Wild Rabbit, Star Hill, Bridge. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.
This week wild rabbits were culled using ferrets to unearth them on Star Hill in Bridge. “Quite right too,” some locals said, “they’re just vermin!”.
We often hear the term ‘vermin’ cast casually and disparagingly at certain animals, which are regarded with disdain, while others are treated with favour. So, what exactly is the definition of vermin, and what does it mean in consequential terms?
The Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines vermin as “Mammals and birds injurious to game, crops etc., e.g. foxes, weasels, rats, mice, moles, owls; noxious insects e.g. fleas, bugs, lice; parasitic worms or insects; (fig) vile persons”. It’s a very vague definition, which seems open to the inclusion of any creature which eats the crops in our fields, kills game birds before they can be shot in sport, or irritates us in some other way.
Across Britain that small OED list of so-called vermin has, at one time or another, been stretched to include: magpies, seagulls, crows, rooks, stoats, kingfishers, house sparrows, rabbits, deer, red squirrels, grey squirrels, pigeons, snakes, woodpigeons, kites, buzzards, frogs, eagles, geese, wild cats, domestic cats caught poaching, collared doves, ducks, jackdaws, rooks, jays, curlews, pole cats, lapwings, oystercatchers, choughs, dippers, water voles, hedgehogs, wolves, hawks, otters, bullfinches, hares, green woodpeckers, badgers and many other animals which today we would call wildlife.
A few of these creatures, like the wolf, the flea and the adder were obvious candidates for extermination in the survival instincts of our ancient ancestors, but many of the names on the list come from the Preservation of Grain Act of 1532, which ordered the public to take part in a mass killing of rural wildlife for the sake of preserving farm produce. Some animals, like woodpigeons, rats and rabbits clearly were legitimate threats to farm crops, but many others like lapwings, water voles and hedgehogs were killed simply because of ignorance about their lifestyles. In some cases the law was used as a cover for killing animals for superstitious reasons rather than for any real threat they posed to agriculture, and millions of other creatures were killed under the law because they were good to eat rather than because they caused any nuisance.
Masquerading as the eradication of vermin, this killing frenzy went on across Britain for many decades until, in the mid 18th century, it was stopped because of general alarm at the massive devastation done to our wildlife and countryside. By then, it was too late for some animals, and to this day their numbers have never recovered. However, a century later, with the burgeoning popularity of ‘country sports’ like hunting, shooting, fishing, badger baiting and hare coursing, the mass killing of so-called vermin had escalated again, and by the mid 19th century it was once more being conducted on an enormous scale until a series of animal protection acts were brought in to reduce the slaughter.
Young fox, Bekesbourne. Contrary to popular assumption foxes are not legally defined as vermin: if they cause a nuisance they can be shot or lethally injected by a vet, but cruel treatment to a fox constitutes a serious criminal offence. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.
In British law there is no legal definition of vermin: it is not written in stone. Today, many of the animals which were once persecuted are now treasured and encouraged for the biodiversity they bring to our countryside. Even now this considered approach has its detractors. A lot of rural folk still have a list of vermin held firmly in mind and they seem to take a certain relish in having these creatures killed, but, before casually condoning the slaughter, everyone should know the answer to this question: how did these animals get onto their list of vermin? Was it because they pose a genuine threat to farming and social welfare; or because they spoil the fun of ‘country sports’; or because killing them is the fun of country sports; or because of tradition, confusion, ignorance and superstition?
Whatever our views on wildlife there is one creature which, over the centuries, has caused far more destruction and nuisance in our countryside than all the others put together: and we all know who it is…
*This article takes some general references from ‘Man and the Natural World: changing attitudes in England 1500-1800’, a seminal work by the author Keith Thomas; but we do not suggest any views or opinions expressed herein are necessarily shared by that author.