What species really do belong to Scotland?

Wednesday 24 April 2002

What animal and plant species really do belong to this country? Why are conservationists so protective of Scotland’s native animals and plants, and so negative towards so-called ‘alien’ species? Are humans even native to Scotland? If not, why should we decide what belongs here?

These are just some of the questions being posed this week by the research of Dr Charles Warren, a Geographer at the University of St Andrews. In a new book on the Scottish environment, Dr Warren questions the current obsession with all things ‘natural’ and argues that we should leave so-called ‘alien’ species such as rabbits and the humble rhododendron alone if they are doing no harm.

Dr Warren does not believe that we can justify the hard and fast rules of conservationists, which involve careful and sometimes costly preservation of natural species and the obsessive eradication of all alien species. The black and white classification is rarely questioned, but in practice it involves making arbitrary distinctions which are hard to justify.

“Why should all alien species be damned and treated as objectionable weeds? Alien species are those which have been introduced by humans, whereas natives got here without our help, but such a simplistic scheme is fraught with inconsistencies. All species were ‘aliens’ once, in the sense that there was a time when they first arrived.

“If you go back far enough, to the period before the last glaciation some 100,000 years ago, it turns out that several of today’s abhorred aliens, such as rhododendron and Norway spruce, the Christmas tree, were thriving happily and naturally on these shores. They just didn’t happen to get here unaided after the most recent glaciation. And some alien species, rabbits for example, have been here so long they now play an important ecological role. So how long does a species have to be resident before it is given a passport?” he said.

Species commonly regarded as being ‘alien’ (or exotic) are animals such as the grey squirrel, American mink, sika deer, rabbits, pheasants and Canadian geese; plants such as rhododendron, larch, English elm and giant hogweed; and fish including rainbow trout and goldfish. Truly natural species in Scotland include trees such as Scots pine, oak and ash; animals such as red deer and red squirrel, and salmon.

Dr Warren disagrees with the blanket condemnation of all alien species simply because of their alien status, arguing that time and money should only be spent on controlling species which pose a genuine threat, whether they are alien or not.

“What I think we need is a more discerning recognition that while some alien species are indeed harmful, others are both beneficial and popular with the public. For example, beech woodlands with their carpets of spring bluebells are loved by many, yet beech trees technically don’t belong here. And without exotic conifers we would have no competitive forest industry in Scotland. The irony is that the Sitka spruce, reviled by conservationists here, is an icon for the conservation movement in its native Canada. It’s a magnificent tree if it’s allowed to grow to maturity. Its problem is that it is tarred with the brush of the ‘industrial’ forest practices of the last century. The environment is no longer pure, so why be purist?”

“There are several alien species which pose real and genuine threats. Mink and hedgehogs are devastating ground-nesting birds in the Hebrides, sika deer are hybridising with red deer, producing a mongrel population, and grey squirrels are displacing native red squirrels in some areas. But, in my view, the reason for controlling these species is not primarily because they are alien but because they are causing damage,” he said.

Dr Warren points out that if we (humans) are regarded as natural, then so must our actions be, including those which have introduced so called ‘alien’ species.

“Society seems to value our cultural heritage while disparaging our environmental human heritage. It is striking, for example, that we carefully preserve the archaeological remains of our distant forbears, stone circles for example, but seek to undo the ecological impacts of those same people by eradicating the animals that they introduced. Why should we revere cultural artefacts yet seek to reverse environmental changes?” he explained.

Dr Warren is an expert in environmental management and glaciology, and opens the debate in a new book, ‘Managing Scotland’s Environment’, published this week by Edinburgh University Press. The book, which is hailed as the most complete and up to date discussion of the way that Scotland’s environment is managed, tackles head on some of the most controversial and politically- charged issues of our day, including land reform, the right to roam, and the balance between nature conservation and rural livelihoods. Although Dr Warren looks at the past as well as the future, he focuses largely on the present day, exploring the tangled web of influences which shape today’s rural environment.

In addition to the alien species issue, the book discusses a broad range of environmental issues such as land reform, the future of farming, public access, the place of forestry and birds of prey.

‘Managing Scotland’s Environment’, by Dr Charles Warren, is published by Edinburgh University Press, priced £24.99 (paperback), ISBN 0 7486 1313 7.






Issued by Beattie Media On behalf of the University of St Andrews Contact Gayle Cook on 01334 467227, mobile 07900 050103, or email [email protected] Ref: Charles Warren Env book pr 250402 View the latest University news at http://www.st- andrews.ac.uk/extrel/press.htm

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