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  • Writer's picturePeter Berthoud

A Cottage with a Sinister Past

This is the entrance to "Duck Keeper's Cottage" in St James's Park, London.

Duck Keepers really did live here once but their story can wait for another post.

Today, I want to look at the negative role this picturesque little cottage has played in changing ecosystems around the world.

Duck Keepers Cottage St James's Park
Duck Keepers Cottage St James's Park

The cottage was built as the club house of the Ornithological Society of London, they were responsible for looking after the all the exotic birds in St James’s Park. They had money but lacked expertise and made a poor job of it.

In 1867 The Acclimatisation Society of the United Kingdom, merged with the Ornithological Society and together they began to share the Society’s club house on Duck Island.

The Acclimatisation Society brought with them considerable expertise and experience in helping non-native species adapt to life in the UK. It seemed a match made in heaven.

It wasn’t.

The Acclimatisation Society had sister organisations in France, America, Australia and New Zealand. They all shared a mission to transplant interesting new plants and animals across the globe. In terms of animals, "interesting" often meant tasty.

"Acclimatisation Dinners" were held on Duck Island. At one "Steamed Kangaroo" was served to members to help them judge whether it was worth introducing kangaroos to England, they decided not to.

But for a few brief years members of this global movement did achieve some "successful" acclimatisations. These were the people who brought Cane toads and Rabbits to Australia, both creatures that are major pests to this day, and to Britain they brought Japanese knotweed and Grey squirrels.The Grey squirrels drove out the native Reds and knotweed has caused more damage to buildings and structures than any other plant.

Another example of the eccentricity of the Society was the introduction of starlings to America.

A New York Member of the society, Eugene Schiffilin, thought it would be interesting for Americans to be able to see all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays. Starlings are mentioned in Henry IV, so with help from his friends in St James’s Park, he arranged a consignment of 100 starlings to be sent from London to New York and he released them in Central Park.

Today there are over 200 million starlings in the USA, they have driven many native birds to the brink of extinction and cause millions of Dollars worth of crop damage.

Each time I see people feeding Grey squirrels by the cottage, I smile. I doubt they realise that behind the "chocolate box" exterior lies a story of global environmental damage.

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