Friday, 20 August 2010

Them ruddy ducks!

Conservation can be a brutal business and there are times when sensible, sound and necessary actions require practitioners to implement uncomfortable management options. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the case of the Ruddy Duck. This North American species was first introduced to Britain over half a century ago. Originally held within waterfowl collections, the duck escaped and became established as a breeding species more widely across Britain. By the start of 2000 there were estimated to be some 6,000 Ruddy Ducks living wild in Britain.

The main problem with these ducks was that they did not remain here but instead ranged more widely across Europe and, from the early 1990s, they began to turn up in Spain. Spain is home to the White-headed Duck, a species that is very closely related to the Ruddy Duck and one that has been developing naturally because it is reproductively isolated from its cousin over the water. The newly arrived Ruddy Ducks were found to hybridise with the native White-headed Ducks. If this were allowed to continue then in all likelihood it would lead to the extinction of the White-headed Duck.

Following a great deal of research work, and many discussions, a decision was taken to eradicate the population of Ruddy Ducks living in Britain. Not everyone welcomed this process and there has been a fair amount of bad feeling in some quarters. In some cases the arguments against eradication have been well-intentioned and well-researched; in others they have been ill-informed. The process, however, looks as if it is nearing its end; the latest count suggests that there could be as few as 200 Ruddy Duck left, with many of these associated with traditional sites towards which the eradication work will remain targeted into 2011.

It is a shame that conservation practitioners have been forced to take this action. It is, after all, a consequence of human activities that the Ruddy Duck was brought to Britain in the first place. It is our fault that it escaped and our fault that its presence threatens another species. I know that some readers might argue that if the two ‘species’ can interbreed then they are not really two different species. Such an argument is an oversimplification, since it fails to understand that without our na├»ve meddling these two species would have remained reproductively isolated because of their geographical separation. Over time they would have become further isolated, as mating behaviours diverged and genetic compatibility declined.

That conservation practitioners must sometimes eradicate a species from an area into which it has been introduced, is never an easy option. It is a sad consequence of the wider damage we humans continue to inflict upon the world.

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