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Home > Interesting Exchange with Will Higgs

An email was originally sent to Squirrel Action Greenhead & Gilsland by Angus Macmillan who is a campaigner for Prof. Acorn's Grey-Squirrel.org.uk:

Not so “native”

One of the key criteria for determining if a species is “native” is that it should have evolved with all other species within its own ecosystem and not have been introduced or assisted by man to arrive at what is regarded as its natural location. In short, it should have got to where it is by its own efforts and evolved naturally.

However, the word “species” is only a descriptive term within a man-made classification system, so it is ridiculous for conservationists to latch the adjective “native” onto a classification, when in the real world it should relate to actual animals that have been born and bred in a location to which their native standing rightfully applies.

If it is important to conservationists that a species evolves naturally in Britain to earn its “native species” status here, then it should be equally important that the same species evolving in a different natural environment abroad, should not be regarded as “native” to this country.

So it is completely false to claim just because a “species” exists in other parts of the world as well as in Britain, that overseas animals can be regarded as “native” if “reintroduced” to this country. Indeed, the word “reintroduced” compounds the fallacy by implying they were “introduced” previously – which in conservation speak would have made them “aliens”.

An example of this is the red squirrel, which has a range stretching from Northern Europe to China. However, it takes an enormous stretch of one’s imagination to regard red squirrels anywhere from here to China, as being native to one particular location. These animals have evolved within a wide range of climatic and environmental conditions and associated with different flora and fauna encountered across the part of the range they inhabit. For conservationists to argue that any of these influences are not important is to argue against their own concept of “native species”.

Ancestors of the current population of red squirrels in the UK have been largely introduced (reintroduced?) from various parts of Europe, following their virtual extermination by those with forestry interests who regarded them as “tree rats” that damaged trees – a term now being used, just as unfairly, to demonise grey squirrels in the eyes of the general public.

As a result, both populations of squirrels, red and grey, have been introduced to this country and there is no conclusive evidence that even the earlier red squirrels evolved here continuously from the time of the land bridge to Europe around 10,000 years ago.

Conservationists claiming animals including birds “reintroduced” to this country are “native” because the species existed here in the past are deceiving the public.

Truth is, most animals including birds being introduced or protected by so-called conservationists and government agencies are being exploited for their economic value to tourism - which in itself is one of the most damaging activities of our time and substantially contributes to the destruction of the natural environment they are claiming to protect.

Grey squirrels that are being slaughtered in their thousands are victims of an agenda of greed and falsehoods.

Angus Macmillan
www.grey-squirrel.org.uk
January 2008

 

We received an email back unsigned, but from an email address which suggested the name "morve"

 

Dear Mr MacMillan,

I have been asked to reply to your email of 10th March, sent to Squirrel Action Greenhead & Gilsland, headed: Not so “Native”.

I must say that I agree with the broad thrust of your argument that the relative nativeness of animals within a particular area is a theoretical concept open to endless interpretation, but we do have to come up with a workable interpretation rather than simply rubbishing the attempt. Mammals such as brown hares which may have been introduced during the Iron age, edible dormice by the Romans and rabbits by the Normans are now seen as part of our native wildlife. I also share what I suspect are your misgivings about opportunities for demonisation and the airing of petty nationalistic sentiment supplied by the easy juxtaposition of native red vs. foreign grey.

Where I take issue with you is over your cavalier dismissal of perfectly valid, if complex, concepts such as the biological species, and especially the series of nonsequiturs which comprise most of your arguments. Also, I think you have missed an important point in your discussion of naturalness or nativeness and conservation priorities.

“However, the word “species” is only a descriptive term within a man-made classification system, so it is ridiculous . .”

The word species is not “only a descriptive term” and there is definitely no “so” linking its interpretation to wildlife conservation - or any “however” linking it to your definition of native. The species concept is the keystone of the Linnaean taxonomic system, which is very successful in enabling us to classify plants and animals. It can be defined as “a reproductively isolated population”, but this does not necessarily imply an inability for species to hybridise.

It is true that the interpretation of the species concept becomes esoteric when applied to very closely related species - are the newly discovered two varieties of pipistrelle bat, only distinguishable by their voices and minute DNA differences, really separate species, or just varieties ? Raising these questions is a valid and useful addition to our knowledge of our fauna, but must be left to experienced taxonomists, rather than political campaigners, to dispute. We therefore sometimes hear taxonomists talk of “good” species. No, this isn’t a value-judgement as to the relative meanness of the animals themselves, but a confirmation that the species is well-separated, readily identifiable and reproductively isolated from similar populations.

Red and grey squirrels are just such “good” species. They are real entities, and if people choose to discriminate between them no amount of criticism of the species concept itself can be used to derogate their actions or opinions.

It is true that some Sciurus vulgaris live in China, but to suggest that this “however” implies that the species is not native to Britain is well beyond ridiculous. Populations of red squirrels in Europe or China differ in colour and other characteristics, and to this extent reintroduction (re- because it is of the same species) could be criticised as the introduced animals will be of genetically different races.

So why do people discriminate in their treatment of different species ? Because they can. Your argument that people have reintroduced or otherwise affected the presence of red and grey squirrels in the UK cuts both ways, and I think this is the main flaw in your argument. There are now no truly natural areas of the world. Every ecosystem is managed to some extent, and this management is intensifying. There are therefore no truly natural species, only managed - or tolerated - populations. The bottom line is that we have to choose which species we want to see around us, we can no longer rely on things just staying the same, just as the National Trust has to decide what the Lake District should look like, and town planners have to decide whether eighteenth century buildings are a good thing.

The red squirrel is not only a much-loved animal in today’s (2008) Northumberland, but has come to symbolise our woodland fauna in many people’s eyes. They don’t want to see it disappear. I think there is evidence, if not conclusive, that grey squirrels exclude reds and if the majority of interested people wish to control greys legally and humanely then they are entitled to do so for whatever reason. The choice to preserve (different from conservation) the local race of reds is a good enough justification. There are arguments, based around the concept of biodiversity, for encouraging the maximum number of different plants and animals in an area, and these should be species we consider native for reasons I would be happy to explain.

I do agree that attempts to demonise grey squirrels are at best amusing and could have more disturbing implications, and that many of the arguments used by pro-red groups are flawed, but they are putting their money where their mouth is. It is possible to pick holes in the justifications offered by such groups, but as a critique your profound and cynical ignorance of everything to do with ecology or conservation, expressed in unrelated gobbets of opinion cuts no ice whatsoever.

 

Angus in turn sent back a further email, answering paragraph by paragraph the points made.

 

Dear Morve

Interesting reply. I shall respond on a paragraph by paragraph basis.

Dear Mr MacMillan,

I have been asked to reply to your email of 10th March, sent to Squirrel Action Greenhead & Gilsland, headed: Not so “Native”.

I must say that I agree with the broad thrust of your argument that the relative nativeness of animals within a particular area is a theoretical concept open to endless interpretation, but we do have to come up with a workable interpretation rather than simply rubbishing the attempt. Mammals such as brown hares which may have been introduced during the Iron age, edible dormice by the Romans and rabbits by the Normans are now seen as part of our native wildlife. I also share what I suspect are your misgivings about opportunities for demonisation and the airing of petty nationalistic sentiment supplied by the easy juxtaposition of native red vs. foreign grey.

I think I have covered most of what you say in this paragraph by my claim that socalled conservationists promote historical assumptions and speculation as “facts” in respect of identifying “native” species where there in no real evidence to support their claims. A “workable interpretation” is deeply flawed if it has no factual basis. Indeed, you use qualifiers yourself such as “”may have been”, “are now seen as part of”, which shows the whole concept is based on conjecture rather than fact. I am, however, pleased you have misgivings about the way greys are treated as ethnics.

Where I take issue with you is over your cavalier dismissal of perfectly valid, if complex, concepts such as the biological species, and especially the series of nonsequiturs which comprise most of your arguments. Also, I think you have missed an important point in your discussion of naturalness or nativeness and conservation priorities.

If you go back a step you will see I oppose the concept of nativeness other than to equate it to where an animal is born.

“However, the word “species” is only a descriptive term within a man-made classification system, so it is ridiculous . .”

The word species is not “only a descriptive term” and there is definitely no “so” linking its interpretation to wildlife conservation - or any “however” linking it to your definition of native. The species concept is the keystone of the Linnaean taxonomic system, which is very successful in enabling us to classify plants and animals. It can be defined as “a reproductively isolated population”, but this does not necessarily imply an inability for species to hybridise.

Of course the word “species” is a descriptive term within a man-made classification system, which is basically what you are saying above. What else is the term within the system? Even your definition above is only a description within the same system of classification.

It is true that the interpretation of the species concept becomes esoteric when applied to very closely related species - are the newly discovered two varieties of pipistrelle bat, only distinguishable by their voices and minute DNA differences, really separate species, or just varieties ? Raising these questions is a valid and useful addition to our knowledge of our fauna, but must be left to experienced taxonomists, rather than political campaigners, to dispute. We therefore sometimes hear taxonomists talk of “good” species. No, this isn’t a value-judgement as to the relative meanness of the animals themselves, but a confirmation that the species is well-separated, readily identifiable and reproductively isolated from similar populations.

Sorry, but you don’t seem to be able to think beyond the classification box. What we’re dealing with when killing grey squirrels is not what the conservationists would like us to believe. They’re not clubbing a “species” over the head with a blunt instrument; they’re killing a real live animal which is a “native” of this country by birth and with a heritage of around 45 generations. I can’t trace my family back that far. Can you? These animals are as native as any human born in this country.

Red and grey squirrels are just such “good” species. They are real entities, and if people choose to discriminate between them no amount of criticism of the species concept itself can be used to derogate their actions or opinions.

The discrimination and hate campaign is based on their species. And what basis do you have for saying "no amount of criticism of the species concept itself can be used to derogate their actions or opinions"? You have none. If the use of a classification system can be seen to be dishonest and flawed then it could have major implications.

It is true that some Sciurus vulgaris live in China, but to suggest that this “however” implies that the species is not native to Britain is well beyond ridiculous. Populations of red squirrels in Europe or China differ in colour and other characteristics, and to this extent reintroduction (re- because it is of the same species) could be criticised as the introduced animals will be of genetically different races.

The red squirrel is only “native species” to the UK because some people say it is. They have absolutely no proof it is - even using their own arguments. There is no evidence that the species has evolved here from the time of the Land Bridge and a few bones in Langworth prove nothing. In fact, almost all, if not all, red squirrels are not indigenous to this country.

So why do people discriminate in their treatment of different species ? Because they can. Your argument that people have reintroduced or otherwise affected the presence of red and grey squirrels in the UK cuts both ways, and I think this is the main flaw in your argument. There are now no truly natural areas of the world. Every ecosystem is managed to some extent, and this management is intensifying. There are therefore no truly natural species, only managed - or tolerated - populations. The bottom line is that we have to choose which species we want to see around us, we can no longer rely on things just staying the same, just as the National Trust has to decide what the Lake District should look like, and town planners have to decide whether eighteenth century buildings are a good thing.

I agree with most of this but it is the anthropocentric view that everything has to suit the will of man. It is this view that is most likely to bring about the extinction of our own species, perhaps sooner than later.

The red squirrel is not only a much-loved animal in today’s (2008) Northumberland, but has come to symbolise our woodland fauna in many people’s eyes. They don’t want to see it disappear. I think there is evidence, if not conclusive, that grey squirrels exclude reds and if the majority of interested people wish to control greys legally and humanely then they are entitled to do so for whatever reason. The choice to preserve (different from conservation) the local race of reds is a good enough justification. There are arguments, based around the concept of biodiversity, for encouraging the maximum number of different plants and animals in an area, and these should be species we consider native for reasons I would be happy to explain.

I think this is where the parallel to Nazism shows through. Hitler and his thugs persecuted minorities to benefit the Aryans. The principle is exactly the same with conservationists and grey squirrels. And sticking to red squirrels perhaps you could explain why you consider them to be native other than that they are born in this country.

I do agree that attempts to demonise grey squirrels are at best amusing and could have more disturbing implications, and that many of the arguments used by pro-red groups are flawed, but they are putting their money where their mouth is. It is possible to pick holes in the justifications offered by such groups, but as a critique your profound and cynical ignorance of everything to do with ecology or conservation, expressed in unrelated gobbets of opinion cuts no ice whatsoever.

This is an interesting statement. With whom do you agree that attempts to demonise grey squirrels are at best amusing? I don’t think there’s anything amusing about demonising grey squirrels and much of the money is from the taxpayer.

Your last sentence shows just how effective our campaign is. If you thought it cut no ice you wouldn’t have bothered responding. However, encouragingly, that is not the feedback we get from the general public to Professor Acorn’s website.

And at least we put our name to what we write.

Angus Macmillan
www.grey-squirrel.org.uk

 

We then received a further email back, this time identifying the author as Will Higgs of Gilsland

 

Dear Mr MacMillan,

Thank you for your reply.

I must apologise for leaving off my signature, it was not intentional. I had prepared the reply on a Word document, for circulation to the group before sending it to you, and forgot to add the signature when pasting it into the email.

I'm afraid I find your reply "more of the same" and see no consistent or intelligent arguments.

As regards your question as to the nativeness of red squirrels, you say "The red squirrel is only a “native species” to the UK because some people say it is." I would alter that slightly to "because many people believe it is". Unfortunately, not all, and in fact, in my opinion, most, arguments cannot be absolutely resolved rationally because the evidence is not available and the concepts are not clear-cut. This is why this discussion is essentially political and not biological. In which case the fact that reds have been here even longer than 45 generations and more importantly many people have grown up with them is a good enough justification for most. Also, the case could be made that the red squirrel is a specialist and the grey a generalist, and this is important. The red could be seen as part of and dependent upon a specific type of woodland ecosystem, which makes it a better quality animal than a grey in this area, where the grey has no part to play. As ecosystems are degraded, the resources remaining within them and the negative effects of pollution and disturbance can only be exploited and tolerated by a few generalist species such as rats, crows and, of course, humans (and greys). The idea that a rain forest, or a pristine Northumbrian woodland is in some way better than Bradford city centre is highly theoretical, but I happen to believe it, and I think its quality is intimately linked to the ecological relationships between its specialised fauna and flora.

If you are interested in the concept of nativeness, much more clear-cut examples can be found in Australia where introduced animals have been extremely destructive, the native fauna is definitely native, and the authorities have developed effective and well-justified policies.

I frequently write to people with whom I disagree, and where I see little hope of change, but this is not an acknowledgement of the validity of their position. It helps me to rehearse and analyse my own opinions, it opens dialogue, which is better than isolation, and it is possible that clearly expressed criticism may weaken your overconfidence in your campaign.

Yours sincerely

Will Higgs
Gilsland

 

Angus then replied with the following email:

 

Dear Mr Higgs

Pleased to see you’ve identified yourself in your response and note you didn't address an number of points I made.

If I write “more of the same” I must be consistent and the lack of intelligent argument seems to come from those who claim red squirrels are “native” for reasons other than that they were born here.

I would like to incorporate both of our statements and say, “many people believe the red is a native species because some people say it is”. But believing something does not make it a fact. Some people believe in ghosts.

Strangely, it strikes me that we’re not as far apart in our views about red squirrels as you seem to think. We both seem to agree that there is no scientific evidence to substantiate their “nativeness” and that the whole concept is politically motivated.

I think more people have grown up with grey squirrels than reds and I think you are quite wrong to say that the red is a better quality animal in this area. Long before greys came on the red scene populations fluctuated wildly probably because they are on the edge of their range and the greys have shown themselves to be much more resilient and suited to the UK environment..

Just where are these “pristine Northumbrian woodlands” that are not polluted by human presence, which is encouraged by social engineers masquerading as conservationists?

Never mind Australia. There is no animal on the planet more destructive than humans so before we start looking outside our own species we should be looking at our own impact. You should also realise that all species populations will rise and fall for a variety of reasons in accordance with their environment.

Rather than generalise, if you find anything which you regard as wrong or unintelligent with my argument, please be specific and I’ll provide an answer. There's a challenge for you.

Yours sincerely

Angus Macmillan
www.grey-squirrel.org.uk

 

We haven't had any further response from Will Higgs. If he ever does reply, we will of course post it here.

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Native by Birth - Condemned by Origin

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