Saturday, 2 December 2017

The perennial challenge - 'taking specimens is immoral'

From time-to-time somebody posts a photograph of a preserved specimen on one of the Facebook forums. These posts are often accompanied by calls for help with identification or are used for educational purposes and are often very useful for developing the skills of the more enlightened participants; many of whom use a range of guidebooks that have been illustrated using photographs or paintings of preserved specimens. Where would we be without those preserved specimens?

Well, in the case of hoverflies there would not have been Steve Falk's magnificent colour plates in the monograph on British hoverflies (now sadly rather out of date). Nor would we have the lavishly illustrated WILDGuide (Britain's Hoverflies). Stuart and I spent a good two years carefully photographing the critical features. We are now embarking on a new guide to British Flies (assuming a publication agreement) and will have a massive job provide the illustrations - many of which will have to be of recently killed specimens because they rapidly lose their critical colours and become wrinkled, thus obscuring important features. So, bottom line - no specimens = no guide book!

BUT, I think we ought to stop and think a bit further. Invertebrates are already the Cinderella of conservation - very few people take them seriously because the level of information available is so limited. It is as easy as anything for a developer to make a noise about a 5mm long wasp and howl that it is madness to stop a development on account of this animal - after all, fewer than 20 people in the country can either find or identify it! QED there is no conservation case!

Sadly. the vast majority of invertebrates are simply not identifiable from photographs. So they will always be the Cinderella at the party. BUT, if we don't have any data at all because we have vilified the people who can identify them and take the trouble to do so and to help others do so, we will have no defence at all for the vast majority of our fauna. I can hear the QC asking the quavering Natural England Officer 'and when was the last record of this species? Moreover, when was there anybody capable of identifying it?' - Believe me, that is how it works - these sorts of processes are highly intimidating. So to use that great quote from Sir Geoffrey Howe in his resignation speech (from the Thatcher Government) 'It's rather like sending our opening batsmen to the crease only for them to find that before the first ball is bowled, their bats have been broken by the team captain.' Every well-intentioned opponent of retaining specimens is like that team captain!

Pause for reflection

I don't think I ever recall seeing anybody getting hot under the collar because Fred or Joe has assembled the longest list of twitches for 2017/16/15 .... Quite the opposite - they are the heroes of the conservation movement - great because they are so fanatical about wildlife. BUT, are they? Where is their wildlife legacy - I cannot say I will be rushing to the 'Museum of Tick Books' to catch a Glimpse of Bill Oddie's books or whomever else. What do they add to the sum of scientific knowledge - NOWT - they often are lists of places that they and several hundred or thousands of other people have used the earth's precious resources in achieving what? A list! And the cost in CO2 emissions?

We all drive cars (well nearly all) and therefore we all contribute to the death of countless invertebrates - so much so that I suspect that road casualties are at least a factor in invertebrate decline. Likewise, we all rely on the supermarket for food and massive road miles that accompany it; likewise for our mobile phone, colour TV or iPad - everything we consume is accompanied by the death of countless invertebrates that generates nothing useful for science and nobody bothers to even acknowledge (see my post on Roadkill where I actually did a count).

It therefore seems to me that it is time to look long and hard at invertebrate conservation - is it the technical specialist who is having a significant impact? Is it the family of blue tits in your nest box? Maybe if we got rid of all the blue tits and entomologists the invertebrate world would be safe? Of course it would not!  Reducing roadkill might go some way but still it would not. What would make a difference is a massive lifestyle change by all of mankind, but that will never happen, because it is OK to go twitching but morally unjustified to have a technical specialism that generates valuable scientific data!

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