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

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The Independent Online
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.