By Andrew Lilico
The Horse Chestnut tree is not native to the UK, but, rather, to the Balkans. It started being cultivated in Western Europe only in the sixteenth century, and was planted widely in the UK from the nineteenth century. Yet what is more quintessentially British than boys collecting conkers in the Autumn? Just because a species comes from abroad, we do not automatically consider it an enemy.
Of course, some foreign invaders spread so extensively and compete so vigorously with native alternates that they are a threat. We all know of the gray squirrel and the Common Rhododenron. And in some locations there are very rare plants and animals that must be husbanded and protected. But, in general, whilst isolated locations such as New Zealand have many unique species and must be careful to keep out foreign flora and fauna, if the native species are to survive, that is much less true in Britain.
When an exotic bird flies in from abroad, that is considered of interest – sometimes might even make the local news. For example, if there were a parakeet that flew all the way from South America to come to Britain, we would find that fascinating. If such incomers managed to nest here, the nest would be watched and protected by bird-lovers.
Now, as it happens, there are parakeets in the UK. There is one main species – the ring-necked parakeet. This is native to Africa and Asia, and has been popular as a pet. Sufficient such pets have escaped, over the years, that there is a population in the thousands, perhaps even tens of thousands. Intrinsically, the fact that these did not fly here under their own steam should not be decisive to whether they are welcome. We do not, for example, seek to exterminate the British red-necked wallabies that live in the Peak District. But it is at least arguable that the ring-necked parakeets are fairly aggressive birds that supplant native sparrows and the like.
Thus, although it may not be necessary to exterminate the ring-necked parakeet (and given the numbers involved is probably impractical to do so), there is at least an arguable case for some culling to control the numbers and spread.
That case does not, however, apply to the monk parakeet. As opposed to the tens of thousands of ring-necked parakeets, there are only of order 150 monk parakeets living in the wild in the UK. One of the main populations is in Borehamwood, where I live, and the main nest (they nest in large complexes, like weaver birds) happens to be in a tree the overhangs my garden. The monk parakeet is a native of South America, and is quite different in nature from the ring-necked parakeet. It is not regarded as as aggressive to other birds as the ring-necked parakeet. Indeed, in New York the population is regarded as so benign that it is protected by the Monk Parakeet Protection Act.
Yet in Britain the monk parakeet is now subject to culling, under a Defra / Natural England order. It appears that this is merely because (a) it is non-natural, so semi-automatically subject to extermination (though when we shall exterminate those Wallabies, I'm not sure); (b) lazily grouped together with the rink-necked parakeet, despite being from a different continent, being different in behaviour, and regarded as a pest by virtually no-one; and (c) there are few enough of them that they can be exterminated entirely, so on someone's list somewhere that will constitute a "completely successful operation".
What harm is this tiny population of friendly birds really doing – other than waking me up with their very loud squawking? Almost all the folk in this part of Borehamwood regard them as part of the furniture. They provide exoticism and a sense of the wild to us. Their fantastically complex nest entertains my visitors. The flash of green and blue as they fly by gives exciting colour. They eat the plums and apples on my neighbour's trees – but without complaint (all the birds do that – along with the insects and worms). I throw my stale bread for them in the winter. What good use it is of precious (and scarce) taypayer money that Defra should spend tens of thousands of pounds trying to exterminate our unique local fauna? Do they really have nothing better to do, no better use for this money, than that? Or is it really so much more satisfying and worthy to exterminate a harmless species of parakeet than to cull an invasive one?