Magazine article The Spectator

The Case for Killing Swans

Magazine article The Spectator

The Case for Killing Swans

Article excerpt

Television viewers with a soft spot for our feathered and furry friends are being treated nightly to the BBC's authorised version of what goes on in our woods and meadows, up and down our rivers and around our coasts. In Britain Goes Wild - a classic BBC jolly, jokey title - a pretty young woman with unruly blond hair and an extremely ready smile cosies up to the former comedian Bill Oddie, and together they drop in to see what their assorted cast of badgers, barn owls, blue tits, jackdaws, kingfishers, roe deer and other photogenic dumb chums are up to.

Occasionally the armchair nature-lover is whisked off to a more distant location to get a bird's-eye view of a species not to be encountered near the Oddie burrow in deepest Devon. On the first night - which was as much as I could stand - Simon, a strapping fellow in a woollen hat, was filmed lying on a carpet of gannet excrement on a rock somewhere off the east coast of Scotland, rhapsodising excitably about how wonderful it was to have 80,000 of these noisy birds for company.

Oddie himself, who long ago made a wise career move by forsaking comedy to take on the role of the Corporation's cheeky chappie of the outdoors, dominates the proceedings. With his whiskers, frequent scratching and high-pitched bursts of chirruping and snuffling, his television manner is that of some furry hedge-dweller togged up in anorak and binoculars. It's an image entirely in keeping with the relentless anthropomorphism of the programmes.

In Oddieland, there is no concept of the countryside as a venue for a grim, amoral struggle to survive. The creatures are characters, endowed with a full range of human emotions and responses. Most - badgers, foxes, tits, otters, fieldmice, etc. - are lovable. Sometimes they are a bit dodgy - grey squirrels, for instance, which are bushy-tailed and bright-eyed but unkind to red squirrels; or greater spotted woodpeckers, which are handsome and make interesting noises, but have a bad habit of trying to eat nestlings. Then there is the occasional out-and-out bad hat, such as the rat.

In its resolute avoidance of anything vaguely unsavoury, contentious or messy - apart from the hilarious possibility of hunky Simon getting gannet poo on his hat - Britain Goes Wild places itself firmly in a direct line from Wind in the Willows; except that instead of sculling on the river the characters prefer to watch TV, this being the whimsical explanation offered by Oddie for the failure of the badgers to emerge from their hole for a dusk frolic in front of the cameras.

It's all pretty innocuous, I suppose, and at least may deter people from causing a disturbance by tramping around what's left of the countryside in the forlorn hope of seeing some of the beasts for themselves. But the programmes do illustrate neatly how shallow, selective and twee is the national obsession with the natural world and the ideological stranglehold exercised by the RSPB and the RSPCA on behalf of the feathered and furry communities.

My own softest spot is for our finny friends. The only fish to secure a starring role in Oddieland is the basking shark, which is rare and enormous, and therefore to be cherished, if not loved. Otherwise fish only figure when they disappear headfirst down the throat of a colourful kingfisher, or are munched alive by an agile, furry and intensely lovable otter. …

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