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“The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”

Jeremy Bentham

 

Vermin

The red fox is frequently vilified and demonised as being “vermin”. This briefing considers what “vermin” is, its history, and the evolving use of the term. 

‘vermyn,> vermyne, vermynne, verming, vermine, vermin: ‘Animals of a noxious or objectionable kind…’
Orig. applied to reptiles, stealthy or slinking animals, and various wild beasts; now, except in U.S. and Austral. usage almost entirely restricted to those animals or birds which prey upon preserved game, crops, etc

Applied to creeping or wingless insects (and other minute animals) of a loathsome or offensive appearance or character, esp. those which infest or are parasitic on living beings and plants; also occasionally applied to winged insects of a troublesome nature.

fig. Applied to persons of a noxious, vile, objectionable, or offensive character or type. Frequently used as a term of abuse or opprobrium; in modern dialect sometimes without serious implication of bad qualities.

Oxford English Dictionary

 The fox is sometimes referred to as vermin, but it is not, and never has been categorised as such by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).             Fox A Gon

 The term “vermin” derives from the Latin, vermis, (m)  worm…..

 The OED sets out the most common framing of the concept; vermin compete with man for food, often for food on which he has expended time and effort. This concept was much more salient in the past, when food was much less plentiful and food security was a major issue for communities.  Threats came from rodents, cockroaches, insects; certain birds were classified as vermin for eating fruit and crops.

In the 16thand 17thcenturies, the term developed a derogatory sense, referring to poor people, beggars.

It is often claimed that there were no verminous creatures on Noah’s ark, and so vermin had no rights whatsoever in God’s eyes.  Genesis is silent on this point, and it is difficult to see how any evidence could be found.

The elimination of vermin has long been a part of the eternal British war on wildlife.  In Tudor times, the killing of all sorts of creatures was quotidian and uncontroversial. Under Tudor “vermin laws”, creatures which ate crops were so reviled that parishes paid bounties for their lifeless bodies.   The Elizabethans expanded the definition of vermin to include hedgehogs, stoats, weasels, foxes, rodents, termites, cockroaches, lice, bedbugs, rats, mice, ferrets, crows, pigeons, jays etc.

These are some examples of texts from these years, giving instructions on how to kill vermin: 

The vermin-killer being a very necessary family-book, containing exact rules and directions for the artificial-killing and destroying of all manner of vermin, &c. : rats and mice, moles, pismires, flyes, fleas & lice, adders, snakes, weasles, catterpillars, buggs, froggs, &c. : whereunto is added the art of taking of all sorts of fish and foul, with many other observations never before extant …… published in 1680, and still available in Early English Books Online (paywalled).

 

A necessary family-book : both for the city & country, in two parts. Containing exact, plain and short rule and directions, for taking and killing all manner of vermin on land and in water: as, Part I. By land. The fox, polcat, buzzard, kite, weasle, adder, snake, caterpiller, frog, mile, pismire, fly, bug, rats and mice, fleas and lice. Part II. By water. The hern, dob-chick, coot, or more-hen, cormorant, sea-pie, kings-fisher, otter, water-rat, and ospray, all great destroyers of fish. To which are added, many natural and artificial conclusions, both pleasant and profitable. The whole illustrated with many proper figures. By R. W. gent. 1688

 

The compleat English and French vermin-killer : being a necessary family-book. Shewing a ready way to destroy bugs, lice, fleas, moles, adders, badgers, birds of all sorts, ducks, earwigs, flies, fish, foxes, frogs, gnats, mice, otters, pismires, pole-cats, rabbets, rats, snakes, scorpions, snails, spiders, toads, wants or moles, wasps, weasles, worms in houses, gardens, &c. Also directions for gardeners, with many modern curiosities of art and nature 1707

 

Further examples can be found by searching for “vermin” in the title field of the Jisc Library Hub Discover……https://discover.libraryhub.jisc.ac.uk/advanced-search/

To research further the Tudor war on wildlife, there is a scholarly and meticulous account of hundreds of years of slaughter of wildlife  by Roger Lovegrove,  Silent Fields, published in 2008, Oxford University Press.

Another valuable study is: 

Imperfect Creatures: Vermin, Literature, and the Sciences of Life, 1600–1740

Lucinda Cole University Michigan Press 2016

Parliamentary enclosure, vermin and the cultural life of English parishes 1750-1850,by M Cragah, and B McDonagh, 2013…….. https://bit.ly/2PPo6Og

This article explores parish-sanctioned vermin control under Tudor legislation:

Beastly pleasures : blood sports in England, c. 1776-1876 by Rob Boddice, 2005

http://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/26151/

A study blood sports, and contemporary ideas of manliness and national character.

 

In the 19thcentury, animal welfare concerns focused on domesticated animals, and so the fox was excluded as a pest; it was considered fair game for hunting.  Fox hunting was regarded widely as the sport of gentlemen, who were by nature above reproach; in the House of Commons on 24thFebruary 1824, MP Richard Martin proposed that “a  committee be appointed to inquire how far cruel sports, if persevered in, tended to deteriorate and corrupt the morals of the people. ….” he was referring, however, to badger-baiting and bear-baiting, which were the sports of “the lowest and most wretched description of people. They were the horse-butchers of the vicinity of the metropolis, the butchers’ boys, the coal-porters—those were the description of people who frequented the bear-pits…….”  By contrast, the fox hunter was a gentleman, whose actions could not be cruel……..”Those who sported on their own manors, or fished in their own streams, were a very different sort of men”   (Hansard,  February 1824 (Parl. Debs. [series 2] vol. 10, cols. 487–89).   The hunters were simply better than “the lower orders”, they were the ideal manly type.   This kind of thinking, and the social dominance of its proponents, was one of the reasons that the RSPCA did not condemn hunting until 1976.

The Scott Henderson report into hunting in 1951  was written and produced by a group of hunters; interestingly, it conceded that field sports might not make a substantial contribution to “pest control” but was nevertheless justified by providing a large number of people with healthy recreation.  It stoutly maintained that hunting caused the fox less suffering than other control methods.  In 1999 the Burns Committee of Enquiry into Hunting was instigated, and, inter alia, came up with the memorable assertion that “hunting seriously compromises the welfare of the fox…..”    https://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20080726235619/http://www.huntinginquiry.gov.uk/mainsections/finalreport.htm

 

Invasive species

The term “vermin” is often conflated with invasive species, introduced animals who can easily destabilise an ecological equilibrium.  The introduction of rabbits into Australia was followed by a rapid increase in the creature’s numbers and significant damage to crops. The introduction of cats to Australia has been highly detrimetal to indigenous wildlife.  The introduction of the grey squirrel to Britain has greatly reduced the number of native reds.  Similarly, American mink severely predate native wildfowl and the native water vole.   In such circumstances these animals are considered “vermin” and killed in their thousands. The invasion of long-established ecosystems by “new” plants can happen naturally, but has been intensively accelerated by human activity.  Consideration of this brings one into the area of “genetic integrity”, and whether or not it is ethical to kill creatures, such as the American ruddy duck, in such numbers.  

The ecology of invasions by animals and plants, by Charles Elton. University of Chicago, 2000

The Alien Species in 20th-century Britain: Constructing a new vermin, by T Chris Smout

Landscape Research, 28, 2003, 11-20      https://doi.org/10.1080/01426390306527

 

26 February 1824 (Parl. Debs. [series 2] vol. 10, cols. 487–89).

The use of the term “vermin” to stigmatise

The demonization of the fox as a pest and an enemy has long been a weapon of hunters, in order to justify their vile behaviour.   The use of the term “vermin” is surprisingly potent, possibly because the Nazis used it so prolifically to denigrate Jews and other groups whom they wanted to eliminate.  They portrayed Jewish people specifically as carriers of disease who would infest the country if allowed to.  As people can be dehumanised, and derided as fearsome, lesser beings, so the fox can be characterised as a lesser animal, a problematic animal, a threatening animal, a dirty animal.  The fox hunters inform us that they are doing the country a favour by seeking its erasure.

They also propagate the idea that foxes kill more than they need because they enjoy it.  A fox breaking into a coop will probably kill every chicken.  This is surplus killing; a mammal will kill when it can and try to cache the surplus for leaner times.  There seems to be little evidence that mammals like foxes, wolves, pine martens etc which display this behaviour engage in it for anything other than survival.

 

Surplus killing by carnivores, by Hans Kruuk Journal of Zoology 1972,

 

https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-7998.1972.tb04087.x

 

In the 20thcentury there have been many instances of the broadening of the concept of vermin to people.    These concepts can easily be extended  to the “hordes” trying to cross the channel, to get over the border from Mexico to the US, to “infest” our country and to “take our jobs”.  The power of such dehumanising language is considerable and can be exacerbated by the press.  This “othering”, of animals and of people, can play a key and pernicious role in perpetuating unjust social hierarchy.

 

‘The vermin have struck again’: dehumanizing the enemy in post 9/11 media representations, by E Steuter and D Wills     https://doi.org/10.1177/1750635210360082

…….. a discussion of media replication of key metaphors of the enemy as the animal, as vermin or diseased.

 

When “Scurry” vs. “Hurry” Makes the Difference: Vermin Metaphors, Disgust, and Anti-Immigrant Attitudes, by SR Marshall and JR Shapiro, Journal of Social Issues  Volume 74, Issue 4, December 2018, Pages 774-789……

…….discussion of how the current discourse in the U.S. surrounding unauthorized immigrants includes metaphors that readily activate thoughts of vermin (e.g., rodents)

 

A bibliography of trash animals, by Alex Zahara         https://discardstudies.com/2020/02/17/a-bibliography-of-trash-animals/

……..Attitudes, behaviour and built infrastructure aimed at dealing with  ‘trash animals’ tell us a lot about systems and practices of discarding, from ideas of purification, to urban-nature divides, to societal taboos.

 

 

Recent debates about vermin: some articles

 

Vermin, Victims and Disease:  British Debates over Bovine Tuberculosis and Badgers, by A Cassidy, 2019……open access book……https://library.oapen.org/handle/20.500.12657/22876

……….this is a critical history of the controversy over whether to cull wild badgers to control the spread of bovine tuberculosis (bTB) in British cattle.

 

Not in My Backyard: Public Perceptions of Wildlife and ‘Pest Control’ in and around UK Homes, and Local Authority ‘Pest Control’, by S Baker et al   Animals2020, 10(2), 222; https://doi.org/10.3390/ani10020222

A discussion ofpublic perceptions of 10 wildlife species and wildlife management, in and around UK homes, as well as council ‘pest control’ services, to identify ethical, welfare-friendly ways to reduce wildlife problems

On the status of vermin, by Stephen L Young, Colorado State University, 2005

A paper seeking to define what  is vermin and how it should be treated…….

http://www.stafforini.com/docs/Young%20-%20On%20the%20status%20of%20vermin.pdf

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is not an exhaustive bibliography on the topic of vermin.  Where resources are not available on the WWW, a public library should be able to arrange a loan or a copy from the British Library.  They may make a small charge for this.