Is it fair, for orcs and deer?

Virtually all actions have consequences and byproducts. Often we are fixated on the actions and are later surprised with these ‘unforeseen’ outcomes.

In The Lord of the Rings the main fixation is with destroying the one ring, to remove a central part of Sauron’s power. The loss of the one ring seems to be the only way that the free people will survive. When the ring is finally thrown into the fires of Mt Doom there are some spectacular results; Sauron is diminished, his mighty tower falls, the Nazgul are struck down, and :

The Captains bowed their heads; and when they looked up again, behold! their enemies were flying and the power of Mordor was scattering like dust in the wind. As when death smites the swollen brooding thing that inhabits their crawling hill and holds them all in sway, ants will wander witless and purposeless and then feebly die, so the creatures of Sauron, orc or troll or beast spell-enslaved, ran hither and thither mindless; and some slew themselves, or cast themselves in pits, or fled wailing back to hide in holes and dark lightless places far from hope.” (Tolkien, The Return of the King)

Orcs… miscreants, miserable or misunderstood?
A detail from a John Howe picture.

The orcs, in part creations of the Shadow, are all affected and not likely to survive for long. All of them, everywhere. It’s not that clear how many orcs there are but it seems likely to be in the millions. This seems fairly harsh! Can it be that there were no good orcs? Not one orc of some worth? None that cared for their mates just a little bit? None that produced art or songs? No death metal bands? No designers of brutalist architecture? Sure, none of us would want a horde of orcs moving in to our street, and they are terrible for the environment, but there were no redeemable orcs?

If the Council of Elrond had known that all orcs (millions of sentient beings, admittedly with bad hygiene and attitudes) would die as a result of destroying the ring would that have changed their discussions. Maybe not. Orcs are vicious ne’er-do-wells whose removal from areas is generally positive. But still, this by-kill should have merited some ethical discussion. These are the free peoples after all.

Tolkien had a particularly grim focus when it came to orcs/goblins. He seems to have viewed orcs as corrupted by the shadow, with no possibility of being anything else. After the Battle of the Five Armies broke the power of the shadow for a time we hear this.

Beorn indeed became a great chief afterwards in those regions and ruled a wide land between the mountains and the wood; and it is said that for many generations the men of his line had the power of taking bear’s shape, and some were grim men and bad, but most were in heart like Beorn, if less in size and strength. In their day the last goblins were hunted from the Misty Mountains and a new peace came over the edge of the Wild.” (Tolkien, The Hobbit)

Every last one!

And yet one of the main themes of Tolkien’s work is that individuals can be redeemed. Boromir, Theoden, Grima Wormtongue, even Merry and Pippin, all recover from less than heroic behaviour to do the right thing. And then there is Gollum.

Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it. And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring. My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many – yours not least.” (Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring)

Sparing Gollum, in the end, is the only reason that the ring is destroyed. Gollum gets Sam and Frodo into Mordor, and then, when Frodo refuses to destroy the ring, it is Gollum who rips the ring from his finger and falls into the fire. Unintended consequences. Tolkien emphasizes the role that an individual can play in changing things.

I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually – their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on – and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end.” (Tolkien, The Two Towers)

Just not for orcs!

In New Zealand we have a number of species that pillage our landscape. PredatorFree 2050 have identified the shadowy dark lords that we need to remove to preserve the environment: rats, stoats and possums. Their malign presences are everywhere. We have developed a strategy for their removal and one of the tools is in using toxic baits.

White-tailed deer buck. Image from Kaylyn Pinney.

Part of that strategy is in the Battle for the Birds/Tiakina Nga Manu. When beech forests have a mast season (huge seed production), this raises mice and rat numbers tremendously. These hungry mouths eat, and compete for food with, many native species. Populations of predators, like stoats, also increase and create an issue in the following year when there is not a mast, as there are fewer rodent prey, and these predators then switch to native species. In order to head off the pillaging of native species there are major toxin drops throughout areas of remote forest that target these pest species.

This approach works well for removing the dark lords and for the native species. But what about the orcs? There are a number of species that are deemed to impact the environment in less than helpful ways but do not have such a concerted effort put into their removal.

Deer are one such group. They certainly impact their environment, especially in removing under-story. Deer species have been introduced into New Zealand. From a conservation point of view there is no real value in having them here. From a social perspective, though, there is a huge culture built around hunting deer.

One of the deer species introduced into New Zealand is the white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus). This species was established in the Wakatipu Basin of the Southern Alps in 1905 and has quietly built up a small local population in the area over the last century. Their current habitat overlaps several important conservation areas which are routinely subjected to Battle for the Birds control operations. In a Tolkien connection, this area was used as the Misty Mountains in filming the Lord of the Rings movies, especially regarding Orthanc/Isengard.

Lincoln University PhD student Kaylyn Pinney, with supervisors James Ross and Adrian Paterson, wanted to know whether the white-tailed deer were ending up as unintended by-kill as part of these toxin operations in the Dart Valley/Routeburn catchments. She set up four 100 ha blocks and randomly placed simulated carcasses through these areas.

Mountains and bush in the Dart River valley. Image from Adrian Paterson.

After the toxin drop she had groups search through these areas to locate dead deer and the simulated carcasses. Three white-tailed deer were found, all testing positive to the toxin, and 78% of the simulated carcasses were re-located.

Using this data, in a paper published in the NZ Journal of Zoology, Kaylyn was able to estimate that over the entire 15000 ha of pest control, that there may have been around 150 white-tailed deer fatalities. The population of white-tailed deer is not known but the best estimates would suggest that there are only hundreds of individuals. 150 is likely to have a major impact in the long term survival, especially if these toxin drops are happening every second or third year.

Like the orcs and the loss of Sauon, white-tailed deer may not have a sustainable population due to control measures aimed at other species. Is this a problem? Do we actually want to remove this species from this area to “hide in holes and dark lightless places far from hope“? From a conservation point of view, maybe we do. This would be one less impact on the native ecosystems. From a hunting point of view, maybe we don’t. These deer do not appear to have large impacts compared to some of the other deer species in New Zealand. They are also seen as something special with regards to game animals in New Zealand.

Are white-tailed deer redeemable? Well, at the very least we should understand the impacts of our control operations on all species that are affected. The loss of a species should not be simply the (un)fortunate byproduct of trying to achieve something else. Kaylyn’s data allows that conversation to be had.

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