Cormorants and Angling - An Open Letter to the RSPB
Rod Sturdy responds to a recent piece by Simon Barnes in the RSPB newsletter.
If you have not yet read Simon Barnes’ feature it is reproduced here in full:
"IT’S HARD TO DEAL WITH HATE by Simon Barnes
No matter how calm and rational you are, you’ll never argue people out of hate. You can explain gently that the object of their hatred is not half as bad as they thought, but you won’t get anywhere. They don’t think they’re hating: they believe they’re fighting evil.
For some anglers, cormorants are evil. They are embodiments of greed and voracity and should be shot to bits at every opportunity. The idea of a cormorant sitting insolently on its tree with a belly-full of fish, drying its wings with a smug expression on its face, knowing that the angler is unable to do a thing about it – well, that makes the angler’s blood boil.
Especially if he is having a poor day. Under investigation, it’s a visceral response from the guts of the hunter: a howl of anguish from a person who feels unjustly deprived of what should be his by right. And there is a cormorant: so big, so black, so gloriously ugly. Of course it’s the cormorant’s fault: you only have to look at the expression on its face.
That is what many fishing people feel, and it’s fair enough. The problem is that they want this howl of anguish to become the law of the land. They want the right to shoot cormorants any time they see one, any time they feel like it. The world, they believe, would be a better place without cormorants.
How can you oppose so deep-seated a feeling? Rationality doesn’t work, facts don’t convince, anger is not going to help. As I write, Defra is reviewing the position of cormorants in England. With any luck, by the time you read this, this won’t have made things worse for cormorants. As we stand, cormorants can be shot in certain circumstances. You can apply for a licence to do so, and it is considered on a case by case basis. Since 2004, it’s become much easier to get such a licence in England.
You no longer have to show that cormorants are causing serious damage: you just have to show they are there and therefore might cause serious damage. And up to 3,000 a year can be shot.
That’s not enough for the angling lobby. They are campaigning to have cormorants put on the general licence. That would mean that you could shoot them without reference to anybody, just as you can shoot magpies, crows and woodpigeons. This would be devastating: there are about a million woodpigeons in Great Britain; there are just 35,000 cormorants.
A number of bogus arguments have been put up to support the anti-cormorant lobby: arguments that make good headlines, but which lack a basis in those pesky things called facts. It has been claimed that cormorants are not native British birds: that they are vile interlopers like Canada geese and ring-necked parakeets.
That is simply wrong: cormorants are as much a part of British life as the robin in your back garden. Other arguments grossly exaggerate the amount of fish that cormorants take: in a year a cormorant eats the equivalent of a blue whale, or enough to feed a third world country for five years – I exaggerate, but so do they. Cormorants eat what they need to survive, and no more.
There is another suggestion that cormorants eat the fish that would otherwise be taken by kingfishers and grebes, and so they are depriving us of our ‘real’ British birds. It’s an argument that reminds me of the famous marginal note from a national newspaper editor: “interesting if true”. And it is not. There is no decline in kingfishers or grebes. It’s an idea that’s just been made up, plucked out of the air. It convinces people because one look at a cormorant tells you that they are capable of any enormity. Cormorants eat fish. That’s accepted.
In some cases, they cause problems to those who take part in the sport of angling. The RSPB doesn’t oppose shooting in such cases as a last resort. But it’s also a good idea to introduce such things as fish refuges, which give the fish somewhere to hide. Such practices are more sustainable than shooting a cormorant every time one comes along. But constructive moves don’t appease the hatred. Only destructive moves will do that. The perfect enemy Cormorants look like vultures. They look sinister. What they do for a living can compromise what some humans do for fun.
They are the perfect enemy: a bird that attracts little sympathy. I love them for the heraldic shape they make when they hang their wings out to dry, for their pterodactyl silhouette in flight, and because they are just so damn good at fishing. Precisely the reasons they are hated, but there you go. I’ve just given you some emotional reasons for having cormorants about the place. We must discard them at once. And the opposition needs to discard emotion as well. We have a serious clash here, and no amount of shouting will solve it. We bird-people must set aside love as we continue the argument, just as the anglers must set aside hate. And it is always a sad day when hate wins any argument."
Rod Sturdy replies:
28 August 2012
I read with dismay and disbelief Simon Barnes’s piece in the latest RSPB newsletter. Dismay, because he does not for a second deviate from what I have found to be the stock RSPB attitude to wildlife in general: that only birds are of any consequence; all other life seems to exist only to feed birds. And disbelief, because he is so patently disingenuous in his statements on cormorants.
The idea that cormorants should be given a free hand to plunder (there is no other word for it) our inland waterways does indeed make anglers’ blood boil. Five cormorants are quite capable of eating their way through a tonne of fish per year. I have personally witnessed cormorants which are nearly incapable of taking off after a feeding session in freshwater. I note that Simon Barnes appears to subscribe to the rather romantic view of predation which insists that ‘they only take what they need’. Don’t believe a word of it – the cormorant is a voracious and highly efficient predator and will take fish in a feeding frenzy while the going is good. Once small fish are in short supply, a cormorant will always have a go at larger fish, leaving them with gaping wounds and the chance of fatal fungal infection. Even 35,000 birds will be able to eat their way through a phenomenal quantity of fish. In comparison, kingfishers and herons (birds which, incidentally, we anglers love to see) have an insignificant impact.
The reality is that herons and kingfishers are now in direct feeding competition with cormorants. Nobody can be very much in doubt as to which would win, if the situation was left as it is. And please do not tell me that cormorants are a native British bird, with as much right to be there as the robin. Simon Barnes conveniently forgets that cormorants have migrated inland from sea to freshwater. They are now at the stage, such is the depletion of the sea, of migrating from freshwater in northern Europe to freshwater in the UK. The already pressured inland environment in being impacted by a species it could well do without. But then that’s the RSPB: all birds deserve unlimited protection, whatever they are and whatever effect they have.
He disingenuously refers to fish refuges as the answer to cormorant predation. On stillwaters these have their place. But eventually the birds will rumble these for what they are, and we are then back to square one. And the idea that fish refuges, even if they did work, could be placed effectively in several thousand miles of river in the UK is clearly a ludicrous one.
There is more than a hint of hostility to angling in Simon Barnes’s article. His anti-angling stance is beyond doubt when he observes that ‘what they do for a living can compromise what some humans do for fun’. I consider that the many RSPB members who fish would do well to take note of this view: one can only assume that is not out of tune with official RSPB policy: both on cormorants, and of course on fishing. He refers to us anglers as ‘the opposition’, against which ‘we bird people’ should by implication close ranks.
Perhaps the RSPB would care to distance itself formally from Mr Barnes’s rather sanctimonious statements?
Or alternatively, I think a formal statement on its position vis-à-vis angling is long overdue.
We fish people – and many of us are in fact RSPB members - would love to know where we stand.
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