Leading article: The swan, the ducklings and the Three Pilchards

Share
Related Topics
We are beginning to crack. We cannot face writing another leading article today about the unanswered questions of this election. So let us turn to a subject of real, undisputed importance. Are you pro-swan or pro-duck?

This is a question much larger than the Cornish village of Polperro, where it has split the residents. The whole nation should take sides. Pollsters with their clipboards should drop their tedious questions about the European Union and find out what people think about dead ducklings.

Freddie the swan has been behaving as nature intended: that is, red in bill and webbed foot. The swan, which has lived in the village harbour for 10 years, has been slaughtering ducklings, which it sees as threatening the food supply of his own offspring. This is a grisly sight, apparently, turning the sleepy port into a maelstrom of carnage and destruction, and upsetting tourists and local children.

This drama in the animal kingdom raises large questions. Charles Darwin would have wrestled with the implications for human morality. The swan is not, of course, obeying the dictates of Nature, but of his genes, programmed to ensure their survival and therefore the continuation of the species. Hence his genocidal (or should we say speciecidal?) instincts. As tourists and residents ponder the fluffy remains of local mallard offspring floating in the water, they have to ask themselves if humans are anything more than vehicles for their own selfish genes.

Sadly, the residents of Polperro do not seem to have paused to consider these matters. Instead they have rushed to judgement, lining up with the pro-duck faction or the pro-swan faction, and some of them have behaved rather badly.

So now there are two ethical dilemmas to consider: the rights and wrongs of birds, and the rights and wrongs of human responses to the birds.

On the first, the RSPCA has taken a hard line. There is no natural food source in Polperro for swans or ducks, so both species must rely on the bread thrown to them by people, or rubbish and sewage they can scavenge. Human generosity is such that there has been "an explosion in the duck population", says the RSPCA, and Freddie is bound to defend the food for his own offspring. The RSPCA's line is to let nature - or genetics - take its course, and to condemn roundly those residents who tried to get rid of the swan by spraying it with washing-up liquid.

On the narrow point, the RSPCA is absolutely right, and there can be no excuse for trying to kill Freddie by de-oiling him. On the broader issue, however, Freddie (and the ducks) only survive in Polperro as a kind of outdoor pet, entirely dependent on human beings. So if the human beings want to move him or curtail his murderous activities, they have a moral right to do so, provided they avoid cruelty.

The trouble is that Freddie and his mate, Phreda, are homing swans, and would probably return if someone tried to relocate them. So there are only three options. Someone has got to shoot these swans (we appeal for more information about the presence or absence of cygnets); or Polperro gets used to dead ducklings among the flotsam and jetsam; or people have got to stop feeding the blessed things, and then all the birds will go and live happily elsewhere.

This solution would seem too logical for the residents of Polperro, who have resorted to the kind of unmentionable tactics and petty hatreds that lie beneath the surface of any pretty village. Dead ducklings have been pushed through the letterbox of the landlord of the Three Pilchards, who was a swan-backer (although he has since switched, in one of the more baffling twists in this story).

Michael Howard and Jack Straw are believed to be on their way to Cornwall now to stage photo-opportunities overlooking the harbour, where they will try to outdo one another in lurid condemnation of the teenage boy behind the bloody postings who has been reprimanded - but let off - by the local constable.

It cannot be long before Tony Blair proposes a Royal Commission, or John Major sets up a task force, or Paddy Ashdown offers to let the swan and his mate live in his back garden in Yeovil.

None of them, in this post-ideological age, will address the real philosophical issues raised by this little local difficulty. We must not simply be tough on dead duckling deliveries, we must be tough on the causes. Polperro, with its 1,585 population, ought to be a strong community, capable of resolving these kinds of conflict without provocation and rudeness. (The pub landlord responded to his tormentor by putting up a poster which read: "Latest score: Swan 6, Ducks 0." This was uncalled for.)

The trouble is that there are no real communities any more. Recent academic studies tried and failed to find a single village in England in which more than half the population was born there. And Polperro is turned every summer into a giant holiday camp, with 17,000 visitors. In these circumstances, is it surprising that people lose sight of their responsibilities to each other?

These are the questions that people are asking, up and down the country, at bus stops, in pubs (especially the Three Pilchards) and in focus groups.

But is it not just typical that no other newspaper is treating these issues with the seriousness they deserve? Instead, they are distracted by the latest populist posturing of men in suits in windowless rooms in London. Let us turn our minds as a nation to a village on the south coast of Cornwall which stands as a challenge to our moral universe.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Mechanical Design Engineer

£35000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: MECHANICAL D...

SQL DBA (2005/2008/2012, projects, storage requirements)

£45000 - £50000 Per Annum + excellent benefits package: Clearwater People Solu...

Copywriter - Corporate clients - Wimbledon

£21000 - £23000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Copywriter - London As a Copywrite...

Horticulture Lecturer / Tutor / Assessor - Derbyshire

£15 - £18 per hour: Randstad Education Nottingham: As a result of our successf...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Tiger skin seized from a smuggler by customs officers in Lhasa, Tibet  

Save the tiger: Poaching facts

Harvey Day
 

Save the tiger: 7 saddening facts about the extinction of Javan tigers

Harvey Day
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried