What culling corvids tells me about the UK government response to COVID-19

I spent five years of my life trying to work out why people around me were shooting so many corvids (crows and magpies). They told me the corvids were stealing their partridges and rabbits. What I saw was that it was fun to spend the day with some friends out roaming the countryside. I saw that it was intriguing to shoot birds outside of the standard ethics of hunting. I witnessed the government giving people boxes and boxes of shotgun cartridges to do so. People told me it felt good to be doing a duty, cleaning the land of vermin, saving it from their destruction. The problem is no matter how many corvids people culled, there were always more corvids and still fewer partridges.

So in light of this cull literally not working my questions were: Why do government leaders fund this activity? And why do democratic member-led hunting unions promote it? After five years of research, the answer became clear. Culling corvids gave government leaders, union leaders and citizens who conducted the cull, the sense that they were acting. In particular, it gave leadership the ability in debates and moments of election and decision-making to materially demonstrate that they were tackling the crisis. You cannot argue with 15,000 dead vermin collected in mass freezers, later burnt in huge bonfires, in return for tens of thousands of shotgun cartridges given out in union clubhouses across the country. These are undeniable proofs of having done something.

After two decades of following, practising, experiencing and studying management of other species, it has become acutely obvious to me. It is sometimes harder or sometimes more comfortable for a leader or manager to look like they are doing something than it is to do nothing. But: It is always easier to simply do what has been established by some existing authority. It is much harder to deal with complexity. It is harder to question the institutional practices of the organisation you lead because you suspect they are not as effective as they claim to be.

Ah! You say, but in a time of crisis, we need to act and not quibble about the slight imperfections of our actions. Wrong. The truth is that interventions can make a situation much worse if we do not evaluate the complexity of a given topic. Yes, shooting a corvid kills it, but the people around me were not dealing with one crow or magpie. They were dealing with a population of corvids alongside a population of people, all with differet information embedded in a broader ecosystem. I conducted a study with an interdisciplinary team that revealed culling crows could lead to more crows. This was because the social context of corvid culling led it to discriminate in specific ways that made it less effective. And, because of the complex social structure and reproductive strategies that corvids exhibit.

Culling corvids looked good for leaders and made people feel like they were doing something meaningful. But: (i) it was resulting in more corvids (ii) it was not resulting in more partridges (ii) it took up time and resources from evaluating and addressing the root and stem issues behind there being a lack of partridges and a lot of corvids, (iv) all so everyone could keep calm and carry on.

This situation is akin to what UK’s current policy of gradual mitigation against COVID-19 without widespread testing and other definitive measures. You only need to begin to look at research on quarantines to understand that any single quarantine method can be effective, ineffective or very dangerous if no attention is given to social context and we just listen to one authority. It is especially bad leadership then, when you hire the same cadre of scientists investigated for the disastrous management of Foot and Mouth disease in 2001 to be your authority on managing COVID-19.