Even the simple stuff is hard

Genesis 1:28 says: “Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

I recently mentioned a book I’d read called Silent Fields, which documents how the wildlife of Britain has been systematically wiped out over the last five hundred years, leaving a number of species extinct, many more in an endangered state, and much of the rest depleted.

There were, it seems, broadly three major phases in this process.

The first was a series of Tudor laws, mainly under Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, requiring parish payments for the destruction (and penalties for non-destruction) of a long list of “vermin” believed to cause damage to “grain”. The list was more comprehensive than you’d expect, if seldom rigorously applied, and it’s worth putting it in full here to show its range: crow, jackdaw, magpie, rook, starling, hawks (generically), pine-marten, stoat, weasel, buzzard, shag, cormorant, hen-harrier, sea-eagle, golden eagle, osprey, woodpecker, raven, kite, kingfisher, bullfinch and any other bud-eater, fox, badger, polecat, wild cat, otter, hedgehog, rat, mole. Othere acts added more species.

Often parishes took it on themselves to extend the Act to other creatures like snakes, moles or even red squirrels. One writer records that when he asked what harm squirrels did, the reply was, “It’s not a question of harm – what good do they do?” Sparrows were mercilessly persecuted too, as were water-voles. It’s hard, offhand, to think of many species that weren’t considered “vermin”.

The second phase was the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when a surprisingly large proportion of mainland Britain was enclosed and used to raise game for rich folks to shoot for sport (poor folks were instead caught in mantraps and hanged or transported for killing game to which they had a right when the land had been common). This was killing on an industrial scale, especially once breech-loading shotguns became available. Once more, virtually any species was deemed a thread to pheasants and grouse. The aim of gamekeepers was not control, but complete extermination, and many species became extinct, or restricted to outlying wilderness areas; and even there they were hunted as “vermin”, or for fur or feathers (hunting for fur rendered beavers extinct here 200 years ago), or to feed an insatiable demand for taxidermy and egg-collections.

At this time, we read that scientific interest in nature was increasing, but it seems to have been about as enlightened as scientific attitudes to race were: the man who wrote that he couldn’t understand why ospreys were persecuted, since they did no harm, nevertheless deliberately went out to shoot the last osprey in Britain, and steal its eggs, knowing it to be so.

The third phase, from the 20th century to now, coincides with the increasing knowledge of ecology and conservation. Much of the gamekeepers’ slaughter abated when the keepers went off to war, and many of the great estates folded. Yet even now, protected species like otters, eagles and pine-martens are illegally killed in large numbers by gamekeepers working for the super-rich. Road-traffic deaths are another major, and partly unavoidable, modern scourge on wildlife. But the biggest killer in our times has been science, in the form of a succession of pesticides whose wider effects on wildlife have not been adequately researched before blanketing farmland with them. The latest example is the role of neonicotinoids on bees, but there are others. We have so far avoided the ravages of the GM crop and glycophosphate combination by EU legislation, despite the assurances of the scientists… they after all assured us about the benignity of leaded petrol and DDT as well.

Now, Silent Fields puts an initial finger of blame for the Tudor laws on the Genesis principle of man’s rule over nature. Christianity is supposed, it assumes, to teach that nature is man’s to treat as he wishes. The book assumes that similar attitudes prevailed in Mediaeval times, and it’s true that our larger predators like wolves and other species like wild boar were suffering terminal depredations in this period.

It’s also the case that the large post ice-age fauna like bear, lynx, wild horse and aurochs became extinct from prehistoric through to Saxon times, though to be fair it’s hard to be sure whether hunting or climate change was more responsible for some of these.

Yet I am dubious to what extent the blanket contempt for God’s creatures as “vermin” predates the early modern period. Thomas Aquinas is often quoted as stressing the inferiority of irrational animals to mankind, and condemning animal cruelty only on the basis that it breeds cruelty in us. But philosophical arguments for human exceptionalism need not – and I think did not historically – lead to an attitude that all kinds of animals are evil “vermin”, fitted only for death. St Francis of Assisi may have been exceptional too, but the whole tenor of the times was that each species – including us – had its allotted place within God’s wise economy. The mediaeval bestiaries used animals as moral examples. And in a few places like France, animals were sometimes even put on trial for killing humans, and punished with human penalties – an idea bizarre even then, but based ultimately on some high view of the beasts’s moral dignity and accountability.

In my (forthcoming, please God) book God’s Good Earth I argue for a sea-change in Christian attitudes to nature following the Renaissance, from regarding it as God’s wise creation to seeing it as corrupt and fallen, and therefore ugly and inimical. This idea is not entirely original: others have demonstrated that the aggressive “domination” attitude to creation often attributed to biblical doctrine in fact came into being in early modern times, largely through the scientific philosophy of Francis Bacon and his contemporaries.

The Tudor monarchs who passed the Vermin Laws preceded Bacon, but if (as I believe) his attitudes had their roots in Renaissance humanism, it may be no coincidence that the educated “scientific advisers” to Henry and Elizabeth had already absorbed such a confrontational attitude to our fellow creatures.

I put that before you for consideration of one very specific way in which Promethean views have damaged our world. Those in America might like to apply it to the plains bison, the cougar, the passenger pigeon and some of the other animals on this list, for the cultural attitudes appear to come from the same source.

But the main thought I want to leave with you today is from the final chapter of Silent Fields, which although written by a past president of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Roger Lovegrove, considers the necessity for pest control even today as undeniable.

The Tudor Vermin Laws were enacted during a period of disastrous harvests coinciding with increasing population. Desperate and indiscriminate they may have been, but people were genuinely starving. Even today, whilst it is hard to sympathise with rich landowners killing everything in sight to raise grouse to shoot, Lovegrove points out how vital the estates are, still, to a marginal countryside economy. Farmers, too, operate only inches from bankruptcy, and to have ones henhouse cleaned out by a fox or stoat, or ones herd destroyed by TB caught from a badger, is a significant evil.

Sparrows were real threats to countryfolk of old because they riddled, and destroyed, thatched roofs and caused major damage to crops. Even the green woodpecker, an apparently unlikely “vermin” species, caused havoc with the wooden shingles used on church, and other, roofs.

The balance between the interests of wildlife and humans is a serious matter for conservationists today. Rewilding Britain with wolves and lynxes might help the ecology, but there would be a cost in terms of livestock – and the odd unattended baby. Yet that Genesis command was surely primarily a call to our wise and just rule of the animal world, not just a blanket licence for destruction. Somewhere there must be a right balance, if indeed God created this world for all of us, and gives us our daily bread in order that we might fill the earth, rather than calling us to be scattered hunter-gathers. It seems to me Christians, of all people, believing as we do in both God’s creation and our own rightful place in it, ought to be able to grasp this nettle:

Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life! (1 Cor 6:3)

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
This entry was posted in Creation, History, Politics and sociology, Science. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Even the simple stuff is hard

  1. Robert Byers says:

    ut is a constant anti Christian theme to blam,e Christianity for misuse of nature based on Gods command to dominate nature.
    first when the command was made there was nop death and no planms to eat creatures by man or beast. THen the dominate thing was over fishes/birds which is impossible except by intelligence. iT really was raising the bar of how much mankind could control nature by intelligence. not kill or zoo but control. WE don’t control fishes/birds today because we are still too dumb.
    Controlling nature is why the nature exists and simply it was meant to be done right.
    We do dominate nature more today indeed from protestant impulse and this is why we heal, live, do everything better.
    dominating nature means understanding it and making it worthwhile.

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