Sex and the single duck

David Cox unfolds a distressing story of abduction, racial prejudice and murder - all in the name of

New Labour's ever-growing army of critics have yet to accuse it of genocide. They should. Our caring government proposes to exterminate the entire population of Britain's ruddy ducks. Six thousand of these engaging waterbirds, readily identified by their rich chestnut plumage, powder-blue beaks and cute, sticky-up tails, haunt the lakes and reservoirs of the West Country, the London area and Scotland. All are to be hunted down by marksmen armed with shotguns and powerboats, at a cost to the taxpayer of £1,000 per duck.

It will not be a painless exercise. Ruddy ducks are not easy to shoot, because when danger approaches they dive, rather than fly away. In trial culls, one bird was still alive after being shot 13 times. Another took two hours to die. And as ruddies like to socialise, other birds are bound to be caught in the crossfire. Civilian casualties of the trials included not just tufted ducks and coots, but even a swallow. If you feel tempted to turn your garden pond into a sanctuary for ruddies, forget it. As in the foot-and-mouth holocaust, death squads will be empowered to force their way on to private property.

Yet the doomed ducks' only crime is forbidden love, and even that has been committed in an alien jurisdiction. On flyaway breaks to Spain, ruddies, like their human counterparts, are apt to indulge in holiday romances. Unfortunately, the object of their affections has not been merely a swarthier version of their own kind. Iberia has no ruddies. What it does have is white-headed ducks, which though almost identical to ruddies are considered a different species, and an extremely endangered one. Our ruddies have been diluting the latter's racial purity through hybridisation.

It was the people of Spain who rendered the white-heads vulnerable, by shooting them and draining their marshy haunts. None the less, the prospect of our ducks shagging their ducks to extinction affronted national machismo. Satisfaction was demanded.

As Gibraltarians know to their cost, the demands of one of Britain's few EU allies find a receptive ear in White- hall. And on this issue, the rest of Europe backs Spain. This may have a bit to do with the ruddies' provenance. Unfortunately for themselves, they hail from across the Atlantic, and thus fall foul of anti-American fervour. Yet though they may be oversexed, it is not their fault they are over here. They came to Britain neither as asylum-seekers nor as economic migrants, and make no demands on our social services. Instead, they were abducted from their transatlantic haunts to be paraded in a West Country zoo, from which ignominious fate they had the spunk to liberate themselves. You might have thought that in multicultural Britain such origins would prove no bar to the right to life. Sadly, the ruddies have found foes where they might have expected friends.

It was the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust that brought the ruddies here and carelessly let them escape into the wild from its Gloucestershire waterfowl collection. Now, however, this supposed ducks' champion backs the slaughter policy. So does the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, to the outrage of many of its million-plus members. Both bodies argue (like Spain and the EU) that the ruddy's fondness for the white-head threatens biodiversity. However, this thinking is starting to look increasingly out of date.

Recent research suggests that hybridisation occurring when similar species first come into contact generally proves short-lived. Once the two groups get to know each other better, "isolating mechanisms" start to assert themselves. This happened, for example, after Mediterranean gulls started foisting their attentions on Britain's black-headed gulls. There is, however, a more fundamental issue. Should we even be trying to impose racial purity on other species just as we are coming to accept miscegenation in our own?

What constitutes a species is no longer clear-cut. Groups used to be considered separate if hybrids between them proved infertile. By that definition, ruddies and white-heads are the same species anyway: if their hybrids were infertile, there would be no problem of racial dilution. Nowadays, however, species are separated by genetic or anatomical analysis, and adjudications are a mere matter of opinion.

Just a few million years ago, ruddies and white-heads would have been as one, as they threaten to become once more. The differences they developed while the Atlantic separated them can be seen as just one of evolution's endless experiments. Perhaps the rudely successful New World ruddies are not so much endangering their effete, long-lost cousins as coming to their rescue. They may be giving the white-heads a much-needed, one-off genetic boost, which could help the latter restore their failing fortunes, in a natural version of the postwar Marshall Plan. Perhaps that is why the white-heads, in their wisdom, have been choosing ruddy over white-headed mates, just as our grandmothers favoured brash GIs over the weedy, local males. What do we know?

We know we know too little to play God.