3.4.2 Secular pantheism
Exotic animals had always been prized possessions, and it was commonplace to promote the artificial preservation of ornamental or unfamiliar creatures or the cherishing of exotic animals, particularly birds, for amusement and display. More novel, however, was the growth of inhibitions about eliminating any wild animal, whether ornamental or not.
'We dispute in [the] schools,' wrote John Bulwer in 1653, 'whether, if it were possible for man to do so, it were lawful for him to destroy any one species of God's creatures, though it were but the species of toads and spiders, because this were taking away one link of God's chain, one note of his harmony.'
The continuation of every species was surely part of the divine plan.
The modern idea of the balance of nature thus had a theological basis before it gained a scientific one. It was belief in the perfection of God's design which preceded and underpinned the concept of the ecological chain, any link of which it would be dangerous to remove. The argument for design contained a strong conservationist implication, for it taught that even the most apparently noxious species served some indispensable human purpose. In the eighteenth century most scientists and theologians accordingly maintained that all created species had a necessary part to play in the economy of nature.   At the same time some of them had become increasingly aware that man's persecution really could eliminate individual species, a possibility which earlier generations had always denied.
A mixture of theology and utility thus lay behind this kind of secular pantheism associated with an increasing feeling that wild creatures ought, within limits, to be preserved. When the movement to protect wild birds gathered force in the nineteenth century it would lay much emphasis on the indispensable functions (eating grubs and keeping down insects and other vermin) performed even by those species thought most pernicious. Jays, magpies, bullfinches and ants were all useful in their different ways and it was therefore wrong to kill  them. As the Somersetshire adage had it, 'If it were not for the Robin-Riddick and the Cutty-Wren, a spider would overcome a man.' In keeping with this view Lord Erskine wrote in his poem of 1818, The Farmer's Vision:
Instant this solemn oath I took
No hand shall rise against a rook.
When sea-birds gained legislative protection in 1869 it was argued that they were necessary to guide sailors and to show the fishermen where the herrings were.
But from the seventeenth century onwards less utilitarian arguments for the preservation of wild species had also been advanced. Sir Matthew Hale urged mercy and compassion towards all wild creatures, in view of 'the admirable powers of life and sense ... in the birds and beasts ... All the men in the world could not give the like being to anything, nor restore that life and sense which is once taken from them.' John Locke thought it wrong to waste any food which would sustain a wild creature, even the birds of the air; and in the eighteenth century it became a mark of human sensibility to throw crumbs to wild birds in winter.
The bird-fanciers continued to catch and sell every kind of wild species, but this activity encountered increasing opposition. It was a platitude among seventeenth-century writers that every cage-bird would prefer the hardships of freedom to captivity, however mild; and in the Hanoverian period the cruelty of trapping wild birds, clipping their wings, slitting their tongues and confining them in cages became a common theme of poetic lament. By 1735 it was necessary for the author of The Bird-Fancier's Recreation to refute the 'common objection, which some austere men (pretending to more humanity than the rest of their neighbours) make against the confining of songbirds in cages'. Two years later a 'lover of birds' protested against the practice of blinding chaffinches in preparation for captivity. By the end of the century moralists and aesthetes alike agreed that the song of a bird in a cage could give no pleasure.
Wild birds were a symbol of the Englishman's freedom and even aviaries were objectionable. As Lord John Russell told the Commons in the 1820s:
'It was not from the bars of a prison that the notes of English liberty could ever be heard; to have anything of grace and sweetness they must have something of... wildness in their composition.'
Similar attacks were made on bird-nesting and on shooting wild birds for sport. 'Blessed be the name of the Lord Jesus against the destruction of small birds,' exclaimed Christopher Smart.