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Tough decisions for a wildlife conservationist - we can't save them all

Her body was still warm. I was shocked by her weight. I had never been this close to a red deer before. I'd underestimated the size of the more understated females. I'd mentally prepared for this moment, so I dutifully took hold of a leg as we carried this recently shot deer out of the forest.

When I first considered a career in wildlife conservation, I didn't picture anything like this scene. To be fair, I was 13 and convinced that I was going to work in an elephant sanctuary and spoon baby elephants for a living. Life happened and I ended up in perhaps a more realistic, yet still very exciting job, working as Capercaillie Advisory Officer for the RSPB.

It was animals that drew me in. It is actually not a given that all conservationists enter this career purely for animals. For some, its the idea of working outside, or maybe the fascination with biological science and of course there are the keen birders! All valid reasons. They also make sense as close contact with wildlife, especially endangered species, is often fleeting at best. I spend far more time with capercaillie poo then the birds themselves.

Capercaillie droppings - the glamour

This did not deter me as I have had the urge to help endangered species for as long as I remember. My love, or some may call it obsession, with animals has only grown with age. I finally have my own animal companion (he is too regal for 'pet') who is one pampered cat. He makes up for the lack of capercaillie cuddle opportunities. I also decided to be vegan 3 years ago. Although I am fierce environmentalist, and also enjoy a healthy lifestyle, I made this choice for the animals. They are what inspire my refusal to ever again contribute to this heart-breaking industry.

So, what an earth is a vegan doing being a willing compliance in a deer murder? This is when my vegan and conservationist selves come into conflict. I would love all animals to live long, happy lives where humans, especially conservationists, pose no threat. Unfortunately, the world is not as simple as my vegan self would like it to be. Humanity has meddled with ecosystems all over the world and we are only starting to understand the consequences of this now. In Scotland, all the top predators, the wolves, bears and lynx that used to roam our land, were wiped out. Obliterated due to the apparent threat to humans and their livelihood. Now, we are left with a mess. An ecosystem cannot thrive without top predators. An unnaturally high deer population is one of the most obvious, and potentially devastating impacts of this loss. Seemingly harmless creatures in themselves, in high numbers deer can decimate an ecosystem. Grazing a habitat within an inch of its life so growth is stunted and unbalanced. This leaves other species, such as capercaillie, under threat as they have diminished food and shelter.

Capercaillie habitat that we are trying to preserve

The solution? We have to become the top predator. In my experience, this is not a very effective solution. Replicating a natural system is near-impossible so the balance is almost always off. But without any effort, we would no doubt see the loss of many of our precious species. So we plough on anyway and do the very best that we can.

This lack of top predators impacts other species in the food chain. Scotland has a much higher number of mesopredators, those in the middle of the food chain such as foxes and badgers etc, compared to many countries with similar ecosystems where top predators remain intact. Without the competition from top predators, there is less to suppress these mesopredators so they thrive. This has significant impacts on what they predate. Again, we feel the need to step in. Predator control is sadly a necessary part of conservation.

The choices get even harder. What happens when there is a conflict between two rare species? In the capercaillie world, there is one such a conflict. Pine martens are a threatened Scottish species and there has been much conservation effort to improve their numbers in Scotland and elsewhere in the UK. They have recovered well but are still considered rare and therefore classed as a protected species. The issue is, pine martens eat capercaillie. Pine martens are a natural predator of capercaillie as they are both native species. The issue is that capercaillie are so vulnerable that it could be conceived that any additional death from predation is significant and perhaps threaten the population further. The science isn't clear on this matter, so for now pine martens are not being controlled to conserve capercaillie. It makes me desperately sad that we have got to the point that we would even consider killing a species that we have worked so hard to protect.

These are just some examples from my own capercaillie world. There are similar problems all over the globe. Endless examples of humanity decimating ecosystems and then frantically, and often ineffectively, trying to clear up their messes. The arrogance of humanity knows no bounds.

Where does this leave me? I will remain vegan. I will continue to rescue more animal companions. I will still help any creatures in need that I may stumble upon in my daily life, from drowning invertebrates to injured songbirds. However, I will also continue to do my job, which means supporting and even recommending deer and legal predator control wherever I think capercaillie are at real risk. This will always sadden me, which is not something I am ashamed of. I refuse to hide these emotions away for fear that I will be considered 'weak'. A sentiment I'm sure many women will understand. These animals deserve my grief. I accept that lives have to be taken, and fully respect those who complete this work as this would be beyond me. This is our responsibility now to do what we can to help those species we have put at threat.

A tear was shed on the evening of this deer's death. She deserved better than the world we have created. I cling to the fact that I am lucky to work alongside some phenomenal conservationists that care deeply about the natural world. They are my hope that we will save as many species as possible. Perhaps one day all animals will live long, happy lives as my vegan self envisions. We can but hope.


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