Episode 40: Pleistocene Megafauna with Richard Doran Sherlock

This episode of the podcast is going to take you back in time to the Pleistocene epoch of the Quaternary period, an epoch often referred to as the Ice Age. Our guest is Richard Doran Sherlock who has a particular interest in Quaternary science and megafaunal collapse. Over the years Richard has worked in many capacities including research for rewilding projects and not-for-profit groups.

Since I also have a keen interest in natural history I was really glad when Richard accepted my invitation to the podcast. So, it is my pleasure to present to you an episode where we talk about Pleistocene megafauna and have a healthy discussion about what might have caused its extinction. We also touch briefly on rewilding, a topic to which we may devote an episode of its own.

Cover photo by Ciaran McNamee

Wolves and foxes

I want to add a few comments to a recently published blog post about fox hunting with hounds. The issue has to do with opposition to fox hunting. I hit on this briefly in that previous post because there is no way to talk about fox hunting without mentioning its opponents. I have had a few interactions online with folks who are wholeheartedly opposed to fox hunting and I have come to an interesting conclusion about their motivations.

I started it all by wondering aloud about how many opponents of fox hunting with hounds are also advocates for the re-introduction of wolves into the landscape. I was thinking that wolves inevitably kill foxes in the same way as hounds do. It is called intra-guild predation, or IGP. It is the killing of potential competitors within an ecosystem. IGP is a combination of competition and predation, i.e., both species rely on the same prey resources and one benefits from preying on the other. For example, the reintroduction of wolves in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in the United States caused a significant drop in the coyote population through intra-guild predation.

Since foxes and coyotes are different I wanted to find out what the interaction between wolves and foxes really looks like. So, I spent several hours trying to find relevant articles and papers. Unfortunately, most of the materials I was able to find were related to ecosystems in the United States. There the IGP looked like this. The greater number of wolves drove down the population of coyotes, which released the pressure on foxes, whose population then went up [1]. Obviously, I am grossly oversimplifying. But, this seemed to challenge my original theory that the reintroduction of wolves into an ecosystem would drive down the fox population.

Then I found a paper in Nature magazine that described the European ecosystem. In Scandinavia, the lynx occupies the place between wolves and foxes. The dynamics between species were fairly similar with the exception that in places with no lynx, indeed, the presence of wolves caused a permanent decrease in the fox population [2]. So this article supported my initial thoughts.

I thought that people who oppose hunting with hounds have foxes’ welfare first and foremost on their minds. To my surprise, it turned out they are completely okay with a fox being killed by a lynx or a pack of wolves. They claim that this is natural, contrary to the “unnatural” killing by humans hunting with dogs. In my opinion, this reasoning is flawed in a couple of ways.

Firstly, a natural killing by wolves isn’t any less painful than an “unnatural” killing by dogs. A fox, which is just about to be torn apart alive, is not any more at peace with its fate because it’s a pack of wolves, rather than hounds, that does the killing.

Secondly, hunting by humans is as natural as hunting by wolves. We are a part of nature. Unless, of course, someone thinks that we were dropped here by aliens. Mainstream science tells us that first stone tools and butchering marks on animal bones were found as early as 2 million years ago [3]. Roughly the same time as the dating of the first fossil specimen of a modern fox, that was discovered in Hungary [4]. So, human hunters have been here as long as these other species!

In the end, it was hard to avoid the conclusion that wildlife welfare does not matter to some who oppose fox hunting. They are just interested in imposing their own moral and ethical choices on others. “I don’t give a damn about the foxes, I just don’t want those blokes to go hunting”. This attitude is not productive. If we want to implement effective policies to protect wildlife and its habitat, we need to throw away emotional arguments and personal dislikes. The only way to get positive results is by looking at the scientific data and working with all stakeholders like sportsmen, ecologists and farmers.