WILD LIFE AND THE COLLECTOR
NOT its judgment, which is generally right iu the end, but the disastrous slowness with which it is formed, is the weak point of public opinion as a means of suppress- ing abuses. So much damage is always allowed to bp done before public opinion can be stirred up to put a stop to it. That is, above all, the trouble in preserving our wild life ; nothing but the object lesson of a series of extinctions and disasters will rouse sufficient feeling to safeguard what remains of the fauna-and flora from the same fate.
A great many of the rarest plants and birds and butter- flies have been exterminated in the British Isles during the past hundred years, or are on the road to extermination now. The spread of civilization proved fatal to some, and our more systematic use of the soil must have had some effect on many more, but although a great many factors have helped to make various creatures rarer there is one above all which has invariably made for extinction, and that is collecting. Butterflies and plants and birds suffer from it most. The plight of the Large Blue Butterfly, long known to nature lovers, has lately been given pub- licity ; once moderately plentiful in some parts it has been so reduced by the steady unceasing drain of collecting that its survival as a British species has become problem- atical. Lovers of ferns have been so enthusiastic and numerous that such grand plants as the Royal Fern (Osmunda regalis) and various orchids have become extinct over wide areas of Great Britain, and there are dozens of botanists in different parts of the country who, as a labour of love, go round and religiously pull off the petals from certain rare plants when they flower, in order to make them more nearly invisible to the collectors who come down to carry them away as trophies. Every season • men have to be paid by subscription or private generosity to guard the haunts of rare birds and insects from their expert and indefatigable human enemies.
Considering that the number of collectors of all kinds in this country is apparently small, it may be thought strange that they can do all the damage that they are supposed to. Nature after all is a wholesale perse- cutor of bird life, killing her creatures by frost or hunger, and continually setting others to gobble them up. How can the taking of the comparatively small number of specimens that one sees in the cabinet have such disastrous effects when weather and adverse circumstances have spaied these rare species so long ? The reason is this— it has been most tellingly expressed in A Romance of the Rostrum, which describes the career of Mr. Stevens as an auctioneer of great collections : " If the bird were common, of course, no special interest would be attached to- it or its eggs. It is not for their special beauty that the eggs are sought, but the bird is extinct, and never again will its eggs be found, and moreover—and this is the reason of its great value—it is an extinct British bird, and there- fore an egg of the Great Auk is worth its weight in gold." In other words the rarest prizes fetch the highest price, quite irrespective of size, beauty, or any other quality. It is in the interest of every collector to see that no creature that has been rare is ever allowed to become common again—if it succeeded in doing so there would be a fall in the value of his specimens. For example; suppose a man gave a guinea for a specimen of a rare butterfly ; if a few years later that butterfly grew sud- denly abundant its value would fall to a few pence and he would lose heavily on the investment, whereas if it happened to become extinct the price would rapidly, mount to five or six pounds, or more if few specimens were known to exist. It is the elementary economies of collecting which make it so inimical to our wild life. The amateurs are in themselves often harmless enthusiasts; it is the professional dealers who make a living out of the trade who do the most damage. If all butterflies were as common as Meadow Browns there would be no money in it ; if they were all as rare as Camberwell Beauties there would be fortunes. The professional, therefore, makes it his business to control the market. Not only does he take for sale quantities of the birds or eggs or butterflies or whatever it happens to be, but if the unfortunate rarity shows any signs of recovering he deliberately destroys specimens to keep prices up. And as the passage quoted above makes plain, a collector who has laid in a good stock of some particular variety would be a lucky man if he could then exterminate the species altogether, for that would enhance the value of his specimens enormously simply because there could be no others. The same Great Auk's egg changed hands in 1834 (before its extinction) for 2 francs, in 1856 (when it was suspected to be extinct) for £21, and in 1894 (when the good news was no longer doubtful) for £315.
It is quite clear that because it is in the interests of the Collector to keep rarities rare, if not to exterminate them, he must necessarily be the enemy of any plan which seeks to improve matters. We may pass protection laws or form sanctuaries or even, as has lately been suggested, establish hatcheries for rare butterflies under the auspices of the County Councils. But the collector will frustrate them : if he does not, they will frustrate him, for there is no fun in collecting without rarities. There is no more space to give to a review of the position : the root of the whole evil has already been exposed. It remains to consider what can be done about it.
Obviously no system of preservation which fails to take into account the inevitable hostility of the collectors can succeed. It may be made nominally illegal to take a rare egg or a rare butterfly, but so long as collectors are allowed to have such specimens in their possession the law will be a laughing stock, as it is at the present time in the case of birds. Therefore any attempt to remedy the serious condition of the threatened species must also be an attempt to put a wholesome check on the selfish collector, who robs the country of them for his own gratification. In some cases, especially those of scarce plants and rare butterflies which are more or less stationary, area protection is feasible, but even then while there are collectors on the prowl there must be watchers to guard against them, and that is expen- sive.
Collectors never respect a sanctuary unless a strict supervision compels them to, and this strict supervision, besides its expense, is unpleasant to genuine nature lovers whose enjoyment is liable to be spoilt by the same brooding spirit of surveillance that mars the appre- ciation of so many cathedrals.
And so if our wild life is not to suffer in the future from private selfishness as it has suffered cruelly in the past, the collector must be dealt with. Sooner or later it must be made illegal to give or receive money in respect of any specimen of a bird, egg, butterfly or plant taken in Great Britain, for the purpose of preservation (natur- ally articles of food, &c., must be excluded). That will go far to eradicate the professional dealer with all his destructive organization, and leave the field to amateurs. If that fails it may be necessary to suppress altogether private collections of various kinds which result in grave harm to rare species without the least compensating gain to science or humanity. With every year that is lost the hope of saving the most precious members of our fauna and flora grows more remote. It is to be hoped that every nature-lover will support as actively as possible any measures which aim at the reasonable regulation of these unsleeping enemies of our wild life..
E. M. N.