, some
say, lead to its extinction.
Separated as they were by the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean, the two species
used to live similar but distant existences -- each plying their natural trade in their
own waters. Suddenly, they've been artificially brought together and something's got
to give. As the ruddy duck, now seen as a weapon of mass destruction, is reasonably
plentiful in North America, its British population is expendable.
Interestingly, the announcement of the plan to eradicate the duck came a few days
after Tony Blair returned from his back-slapping visit to Spain where he elicited full
support for the war against Iraq from Spanish president Jose Maria Aznar. You can
imagine the conversation. 'Look, Jose Maria -- may I call you Jose? -- I'm truly
grateful for what you're doing for George. Is there anything I can do for you in
return?' 'Well, Tony, seeing as you've brought it up, there is a little matter of some
ducks of yours...'
The situation is a classic case of conservation versus welfare. Bodies such as the
Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and the Wildfowl and Wetlands
Trust (WWT) support the massacre, but welfare groups like Animal Aid are fully
opposed and have suggested that the ducks be flown back to America. One side takes
the view that international conservation patterns are most important. The other
wants to protect every individual creature. Each, however, is in basic agreement --
something must be done.
By backing extermination, for example, the conservation groups have missed a trick.
Following an experimental cull last year, there are only approximately 3,500 ruddy
ducks left in the British wild -- that's all. The WWT, from which those first few
ducks escaped, could still organise a collection of the birds, pinion them (incapacitate
their flight feathers, as is the case with all other ornamental ducks), and
reintroduce them to their own sites: 10 here, a couple of dozen there. This would be
manageable, particularly if an adopt-a-duck scheme were set up. With appeals, the
cost could compare well with the estimated millions of British pounds that mass
extermination would cost.
Such a scheme would not only please the British public more than wiping out the
species down to the last ruddy drake, duck and duckling, but it would help awareness
of animal conservation and welfare issues. Everyone wins: the ducks survive, they're
still kicking around in this country for people to look at, and their white-headed
cousins would be left alone. And if a few still escape: well, we'd be ready this time.
The story of the ruddy duck is not the first of its type. (Nor is it likely to be the
last.) The last British coypu -- a huge rodent that established an East Anglian
population of tens of thousands following a few escapes from fur farms -- was shot
in Norfolk in 1987.
Grey squirrels have been a concern for decades as they steadily stomp their way into
the habitats of their red counterparts -- the Isle of Wight is the next red squirrel
stronghold that is likely to fall. Hedgehog populations in the Hebrides ballooned out of
control in the last 30 years, threatening the prospects of ground-nesting birds in the
process. And goodness only knows what kind of havoc the rapidly colonising
ring-necked parakeet might wreak as it stretches its range across the south of
The Wildlife and Countryside Link, a group that helps coordinate the efforts of
voluntary organisations from Friends of the Earth and the RSPB to Butterfly
Conservation and Plantlife, is currently working on a consultative policy for dealing
with 'introductions' -- species that man, not nature, brought to this country.
And not a moment too soon. At present, if we introduce a species that, like the little
owl, mixes well with the indigenous stock then we 'ooh' and 'aah' over it. We watch
it, but if (after even some dozens of years) it steps out of line, our first response is
to put bullet holes in it.
Let's try to be creative. Let's try to find middle grounds for animals and birds
whose extinction is sure to happen without the intervention of us all.
Johnsgard, P. Ruddy Ducks and Other Stifftails: Their Behavior and Biology (Animal
Natural History Series, Vol. 1). 2010.
Wolf, G. Endangered Species. 2004.