Book Review – Elegy for a River: Whiskers, Claws and Conservation’s Last Wild Hope

Elegy For a River by Tom Moorhouse | WaterstonesWe know how to ‘do’ conservation. Conservation research is funded and there are lots of people willing to spend their time leaping into rivers, thrusting their hands into dens and burrows, or sitting up all night getting extremely cold and wet. We have the solutions to biodiversity loss … but we lack the funding and political will to implement our findings. That is a key message of this book.

Tom Moorhouse has spent a large part of his life in rivers, investigating first the plummeting decline of our water-vole population, and then the rise of the signal crayfish, an escapee from crayfish farms in the 1980s and now inhabiting our British rivers in ineradicable billions whilst eating our native white-clawed crayfish, destroying river banks with their tunnels, and generally causing havoc.

The story is one of invasive species, because the decline of water voles is largely due to their being eaten by American mink. The mink breed in spring and feed their young on water voles. Water voles, which are prey to all sorts creatures and have in the past sustained their large populations by having very large families, breed in the summer – too late for the population to survive the depredations of mink. It would be possible to eradicate the American mink, but it would cost tens upon tens of millions of pounds, which will not be forthcoming.

Moorhouse softens the sadness of the story by being very amusing about his experiences in the field – the failures, the accidents, and his affection for the water voles in spite of the regular bites they delivered when he took them out of the traps to tag and examine them. He describes water voles as ‘famous, beloved and harmless’. They are truly British – the oldest British water vole remains date from about 14,700 years ago. They offer a good basis for the debates around conservation priorities – which creatures belong here, and which need to be eradicated. But the reality is that we can neither save the water vole, nor eradicate the mink or the signal crayfish.

The book ends with a close look at the case for funding conservation, and how it is viewed as competing with human priorities such as reducing poverty and building schools. Against this view, Moorhouse states that nature is the fabric that supports every single human enterprise, and that every species lost is a tear in that fabric. He writes, ‘Species keep our climate stable, our oceans productive, our lands habitable, our waters pure and our crops pollinated, fertile and pest-free’.

And, for those of us not convinced of the case for cherishing nature for its own sake, he sets out the economic arguments for conservation, including the $235-577 billion dollars’ worth of work done globally by pollinators, or the need for insurance companies to invest $5-10 billion annually to protect coastal habitats in advance of claims for coastal flooding. Investment in marine protection would increase the profits of the seafood industry by $53 billion a year. The list goes on, and the cost of the ecosystem services we lost between 1997 and 2011 is estimated at $4-20 trillion.

Bio-diversity loss contributes to the emergence of diseases that pass from animals to humans, resulting in pandemics. It’s a good argument!

Elegy for a River: Whiskers, Claws and Conservation’s Last Wild Hope, by Tom Moorhouse, Penguin Random House UK, 2021, ISBN 978-0-8575-2701-1

Book review written by Pippa Stilwell, CFWI Climate Ambassador

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