The rough beast, whose hour is come, is Man

WHAT IS GOINg on? Until recently Britain seemed such a tame, safe, uneventful place. Now everywhere you look nature seems to be on the rampage, putting human lives and livelihoods at risk.

There are those mink to start with, 6,000 of them, set free from a fur farm by the Animal Liberation Front and now (those that haven't been shot, recaptured or bashed over the head with a shovel) roaming the New Forest in search of flesh into which to sink their mean little teeth. Next come the herring gulls of Tynemouth, which have driven a policeman, Robert Lephard, and his family from their home after a series of raids dive-bombing them and spattering them with droppings. "It is an absolute nightmare," says PC Lephard. "We had almost become prisoners in our own home. Sometimes it was like a scene from Hitchcock's The Birds just trying to get to the car." Then there's the Euro-wasp, which has similarly "gained a fearsome reputation for swarm attacks, in scenes reminsicent of horror films". And for good measure there's the razor fish, or rather the shells it buries in the sand, which caused havoc in Devon last weekend, when 800 people suffered cuts and beaches had to be evacuated in an incident "classed as a total emergency operation".

These were only the highlights. There were also stories about the swelling population of rats (at 60 million, they now outnumber us; last month a Kettering woman found one climbing out of her toilet bowl), bees (which are producing genetically modified honey after coming into contact with experimental crops), glow-worms (whose lights - produced only by female virgins - are going out), cows (whose meat we already mistrust and whose milk we're now told is dodgy, too), foxes (one took up residence in St Paul's Cathedral), grouse (not many braces bagged on the Glorious Twelfth) and wild boar. Like the mink, the boar have escaped from farms and are now living wild in places such as Dorset and Kent. Motorists tell of meeting them in country lanes: "I followed it for 10 minutes," said one. "It looked like an old mammoth, a great hairy thing."

So it goes on. Reading the papers lately has been like watching a David Attenborough wildlife documentary. How apt that the Queen should have chosen this moment to award our great poet of predatory nature, Ted Hughes, the Order of Merit. Perhaps all the eruptions are the animal kingdom voicing its approval.

More likely, the nature stories are a silly season thing. With Parliament in recess, news editors have to venture beyond Westminster for their quota of bellows, howls and grunts. And their readers and viewers, this being the holiday season, are more receptive than usual. I remember an old cartoon of a man in a pin-stripe suit with a briefcase stopped short, in utter incomprehension, by the sight of a leaf on a tree. Many of us living in towns and cities forget what nature is like. Holidays reveal a world beyond urban blandness. And media stories of jaws and claws clobber the message home.

Why do we want to hear that message - that nature is exotic, dangerous and beyond our control? Partly it's a need to be thrilled and frightened. "Mink. The four-letter word striking fear into the heart of Hampshire" ran one headline. Once people got their shivers from serpents and dragons. More recently it has been the Loch Ness monster and the Beast of Bodmin. Now it's a mammal scarcely bigger than a guinea pig, yet so intimidating that the "task force" sent to deal with it is presented as piously as St George.

Like St George, the men with guns and cages are fighting for England, of course. Their prey isn't an indigenous carnivore - a ferret, stoat, weasel or polecat - but the mink, an alien from North America. The mink is said to have no manners, aside from tearing off heads, and to treat all creatures great and small in Hampshire as one Big Mac. Wild boar are equally to be distrusted, because of their associations with France. British mammals are dependably vicious. Foreign ones bring death and rabies.

At a deeper level, the story isn't about Gothic horror or jingoism, but guilt. Caged, fattened, cloned and altered, nature has never been so firmly under human control as it is now. The long-term consequences of this don't bear thinking about - so let's not think about them. No wonder we're so grateful to those escapee mink and boars. Sparing us the worry we should be feeling at our brutal dominion over creation, they marginalise the eco-lobby and make the animal liberationists look naive. Those mink could wipe out the already declining population of water-voles! Those boar could root up precious plants such as bog asphodel, devil's bit scabious and lady's mantle. Allowing them into the wild disturbs the balance of nature. The only good mink is a stole draped over a woman's naked back.

Similarly self-appeasing is the emphasis in the current stories on the vigour and versatility of nature, its rude health. In reality, species are disappearing as fast as taxonomists can count them. In the Guardian last week, Tim Radford cited the example of the barndoor skate, a fish a metre across, once common off Newfoundland, now almost extinct. "All the evidence is that humans are extinguishing other life forms on an epic scale," he writes. Here's the story about animals we should be reading. But it's too earnest, too familiar. It has no teeth.

Stories about dangerous animals are like stories about dangerous children. They shock and titillate, but they hide the truth. It's ourselves, the human adult, we should be frightened of. Beasts make good copy, whether they look like mink or Myra Hindley. But the real enemy is within.

Anne McElvoy is back next week

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