VEGA News Item

VEGA contributes to government initiatives - 19/03/2004
Welfare, environmental and ecological consequences of introductions of non-native species

1. The welfare and sentience of animals introduced inadvertently or by design (which might be construed as beneficial or as an act of mischief) must concern departments of the government involved in these and environmental topics. Such welfare issues would apply to conditions at the point of despatch and extend to inanimate objects such as meat (e.g. bushmeat killed in a cruel and unhygienic manner and possibly carrying undesirable infestations and contamination) and ivory (which, like meat, and other animal-derived products) might originate in defiance of conservation programs at source. Welfare, hygiene, and environmental requirements must be ensured before and after transhipments, containments, quarantine, tagging for traceability, and conditions of ownership and care (and responsibility therewith) in the UK. These considerations would entail veterinary supervision and surveillance like that applied to movements of pets and horses and is being increasingly applied in tracking farming livestock.

2. Such introductions would include human and animal material for medical and veterinary purposes and for use in experiments and would thus extend to the control of whole organisms, dead and alive, from apes to protozoa, viruses, and bacteria among fellow travellers, and to appropriate precautionary treatments such as vaccination. Genetics could be applied as susceptibilities and untoward traits are identified, e.g. the codons associated with transmissible spongiform encephalopathies such as scrapie in some breeds of sheep and goats (and CJD in people). Feckless disposal of unwanted pets or acquisitions, e.g. pot-bellied pigs and goldfish must be averted by publication of agencies with competence in dealing with these challenges in a seemly manner adequately funded, with charity resources eked out if necessary by government grants.

3. Increased monitoring would reduce the tendency to regard all introductions of livestock as hazardous, creating fear, and unnecessary reactionary cruelty. Education in history of introductions of non-native species is urgently needed even if satisfactory unequivocal solutions, uniformly applicable, cannot be found. Retrospection would reveal many instances of transhumance, neglect or sheer folly - many with contemporaneous good intentions – for the practice of human dominance. Many native species are survivors of introductions many years ago: the hefted sheep on British uplands are a far cry from the denizens of the green valleys of the 23rd Psalm, and the sheep introduced in the Highland Clearances have become the little woolly bundles some observers revere as a vital element in the beauty of an British Countryside with much curtailment of what are deemed as untidy overgrowths of natural flora. Exposure of these animals to the depredations of predators (other than people) has led to the introduction of llamas as protectors, with apparently – at present - good control and little harm. The book Naturalized Animals of the British Isles, by Christopher Lever, is informative on such matters.

4. Introductions in the interests of production for human purposes may be accompanied by alien practices, not only impoverishing and altering the conditions of soil, their structure, and ecosystem. Dairying has introduced monotonous pastures of Italian ryegress and overwhelmed the delicate balance and variety in wild flora and insects. Systems of silaging and harvesting, with autumn sowing and lack of fallowing have exposed native wildlife to threats on a big scale. Intensive dairying and free ranging developments have led to invasions by predators and commensals carrying risks, e.g. through scavenging, of undesirable invaders, particularly those enteric zoonotic cycles.

5. Redoubled effort is needed to curb untoward introductions through incompetence or illicit activity, such as discharges of ballast tanks and supervision of goods sold in gardening centres and pet shops (which would also be selling seeds with possible adverse consequences in horticulture, farming, and the environment and for wild life). Unwelcome arrivals such as the Chinese mitten crab and the New Zealand flatworm came through these channels and the Colorado beetle’s farming significance illustrates the need for skilled monitoring of farming inputs and curtailment of infestation. Exotic and haphazard introductions follow trade and industry. Raw materials for the woollen industry brought in antipodean seeds that have germinated and thrived giving local interest and history, and the threat of anthrax has been overcome. Studies of warfare and bioterrorism suggest that this disease could not be turned to malign ends on a big scale.

6. Although the “polluter-pays” principle should operate in policies covering introductions of alien species, traceability of miscreants may be difficult, especially if penalties are sought on a retrospective basis. Some introductions (such as species of deer, squirrels, mink and of plants such as Japanese knotweed and rhododendrons) must be releases and escapes from collections, with mixed consequences only latterly becoming intolerable, especially to farmers, foresters, horticulturists, and gardeners. Some releases were made by irresponsible animal welfarists enraged by evil farming practices. Recent appearances of exotic parakeets remain unexplained and the birds seem at the moment to be in numbers and distribution of no great harm to native species. They seem to have acclimatized more successfully than, say, budgerigars.

7. All farming disrupts territories and habitats, as well as introduces non-native species and genetics bred for production rather than survival and welfare. Many of the hybrids (e.g. of cereals) are products of breeding outside the UK and of cross-pollination and volunteer weeds (such as happens among the brassicas and with wild oats). Commercial poultry deriving from the jungle fowl and confined in objectionable units or let loose in hostile areas described as free-range in which they are poorly equipped to cope. These birds are denied the attentions of the RSPB, which is concerned with the preservation of native raptors to which the commercial birds in the open and unable to escape are held hostage. Controversy over GM and the travel as pollen by introduced species is illuminating some of the challenges long overlooked. Recent arguments over plantings of fodder maize (a subtropical C4 crop) in a land dominated by C3 (temperate) flora seems a perverse introduction without any further genetic tinkering. It is reprehensible as an objectionable aspect of commerce and drive for productivity for cheap food.

8. Intensification of farming practices has seen a succession of invasions of micro-organisms with waxing and waning persistence but with at least ( e.g. in the geographical naming of salmonella species) recognition of their alien origins. Breeds of cattle, sheep, pigs, and poultry with “good” English names now languish as rarities, while the environment supports food-producing animals named after countries and areas far and wide. Trade in semen and embryos and application of artificial insemination (even in natural and organic systems), abetted by pharmaceutical and other artifices in the service of production, have resulted in a dominance of breeds described not so long ago as exotic. With them come microorganisms sweeping in from afar and with foreign names, especially viruses. Restocking after the mid-1960s epidemic of foot an mouth disease with N American Holstein cattle brought to Britain’s herds the threat of enzootic bovine leucosis, which luckily did not take off; however, the subsequent epidemic of BSE and then risk of CJD originated in cattle reared for milkiness in the dairy/beef/veal industry rather than in animals designed with the genetics and introductions of beefiness.

9. Microorganisms are volatile, adaptable, resilient, and insidious participants in global transfers with consequences food and bad. Movements of people and animals are so rapid that the world has become a highly populated global village: extremophiles and even species from space may add to the introductions of non-native and rapidly evolving organisms changing even during journeys and within living organisms. Some of the species may be confined and put to good use, but others are intensified examples of introduced by organisms such as the black and brown rats and vectors of bacterial and viral diseases. They represent challenges to the very young and the old and to populations with compromised immune systems and they involve animals of all types. The challenges of these zoonotic diseases implicate native and introduced and acclimatized vectors such as ticks and other insects (cf malaria).

10. Airborne and contagious threats, without intermediate vectors, such as the variant influenzas and reservoirs in various species, wild and farmed, comprise a major threat from introduced and mobile species, notable birds and bats. These challenges must be met by redoubling checks on vehicles, travellers, birds and other animal species, and in research on vaccines and means of anticipating trouble. Ill-judged applications of broad-spectrum antibiotics is followed by survival of resistant species equipped by rapid selection and crossing to invade and occupy territories in which naturally competitive and benign commensals have been eliminated. Sources of invaders in the alimentary tract such as Helicobacter pylori and Clostridium difficile, as well as fungal intruders into the urinary system, remain mysterious, but controlled recolonizations by artificial means seem beneficial.

11. Attitudes to wild, feral, domestic, and farmed and otherwise exploited animals vary in manner dominated by sentiment rather than in the objective purpose of respectful coexistence with us. Treatments of cats, horses, foxes, badgers, wild boars, cattle, garden birds, goldfish, terrapins (turtles), and rats illustrate some of these peculiarities.

12. Control may have to entail culling of animals. This must be done in the most careful and humane way. The process must not reduce the victims to the status of game for the purpose of sport or amateurish or primary commercial activity. As far as possible, population control should be achieved by interference in reproductive process, which may still require research; it could be conducted in reputable independent zoological agencies funded either by charities or government or by both. Policies and actions must be informed by respect and reverence for living animals surviving disruptions caused by our species, which thus bears a special responsibility for mercy and kindness.

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