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Read an excerpt from Meat: A Benign Extravagance

The following is excerpted from Simon Fairlie’s book, Meat: A Benign Extravagance. This piece appeared originally on the web at Rhys Southan’s website, Let Them Eat Meat.

The Fence

In the 1960s, the American biologist Robert Paine conducted an experiment involving the removal of a predator species from a seashore environment:

When he removed the main predator, a certain species of starfish, from a population of fifteen observable species, things quickly changed. Within a year the area was occupied by only eight of the fifteen species. Numbers within the prey species boomed and in the resulting competition for space, reasoned Paine, those species that could move left the area; those that could not simply died out.[1]

Commenting on Paine’s experiments, Allan Savory remarks: ‘I witnessed a similar disruption in two much larger communities in Africa’, namely the Luangwa valley in Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) and the lower Zambezi Valley in Southern Rhodesia, where he worked as a biologist:

Both areas contained large wildlife populations – elephant, buffalo, zebra, more than a dozen antelope species, hippo, crocodiles and numerous other predators. Despite these numbers, the river banks were stable and well vegetated. People had lived in these areas since time immemorial in clusters of huts away from the main rivers, because of the mosquitoes and wet season flooding. Near their huts they kept gardens that they protected from elephants and other raiders by beating drums throughout much of the night or firing muzzle-loading guns to frighten them off. The people hunted and trapped animals throughout the year as well.But the governments of both countries wanted to make these areas national parks. It would not do to have all this hunting going on, and all the drum beating, singing and general disturbance, so the government removed the people. Like Paine, we, in effect, removed the starfish. But in our case we put a different type of starfish back in. We replaced drum-beating, gun-firing, gardening and farming people with ecologists, naturalists, and tourists, under strict control to ensure they did not disturb the animals or vegetation.[2]

The result was a change in grazing behaviour by many of the animal populations, and a rapid deterioration in environmental quality. ‘Within a few decades, miles of riverbank in both valleys were devoid of reeds, and most other vegetation. With nothing but the change of behaviour of one species these areas became terribly impoverished and are still deteriorating as I write.’

The ecologist or park manager faced with these problems, will therefore normally try to simulate the role of predator. Culling large animals near the top of the food chain is the easiest way of controlling what goes on in a wildlife park. Anything else can be very labour intensive. It is true that there is a growing avant garde amongst nature conservationists advocating that animal populations should be left to sort themselves out – as at Ostvaardersplassen Reserve in the Netherlands where ancient varieties of cattle are uncontrolled and are killing off trees by bark stripping, making the area more open.[3] There is much controversy about the wisdom of this approach, and some also about its disregard for animal welfare: in the absence of predators, many animals die a painful and lingering death, unless they are culled. And if they are culled, why not eat them? Culling is either hunting, or else it is a waste of good food.

These problems loom even larger for ecologists in a vegan society, since vegans, by definition, refuse to be predators. Vegans cannot cull – at least not with any degree of ease or consistency. And there is a further problem to be faced: what to do about poaching? Poachers present a problem for all managers of wilderness, but they present a more awkward one for vegan wildlife managers for at least two reasons. A vegan society cannot buy off miscreants with factory-produced meat; and if vegans cannot cull, the pressure to get rid of nuisance animals rises.

So how would wildlife parks function in a fully vegan society? New animals could be introduced, but only with difficulty could surplus animals be removed, by capturing and taking them somewhere else where they might cause the same problem. It is easy to imagine that certain populations might grow, quite quickly, to the point where they started causing damage, not just within the park, but outside it. How would the vegan park manager stop wild boar descending from the woods to dig up gardens, squirrels in their hundreds crawling over nut plantations or destroying timber trees, badgers rolling neighbouring wheatfields flat, or herds of hungry elephants stampeding through cropland?

There are a number of courses that a vegan wildlife manager can pursue. One is to introduce predators and hope that these – in conjunction with a dearth of food during cold or dry seasons – will keep the prey population in balance. This might work in some cases, but in others it might not. Quite a few pests – for example elephants, badgers, wild boar and kangaroos – don’t have much in the way of predators and, like rabbits and rats, have long been controlled by the hand of the supreme predator, man. Whether that hand can be removed in such a way that animals do not cause intolerable damage to our agricultural interests is questionable.

A predator species can keep a prey species under check in relation to the available food supply. But if that food supply includes not only the wildlife park, but adjacent edible cropland, the predators will not stop the prey advancing into the cropland – indeed it is to the predators’ advantage to let them advance. In the absence of any pest control by the farmers, it is not difficult to see deer, feral goats, rats and rabbits expanding their field of operation, possibly followed by wolves, bears or large cats, not to mention hyenas, badgers and other scavengers and opportunists who would avail themselves of whatever else they could find in people’s dustbins and gardens. The bears and large cats would occasionally take out a human for good measure.

Of course, this would never happen on any scale, because the farmers wouldn’t allow it, any more than the 18th century Berkshire farmer, quoted on p 121, tolerated the presence of his Lordship’s deer. If the park managers failed to control pests, then the farmers would turn to poaching, not only to save the crops upon which their livelihoods depended, but also because they would reason that if wolves, bears, lynxes and foxes are allowed to predate, why aren’t humans? Enforcement would be near impossible, no matter how many vegan policemen were deployed, while reinvoking the Black Act and making hunting a capital offence would presumably conflict with vegan ethics. In such a situation it is likely that poaching (and probably poisoning as well) would be quietly tolerated, in much the same way that the eating of sacred cows is tacitly accepted in India.

It is for this reason that the Vegetarian Society’s ‘Green Plan’ drawn up by vegan Alan Long sensibly allows a measured amount of meat-eating:

Domestic species of farm animals, at present travesties produced by domestic breeding, would be allowed to assume the feral state in these reserves … In such feral conditions, animals may have to be culled … Casualties could be used for meat for those who want it.[4]

One wonders, in passing, whether Long refers to cultivated cabbages and beans as ‘travesties’. But for Peter Singer and more purist vegans the idea of ‘harvesting’ excessive populations of feral or wild animals is another form of ‘speciesism’. His solution to the poaching problem, and to the problem of inedible pests, is to control their population through the use of drugs or the release of infertile males to reduce female fertility. I will come to that shortly. But what is most revealing about Singer’s coverage of pests is the tiny proportion of his book which he devotes to them – just one page, compared with an entire chapter on factory farming and another chapter on vivisection. Pests, in Singer’s view are a side issue: this is how he introduces the subject:

It is possible to think of more unusual cases in which there is a genuine clash of interests. For instance, we need to grow a crop of vegetables and grain to feed ourselves; but these crops may be threatened by rabbits, mice, or other ‘pests’.[5]

Unusual? Rabbits, mice and other pests? Far more rodents have died as a result of traps, poisons or targeted anthropogenic disease, than have ever been killed in the laboratories he campaigns against. Singer seems blissfully ignorant about the perils of growing vegetables. Virtually every herbivore in the animal kingdom, from slug and carrot fly up to deer and wild boar, has long since sussed out that humans are more proficient at growing tasty food than nature is, and all do their utmost to partake of the feast. The smell of bacon may not awaken murderous feelings in the breast of vegetarian gardeners, but the sight of all their pea seedlings ripped out by pigeons often does. And nothing causes sleepless nights for conscience-stricken vegans so much as the sound of rats scuttling in the cavities of their walls.

Most vegans are currently protected from the ravages of pests through the discreet measures taken by the rest of society to keep them under control. Nonetheless a shift towards a vegan ethic has altered our relationship with wild animals. Fifty years ago a fox who dared approach a village in daylight would have been greeted by kids throwing stones and telling him to piss off, thereby establishing a mutually beneficial barrier between civilization and nature. Now we welcome nature with open arms, and when Reynard saunters down the street people point and say ‘ooh look, a fox!’ – with the consequence that foxes feel at liberty to take chickens in broad daylight. Savory complains that whereas baboons naturally run at the sight of people, in his neighbouring national parks they became so tame that ‘they sat on cars or got into them and trashed everything and had to be destroyed as a nuisance’. Similarly:

The remaining elephants in the park no longer fear humans. Although they are being culled at a high rate, they do not know that humans are doing it, as whole families are gunned down so that none lives to tell the tale. This deception is considered necessary as it is a national park and tourists require tame elephants. And they have become remarkably tame: their response to human scent is very different from what it was in the late 1950s when they were much wilder. Unfortunately tame elephants, or any other game interdependent with predators, are not natural and therefore lose their natural relationship with the plants in their community. Basically they linger too often and too long in the most favoured areas and thus overbrowse or overgraze.[6]

They are becoming like cows who hang around the gate waiting for feed. It is not only animal lovers who are responsible for this domestication of the wild, but also people who hunt for sport (as opposed to those who hunt for the table). As Ortega y Gasset noted, hungry hunters kill the first animal that comes along, and thus select for wildness – whereas sports hunters demand a challenge, ignore easy prey, and so select for domestication. When I worked as a beater on our local shoot, nothing we could do – shouting, firing guns, throwing stones, despatching dogs through the water – would persuade the ducks on the pond to take flight. Having observed what happened to those who flew on previous shoots, the survivors had sussed that their best tactic was to remain on the pond, because sports hunters don’t shoot sitting ducks.

Singer’s proposal of ‘contraception for wild animals’ is perhaps the best option for vegans who want to maintain wildness. However it is not necessarily as simple as it sounds. The feral camels in the Australian bush, descended from animals imported to carry bales of wool, are now ‘the wildest camel herd in the world’, largely because nobody in the country which pioneered 120 foot transcontinental ‘road-trains’ has any use for ships of the desert any longer. There are already a million of them, and left to their own devices would double in number every ten years, so they are culled by marksmen from a helicopter. Interviewed on Radio 4, Tony Peacock of the University of Canberra commented:

Nobody would like to do it with birth control more than I – but it’s not possible. Our co-operative research centres studied birth control of wildlife for well over a decade and we spent probably in excess of AUS$80 million in research funds, but it just doesn’t work well enough. You still have the issue of accessing the animals. Unless they are very easily accessible and very high value it’s just impossible to do.[7]

Birth control of wild animals may become easier and more affordable in the future, but that prospect raises other issues. It sails worryingly close to genetic engineering, and would probably lead to domestication through a more sinister route. If we let scientists manipulate the fertility of wild animals they will inevitably start fiddling around with their genes, and before long, we risk finding large sections of the evolutionary process controlled by scientists – and in a vegan society, by scientists who might disapprove of speciesist activities such as predation. Left to their devices the lamb might indeed be lying down with the lion. Such an evolutionary outcome would presumably be acceptable to Singer, who not only coined the term speciesism, but is also a forthright advocate of genetic modification.

Singer omits to mention two other existing methods of pest control which, along with guns, are commonly used by farmers. The first of these is that adopted by the US Army in Vietnam – defoliation. Destroy the enemy’s habitat, so there is nowhere for them to hide, and soon you outnumber them. Farmers nowadays do not spend hours on a tractor flailing hedges and fighting back the advance of woodland for the hell of it, but because the more cover you provide, the more pests you harbour. Plant peas or wheat in a small field half-surrounded by woodland and the chances are that pigeons will eat all your pea seed and badgers roll your wheat. Plant acre upon acre of them in the middle of an arable prairie, and there will never ever be enough pests to make any impact upon your crop.

One option for a vegan farming system beset by pest problems would be to get rid of all the pestiferous hedges which demand annual maintenance and which are no longer needed for enclosing cows and sheep. That is what habitually happens in areas where farmers have got rid of their livestock; or where livestock are kept indoors all year round, as they are in many areas of Europe. England’s miles of hedgerows are unusual – a historical anomaly resulting from the fact that the countryside was enclosed before the invention of barbed wire. Permaculturist vegans would argue that the hedges and other biodiverse vegetation should be kept to provide a balance of predatory species – but that balance would be hard to maintain if the species that has been chief predator for several thousand years of evolution resigned from the position. The Campaign to Protect Rural England might protest at the disappearance of hedgerows, but from an environmental point of view removal could be justified if many more wildlife areas were created elsewhere on land formerly occupied by domestic animals or the crops grown to feed them. Efficient mechanized vegan farmers, supplying food for millions, would be less inclined to share land with nature and more disposed to spare land elsewhere for it.[8]

The other recourse traditionally taken by farmers is to fence off land that is under siege from pests – in the UK, typically deer, badgers or rabbits. It can be an expensive option but in our hypothetical vegan society the farmers have a potential ally. If the wilderness areas are managed by conservationists who want to maintain a natural succession (rather than by scientists who want to engineer an artificial one) then they too will be keen to demarcate the zone between the wild and the human with as impermeable a fence as can be devised and afforded.

Fencing has often been a tempting prospect for wilderness creators on the grand scale (and true wilderness has to be on a grand scale). The palaeontologist Richard Leakey, when head of the Kenya Wildlife Service, proposed fences around the Maasai Mara Reserve and the Tsavo National Park, ‘to keep animals away from people and people away from animals’, but had to abandon the plan because it would have interrupted some animals’ migration patterns.[9] Paul Tudor Jones, the billionaire managing director of Grumeti Eco-reserves, which has leased 340,000 acres to ‘offer 54 guests 21st century service in a sumptuous bush-chic setting’ wants to erect a fence along the Western edge of the Serengeti; and there are fences around National Parks in Zimbabwe and Namibia, which again interfere with animal migration routes.[10] In Botswana, where there are already thousands of miles of ‘veterinary fences’ designed to separate cattle from wild animals carrying tsetse and foot and mouth disease, the 240 mile long Makgadikgadi fence is:

the first of a new breed of fence designed to reduce conflicts between people and wildlife. Specifically, it was built to stop lions from attacking cattle, to stop villagers from retaliating against the lions, and to protect the grazing land of the wildlife in the park from the cattle.[11]

In Scotland, the proposed ‘Pleistocene Park’ wilderness at Allandale, according to one visitor, is ‘scarred by new fences’ some of which are electrified and sport DayGlo notices stating ‘Do Not Enter, Dangerous Wild Animals’ – a matter which has come into conflict with Scotland’s right to roam laws.[12]

Conservationists want to prevent humans wandering in and out of wilderness, because they might be poachers or because they might end up as prey. Farmers and villagers want to keep dangerous and nuisance animals inside wilderness areas. The easiest strategy for a totally vegan society would probably be to fence off the agricultural land from the wilderness on the same scale that the Australians erected their ‘rabbit proof fence’, or the Botswanans their miles of veterinary fencing. This fence would need to be tough enough to resist badger, wild boar or elephants, tall enough to prevent deer leaping over it, and well enough policed to deter poachers. It would probably look something like the fence around Glastonbury festival, sunk two feet into the ground. And it still wouldn’t keep the pigeons in.

The contrast would be stark. Within the flat grade one and two agricultural areas, there would be a tendency to cultivate as much as possible, with only a small amount of land devoted to shelterbelts, woods, hedgerows, banks and other landscape features. Strips of grain and vegetables would be interspersed with strips of clover or lucerne, in a manner reminiscent of the open field landscape that can be viewed in the more denuded areas of Eastern Europe. Nut and fruit orchards would consist of close-planted, easy to pick, early maturing dwarf varieties, for in a society without animals, there would be no incentive to plant standards with a carpet of grass underneath them.

Whether the fence would surround the agricultural land or the wilderness would depend upon the relative size of each; though for the wilderness to function properly it would have to be large enough to support a viable population of predators. In fertile areas with high populations there would be some reservoirs of pseudo-wilderness fenced off; in outlying regions there might be islands of agriculture. But at some point between the two there would be the main continuous fence dividing Nature on one side from vegan agriculture on the other – the coastline where the ocean of wilderness washed against the shores of civilization.

If this is starting to sound like a science fiction film it is because the chances of it actually coming to pass are, mercifully, remote. The fence represents a logical conclusion of the vegan project, rather than its most imminent expression. I bring it up because it lies at the end of a path which some vegetarians and vegans are inviting us to take, and because it is the most graphic symbol of the rift between humanity and nature which I suspect would arise as a result of a refusal to eat meat.

[1] Paine, R T (1966 ), ‘Food Web Complexity and Species Diversity’, American Nauralist, vol 100 no 910: pp 65-75.

[2] Savory, Allan with Butterfield, Jody (1999), Holistic Management, Island Press.

[3] Fenton, James (2004), ‘Wild Thoughts: A New Paradigm for the Uplands’, Ecos, Vol 25:1, 2004.

[4] Long, Alan (1979), The Green Plan, a Synopsis, The Vegetarian Society.

[5] Singer, Peter (1995), Animal Liberation, Pimlico, p 233.

[6] Savory, op cit. 7.

[7] Tony Peacock, on Radio 4 ‘Today’, 12 August 2009.

[8] The concept of a choice between ‘sharing land’ and ‘sparing land’ has been developed by Tim Benson of the University of Leeds, from: Rhys Green et al, ‘Farming and the Fate of Wild Nature’, Science, 307, pp 550-5, 28 Jan 2005. See also Chapter 8, footnote 36.

[9] Monbiot, George (1995), No Man’s Land, Picador; Poole, R M (2006), ‘Heartbreak on the Serengeti’, National Geographic, Feb 2006.

[10] Rogers, D (2006), Grumeti Reserves, Tanzania are the Ultimate Safari Destination. What are you Waiting for? October 2006,; Communicating the Environment Programme Factsheet 5, Musokotwane Environment Resource Centre for Southern Africa (n.d.) CEP Factsheet: Poaching,

[11] Flore, G (2006), ‘Good Fences, Good Neighbors? Can Botswana Simply Cordon off the Conflicts Dividing Ecotourism, Cattle Farming, and the Interests of Conservation?’ Natural History, June 2006.

[12] Taylor, P (2008), ‘Alladale’s Wilderness – Seeing through the Fence’, ECOS, 29:3/4.

Read the original excerpted piece at Let Them Eat Meat.

Meat: A Benign Extravagance is available now.

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