The rough beast, whose hour is come, is Man

Share
Related Topics
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

React Now

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

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer

£27500 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Telemarketers / Sales - Home Based - OTE £23,500

£19500 - £23500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Experienced B2B Telemarketer wa...

Recruitment Genius: Showroom Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This global company are looking for two Showro...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £25,000

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This publishing company based i...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A teenage girl uses her smartphone in bed.  

Remove smartphones from the hands of under-18s and maybe they will grow up to be less dumb

Janet Street-Porter
Rohingya migrants in a boat adrift in the Andaman Sea last week  

Burma will regret shutting its eyes to the fate of the Rohingya boat people

Peter Popham
Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor