A Scout is a friend to animals…

Written by Andrew Purnell, Troop Scouter 2nd Somerset West

Some thoughts on the 6th Scout Law #WorldBiodiversityDay2021

Photo: Andrew Purnell

What does the 6th Scout Law really mean to you? Does it simply mean that Scouts are kind to their pets or is there a bit more to it than that? As a conservation and environmental professional, I’ve been asked to “draft a post for World Biodiversity Day”. I think this is the perfect opportunity to share my personal understanding of the 6th Scout Law in a way that hopefully inspires you to explore your thoughts on what it means to be “a friend to animals”.

For me, the word animals in the 6th Scout Law stands for all indigenous plants and animals on earth, or in other words all biodiversity. But not only individual plants and animals, I think it also stands for natural ecosystems which are collections of indigenous plants and animals living together in an inter-dependent community. Then I also think is stands for habitats which are the natural landscapes or physical spaces that support and form part of natural ecosystems.

Why did I use the word indigenous plants and animals above? Because I think its important to make a distinction between individual species of plants and animals that have evolved in and form part of a natural habitat, as this allows the ecosystems to function in a stable state and perform the ecological functions that support all life as well as human wellbeing and the economic activities society depends on. We call these functions ecological goods and services, and they include things like insects pollinating food crops, wetlands cleaning drinking water, riverine vegetation preventing floods, plant decay building topsoil, wild crops providing food and plants capturing carbon and putting oxygen into the atmosphere, to name a few.

Photo: Andrew Purnell

Does that mean we shouldn’t care about domestic animals? No, it doesn’t. But it’s important to make the distinction between the essential ecological role played by naturally occurring wild plants and animals and the often-negative environmental impacts of domestic animals like pets and farm animals. Let me explain with two examples. Stray domestic cats kill a significant number of indigenous birds and rodents in sub-urban areas and sheep can destroy the natural veld on an overgrazed farm.  This is not the fault of the individual animals, but the fault of pet owners for allowing their pets to breed indiscriminately, or farmers who overstock their farm and don’t manage their livestock properly. The key thing here is that we as humans have a duty of care towards domestic animals. We are responsible for their welfare and making sure they are treated humanely and live a happy life free from hardship and cruelty. But we are also responsible for limiting their environmental impact.

What about non-indigenous plants and animals? Well, many plants and animals that come from other continents can be invasive, meaning they overwhelm and destroy our natural fauna and flora and cause significant impacts on indigenous biodiversity and ecosystem function. In this case it is our responsibility to prevent or control their spread in order to conserve our indigenous species and the critical roles they play in natural ecosystems and the provision of ecological goods and services. In most cases this involves killing invasive alien species. It is our responsibility to fix the mess we make when we interfere with nature, as unpleasant as that may be to some.

Photo: Andrew Purnell

OK, let’s unpack the meaning of being a friend. Being a friend is not simply a passive feeling of liking someone, it’s a powerful relationship to another living being. It drives the way you behave, and is associated with words like love, respect, compassion, nurture, care and protect. Bearing that in mind, I think the word friend in the 6th Scout Law stands for understands and conserves. Why understand? Well, if you don’t understand a little bit about the complex and interconnected characteristics of our natural heritage, our plants, animals, ecosystems and habitats, then you won’t be able to conserve them. Why conserve? Firstly, it’s the right thing to do. But mainly because, your life depends on it! In order for humans to survive on planet earth, we require ecosystems to function, and ecosystems function best in large, continuous tracts of undisturbed natural habitat. The best way to safeguard ecosystem function is to conserve a critical percentage of the earth’s land surface and oceans as natural protected areas.  The other important way to safeguard ecosystem function is to limit activities that cause widespread negative impacts on the environment. These include activities like burning fossil fuels and emitting greenhouse gasses that cause climate change, polluting fresh water, introducing harmful chemicals into the environment, overfishing our oceans and destroying marine ecosystems and destroying natural ecosystems through slash and burn agriculture and unchecked urban development, to name a few.

We are after all just another mammal, a single species, in the web of life living on one small planet in a universe of unfathomable size. Some segments of society may consider humanity to be very clever and above the laws that govern nature and the universe, but we are not. If ecosystems on earth collapse, so will humanity.

So, with humility, can I share what goes through my mind when I recite the 6th Scout Law, “A Scout strives to spend time in nature to find joy in its majesty, healing in its embrace and to understand the mysteries of our natural world. A Scout does their best to conserve all indigenous plants and animals, the habitats they call home and the ecosystems they form part of. A Scout does their best to live life in a way that does not cause harm to the environment or put pressure on natural ecosystems. A Scouts stands up for the rights and welfare of animals and does their best to ensure they are treated with dignity and respect.”

I invite you to spend some time thinking about what the 6th Scout Law – and all the Scout Laws for that matter – really means for you.

Yours in Scouting,

Andrew Purnell
Troop Scouter, 2nd Somerset West

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