Recent reports of alarming declines in so many groups of organisms may cause some nature conservationists to lose heart in the fight to preserve our natural world. Field-based entomologists probably feel a sense of loss more acutely than most. Celebration that a small number of high-profile species have been brought back from the brink of extinction can seem overshadowed by a nagging sense that the bigger picture is one of simply monitoring wildlife decline towards extinction. As its title suggests, this book is set firmly in this glass-half-empty camp.
Spalding’s contention is that nature conservation is failing because we view wildlife in fundamentally the wrong way. The author’s central argument in this book is that conservationists have gone too far down the road of regarding wild species as primarily for the benefit of humans, providing various ecosystem services: viewing them as extensions of ourselves in the same way as we regard our pets. He caricatures the species that are appropriated in this way as McDonald’s species, cut off from their habitat context and having to fit around the unnatural environment we have created. Instead, he argues that we should show more respect for their unique evolutionary history and innate wildness. This philosophy will chime well with the currently popular rewilding movement.
After initial chapters exploring the nature of wild species from a philosophical perspective and their historical context, there is an extensive discussion of the vexed question of what the term ‘native’ means and what attitude to take towards non-native species. Many examples are presented of problematic cases where the native status of a species is unclear, although it is not always easy to discern the author’s opinion on what conclusion to draw in each case. A further chapter is devoted to the many types of interaction we have with wild species, whether that is domestication, eradication, release, introduction, monitoring or management, amongst others. The following chapters deal with the issue of how to regard migrant species and how some species have adapted to an industrial landscape. The final chapter brings us full circle back to a reconsideration of our attitude to wild species, although as many illustrative examples are taken from the field of art as from natural history. There is a 19-page list of references and comprehensive indexes for both topics and species.
Throughout the book, the narrative is peppered with personal reminiscences, anecdotes and links with art, literature, and history. These come thick and fast, in the text and in the numerous footnotes (247 in 116 pages of text), sometimes with connections to the main theme that stretch the imagination. On the last page, for example, to illustrate how ordinary objects placed in unfamiliar contexts can sometimes promote a novel perspective, the author manages to draw a connection between a replica of Duchamp’s Urinal in the Tate Gallery and Trigger’s broom in the TV sitcom Only Fools and Horses. Whilst these diversions demonstrate the breadth of Spalding’s scholarly knowledge across diverse fields (he has degrees in both zoology and history), personally I couldn’t help feeling that some were more distracting than illuminating.
Amongst the many examples used to illustrate the author’s narrative, there is a strong emphasis on his favourite insect group, the Lepidoptera, the post-industrial and brownfield habitats in which he has done much important work, and his adopted county, Cornwall. Having run his own environmental consultancy for over twenty years, he brings a wealth of experience of how nature conservation actually works in the real world. He knows better than most how conflicting interests play out between wildlife organisations, statutory conservation agencies, local authorities, planners and developers. There is much in this book, therefore, that is thought provoking, prompting the reader to question and re-examine our collective attitude to nature and to stimulate debate about the fundamental objectives of nature conservation in Britain today. It also presents a timely reminder not to forget the ‘wild’ part of wildlife.