Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Should you kill to tick?

Chequered Skipper - the only one that I have seen. NOT collected

A museum glass cabinet that displays stuffed birds is an object that at once shows its age. When the naturalists of the 18th and 19th centuries went out to catalogue the natural world, they went armed with guns, cat gut and sawdust. The provenance of a bird was down to the production of its skin - the old saying of 'what's hit is history, what's missed is mystery' was very true indeed - if you didn't have the body then the record was unproven.

There cannot be many people who would not baulk at the idea of netting birds, wringing their necks and then displaying them at home, stuffed and wired to a perch within a case. But what about butterflies? Moths? Beetles?

I have recently had an email correspondence on the rights and wrongs of collecting with two fellow naturalists. I think it fair to say that one is pro and one against. I find myself sitting somewhere in the middle. It got me thinking about the subject, which has not done anything to push me off the fence.

In the UK we can safely assume that, bar rare scientific study, nobody collects birds in this day and age.   In botanical circles plant material is commonly collected for identification purposes, but this does not need the whole plant to be dug up, rather the taking of a seed head, a leaf or the cutting of a stem. Lepidopterists are largely shunning the practice of collecting a specimen to pin it to a board, largely due to very good field guides being available plus the rise in compact digital cameras with which to obtain great images. However, some of the 'old school' still retain voucher specimens. Many invertebrates are unidentifiable unless you examine them closely. This often needs the insect in question to be sedated or killed.

So, is it alright to kill a living creature? Does it make it OK to do so if you are undertaking a survey? Is it permissible if you are furthering our knowledge of the species (or related species)? But the question from our correspondence that hit home with me was:

Is it OK to collect a specimen and kill it to purely gain a tick on you life list?

Hmmm... good question. I find the collecting of butterflies and moths archaic and needless, although there are many micros (and a few macros) that need genitalia examination to be carried out to be able to positively identify them. They therefore need to be killed (in most cases). Should we leave these alone, leave them unidentified, and only let the professionals undertaking research to kill them if need be? And why do I not baulk at the collecting of beetles, flies, wasps etc? Is it because they are not so cute and colourful? A few are. Or is it because, from small children, we have watched our elders chase after them with sprays and swats and exterminate them with extreme prejudice as soon as they entered the house?

There are contradictions. I won't collect moths but know that by switching the moth trap on a very small number of them will get damaged in the process. And if I don't get to the trap early on, then the local birds will come down and have a free feast on those moths resting on nearby walls.

The previous generations of naturalist were collectors. They were eggers. They carried out taxidermy. Today we are largely not. But when you explore nature in all of its many guises, there are some areas that are still at the 'textbook and collection' stage. To not collect would mean to not further our knowledge of them. Killing here is simply what is needed to be done.

My current outlook is this. If I need to kill a creature to identify it, I don't. This means that there is plenty out there that I will not be able to identify. That's fine. I struggle enough with what I can identify without killing it as it is!


  1. As someone who does this for a living, my quick and simple answer is YES, AS LONG AS THE RECORD IS SUBMITTED/ AND THE DATA USED FOR CONSERVATION PURPOSES. My reason for this is, what is a tick? The simple answer is: something you haven't seen before. If it's a difficult to identify species and the only way to identify it is to kill it, then that is all you could do. The next time you encounter it you might not need to take the specimen having learned enough from the first. As I get more experienced I take less and less material home which is great. Take for example my recent record of Coccinella magnifica, I'd never seen it before, had read up on it so if I did encounter one I wouldn't need to take one. I gain no pleasure from killing specimens BUT I think it is essential that we get over the fact that we need to take specimens in order to do entomological surveys. I once gave a talk at a school to a bunch of primary school kids and showed them a box of specimens. They were completely amazed. On the way home, I drove passed an old birding friend and thought he might like to see them. His reply was 'Hmm, I'm not sure about that, isn't it better that we just don't know?'. This sadly is a thought crime. How can we conserve what we don't know is there? As for leaving this to the professionals, every extra dot on a map adds to our understanding of our island's nature and we really should encourage that. Perhaps what could be done to rationalise this, is to target the non-professionals at under recorded sites?

  2. I don't think killing for study is an issue in conservation terms. After all, how many entomologists are there actually going about collecting insects? Not very many at all I would guess. You only have to consider how difficult it is to determine specimens, not to mention the time it can take, plus all the expense associated with kitting one's self out for entomology (microscope, vials, pooters, pins, store boxes etc) to realise that there are never going to be enough active field entomologists to make any discernible difference to populations of insects. These days if something is rare it is due to other factors and not collecting.

    There are many people who disagree with killing. They simply find the idea of deliberately killing something offensive and nothing an entomologist says will change their minds. For my part I am happy that what I do - kill a few thousand flies, wasps, bees each year is absolutely inconsequential to the insect populations in question. And although I don't relish the process of killing, if I am honest with myself I really don't have any problem with it at all.

    I of course don't knowingly kill rare species, even though if I did it wouldn't make any difference to anything. All the entomologists I know would also take care over rare species.

    One final aspect to all this. Taxonomy is a critical skill and if some people don't keep the art alive, how will we ever be able to identify things in future. We should certainly not underestimate the absolutely crucial role of taxonomy in helping us to manage many biodiversity related issues across the globe, for example dealing with alien species.

  3. Graeme and Nigel - thanks for your considered responses. This is a controversial subject as far as the non-pro, non-pan-listing naturalist is concerned. From your perspectives it makes sense, but to others it will seem cruel. I don't think that will change. We can, of course, get bogged down with semantics of it all.