Beak, Tooth and Claw: living with predators in Britain

By Mary Colwell

William Collins, 2021

Hbk, 312pp

ISBN 978-0-00-835476-3; £16.99 

Mary Colwell is the author of Curlew Moon and is well known as an advocate for Eurasian Curlew Numenius arquata conservation. Her new book deals with a more wide-ranging and contentious subject and it has already ruffled a few feathers in the conservation world. 

Most animals are predators, of course, but the book concentrates on those with the highest profiles, which is where conflicts arise most regularly. Among the mammals she focuses on are the Red Fox Vulpes vulpes, European Badger Meles meles and Britain’s two common seal species, Harbour Phoca vitulina and Grey Seal Halichoerus grypus, while the avian representatives involve large raptors, corvids and a number of fish-eating species such as Grey Heron Ardea cinerea and Goosander Mergus merganser. Towards the end, she turns to species that are no longer present in Britain but are candidates for reintroduction.

The strength of the book is in the way it describes human attitudes towards predators and the impact they have. The author paints a vivid but stark picture of just how much opinions vary among different sectors of society, and, as a result, why the issues surrounding predators are so challenging. A significant problem, as she makes clear, is that our remaining predators exist in such a radically altered countryside… ‘culminating in the denuded factory floor that constitutes a large proportion of the landscapes of the UK.’ 

She goes out of her way to explore the issues from all perspectives. There is a late-night excursion with a gamekeeper to control Foxes, and numerous discussions with farmers, fishermen, conservationists, animal welfare campaigners and artists. You sense that she is desperately trying to seek out common ground and opportunities for compromise, though, for the most part, that remains elusive.

If there is a downside to the book, it is in the accuracy of some of the details provided. As is pointed out: ‘very little of our attitude to predators is based purely on science.’ Nevertheless, science is relevant to the discussions, and the way that the existing literature and research is summarised is rather patchy. In the Red Kite Milvus milvus chapter, the information about the reintroduction programme and population status is incomplete and out of date, although the salient facts are easily available. Elsewhere, others have questioned some of the information presented about the species they know best. This might seem like nit-picking but in a book dealing with such a contentious subject – and a book that is likely to be widely quoted on all ‘sides’ of the debate – any inaccuracies are sure to be seized upon. 

Overall, I think that the book achieves its aim admirably. I doubt it can bridge the great divides that exist between different interest groups, and compromise is not always a viable option; but it will surely help to improve understanding and appreciation of the viewpoints of others. It is highly recommended as an engaging, worthwhile and enjoyable read. 

Ian Carter 

Issue 7
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