I live on a pasture farm, in a part of England where a thin topsoil covers a sub soil of clay. The only human use for this land is to support things that live on grass or its by-products. That means cows, sheep, pigs, chickens by way of domestic animals, game birds by way of wildlife, and horses for riding.
By far the most profitable of these animals, from the point of view of our local farming economy, are the horses, which bring people who earn real money into the countryside, and encourage them to turn that money into grass. Those who are trying to turn grass into money have a much harder time of it. Still, all in all, I see our little patch of farmland as an example of good-natured animal husbandry. All our domestic animals live in an environment to which they are adapted, enjoy basic freedoms, and are saved by our intervention from the lingering misery of old age and disease, or from a long drawn-out death from physical injury.
Wildlife, however, presents a moral problem. We go out of our way to ensure that the predators get through the hard days of winter, but do little or nothing for the mice and voles. Moreover we wage relentless war on the rats. There is a widespread habit in our neighbourhood of poisoning rats with warfarin, which then poisons the owls, buzzards and foxes that eat their remains. This habit has contributed to the near-terminal decline of the barn owl in our countryside, although I am glad to see that there is a petition afoot organised by the Barn Owl Trust to put a stop to it.
On the other hand, if we did not intervene in the natural order in this selective way, the scavengers would take over. When I read of “wildlife sanctuaries” I wonder how far their wardens are prepared to go, by way of managing those species which, if left to themselves, can turn a viable habitat into a desert – grey squirrels, for instance, roe deer, Canada geese, or cormorants.
And then – greatest problem of all – there are the pets. One neighbour has a dog which she walks along the public bridle way, leaving it free to run in the hedgerows and out into the fields. This dog does what dogs do – it sniffs for quarry and, when it finds something, gives chase. In the winter, when birds are hidden under leaves, conserving their energy as best they can, they cannot easily survive being chased every day.
The same is true of hares, rabbits and voles. Of course our neighbour is adamant that her dog would not dream of killing the things he chases – he is only doing what his nature requires. The same is true of the pheasant, the stoat or the rabbit that he is chasing.
The difference is that the dog goes home to a warm house and a supper consisting largely of other animals which have been pressed into a tin, while its quarry goes hungry, trying to recover from the shock and weakened for its next encounter.
Another neighbour has a pair of cats – attractive animals, which know how to simulate affection towards their human owners, while policing all around them with the invincible insolence of a dominant species. Both dogs and cats are predators, but dogs can be trained not to kill. They can be trained to focus their hunting instincts on a particular species, or they can be bred to focus the very same instincts on some other and more humanly useful pursuit, such as herding sheep or retrieving game birds.
Not so cats. Everything in their nature tends towards the single goal of killing, and although they can be pampered into relinquishing this goal, they are by that same process pampered into relinquishing their nature. A true cat wants out, and when out he or she wants death. The distinctions between fair and unfair game, between vermin and protected species, between friend and foe – all such distinctions have no significance for a cat, which sets off from the house in search of songbirds, field mice, shrews and other harmless and necessary creatures with no thought for anything save the taste of their blood.