Non-native species are often labelled as “invasive” and “foreign”, leading to their justified mass culling. But when do we say enough is enough?

In wildlife conservation, mass culling of non-native species is seen as essential to protect native ecosystems. Labelling non-native species as “invasive” is said to have made this culling more acceptable. In the UK, the government has continued to back the controversial mass culling of non-native grey squirrels for the protection of native red squirrels. Yet, this raises questions about conservation policies that justify animal suffering through the ‘othering’ of non-native species. 

Is conservation culling worth it? 

The practice of conservation culling has been highly debated by wildlife conservationists. On one hand, some say that it is an effective method to reduce animal overpopulation. On the other hand, some conservationists argue that its practice of selectively killing animals contradicts the goal of protecting all wildlife

In the UK, conservation culling remains popular with the government for controlling diseases in animal populations i.e. the badger cull. This is regarded as an essential practice to prevent the spread of bovine TB which is said to be harming the farming community. 

However,  a large majority of the British public, wildlife conservationists, and scientists have questioned its effectiveness in preventing bovine TB. An eight-year study shows that the badger cull has not reduced the spread of bovine TB as expected. There are also reports of intense suffering faced by culled badgers during cage trapping and shooting.

Despite calls to end the badger cull, these concerns have been ignored by the government. Earlier this year, the British government reversed its decision to stop badger culling and extended it until 2025. Opposition parties have further accused the government of favouring the farming lobby over animal welfare.

 The ‘othering’ of non-native species

Yet a closer look at the badger cull reveals its use of an “invasive” narrative around badgers to advocate their killings. This also conveniently overlooks human motivations and benefits behind it. 

In Inglis’ (2020) article “Wildlife Ethics and Practice: Why We Need to Change the Way We Talk about ‘Invasive Species’”, she describes the invasive species discourse as a “political tool” used to “scapegoat other living things for problems that are in fact caused or exacerbated by humans.”. 

This is evident in the increasing culling of fallow deers in Scotland, which is indiscriminate of age, gender and native status.

According to Inglis, the labels of ‘invasive’ and ‘foreign’ are often exploited to support policies justifying the killing of non-native species. She further argues that these negative associations have been misused by the scientific community to intentionally promote a “fear of the other”. This, in turn, causes people to “feel justified in either allowing their [non-native species] deaths or actively participating in them”. 

However, further research has shown that culling non-native species is a flawed practice that has led to the killing of millions of healthy wild animals. In this research, scientists found that the impact of animal species on the environment doesn’t depend on their native status, but instead depends more on the animal’s size and diet. 

Alternatives to conservation culling 

In place of conservation culling, there’s a growing call for “compassionate conservation” and alternative methods that focus on minimising harm to other species.  Compassionate conservation focuses on ensuring the welfare of individual animals as well as species. 

This approach values inclusivity and peaceful co-existence, while addressing conservation needs. For instance, in India, conservationists collaborate with local farmers to set aside rice fields for elephants. This has reduced human-elephant conflict over food and space. 

Other alternatives include biocontrol (using natural processes), translocations (moving species, although costly), and sterilisation. These methods aim to balance the welfare of individual animals with broader conservation goals. For instance, researchers suggest that contraceptives for animals, like a grey squirrel contraceptive mixed with hazelnut spread, could control populations more humanely. 

Conservation culling can lead to a dangerous oversimplification of wildlife, justifying the killing of non-native species, which contradicts wildlife conservation values. The badger cull serves as an example of how culling can overlook the impact of human activities on ecology. This has prompted calls for more ecological studies to better understand the effects of “non-native” species as well as for more innovative solutions to animal conservation.