|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!