Torpid dormouse

Dangers of sentimentality

It’s easy to ascribe human characteristics or behaviours to wild creatures. It helps us to relate to them. Books that anthropomophicise wild animals, like the wonderful Wind in the Willows, can also kindle an interest in nature that may lead on to a life-long love. I put the start of my own interest in nature down, at least in part, to Kenneth Graham and Colin Dann. Patrick Barkham, in Badgerlands, attributes a change in attitudes to badgers in large part to the gruff, unsociable but dependable Mr Badger of Wind in the Willows.

I have to admit getting sentimental about wildlife, particularly creatures I see every day, and give names to. It’s hard to resist talking down to the dormice we find during our box checks. Their cuteness sometimes leads me to forget that they are wild creatures, adapted to the life they lead and part of a whole ecosystem that has evolved together. Anthropomorphicising wild creatures can blind us to a deeper understanding of wildlife, and the forces that drive their behaviour.

Programmes like Springwatch get us rooting for individuals. Will the chicks survive to fledge? Watching the process happen in our own nest box was even more engaging. But it’s easy to forget that everything in nature is connected. A sparrowhawk catching one of ‘your’ garden birds is a mini tragedy, unless you are the sparrowhawk or its chicks.

This may make me sound heartless, but part of what I love in nature is the way it all fits together. I like that nature is red in tooth and claw. I like watching the daily battle for survival between predator and prey. Sometimes I pick a side (often the predator, I’m afraid – I don’t know what that says about me).

But I don’t think this means there’s never a case for intervention. In fact, humans have already intervened so much in the ecosystem (eg. introducing non-native invasive species like mink; destroying habitat) that if we are to protect our native wildlife further intervention is needed. And not all human interventions of the past have been negative – some wild creatures have thrived in carefully managed (rather than neglected) woodlands, or would cease to exist if chalk meadows were allowed to return to scrub.

A purely sentimental love for wildlife also prevents us from communicating effectively with policymakers and others who aren’t interested in nature for nature’s sake. We need to be able to engage with them in a language they understand (economics and hard facts) if we are to adequately defend our wildlife.

Sentimentality is great for getting people to care for our wildlife, but to protect it we need to move beyond that to something based on understanding as well as emotion.

Having said that, even the most hardened naturalist deserves the odd “that’s so cute” moment…

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