AN EVIDENCE-BASED CHALLENGE TO NE/DEFRA REVIEW
OF FISH-EATING BIRDS POLICY.
|Compiled and written by Trevor Harrop and Budgie Price
There is hardly a country in the world that regards the cormorant as an acceptable ecological coexistent without serious conflict or the need for robust management.
Historically, cormorant numbers were controlled, but like all UK wild birds they are now protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. However, it is widely regarded that the cormorant should not have been included and that its inclusion is a huge ecological own goal directly resulting in increasing conflict with a number of already protected fish species.
Since this time, numbers dramatically increased from an acceptable and balanced few thousand to a staggering 14,554 in just seven years or so, then on to an overwhelming wintering population (2012) in the UK of 41,000 (22,000 in England alone).
The inland UK breeding population has expanded from one site in 1980 to 58 sites by 2005 and 2,362 breeding pairs being recorded in 2012, with a 53% range expansion from 1981-84 (BTO)
‘…it is generally accepted that more birds will mean more (or bigger) conflicts with fisheries.’ (Defra - Evidence Summary - Review of fish eating birds policy. 19July 2013.)
This population has been founded by cormorants of the continental race P. c. sinensis mainly from the Netherlands and Denmark…. So not even British.
It is often wrongly assumed that the reason we are seeing such a huge number of cormorants inland here in the UK is because we have overfished the seas. And, while we may be guilty of this, this is NOT the cause of us seeing these massive numbers each winter. These European visitors prefer living and hunting inland in the fresh water of our rivers, streams, ponds and lakes, as they do in their countries of origin, unlike our own P. c. carbo.
Cormorants are highly evolved predators; unmatched in nature, and with each one requiring at least a pound of fish every day, this unacceptably high number of uncontrolled, non-native birds consuming such a vast amount of our native wildlife poses a serious threat to the wellbeing of all our inland waterways, many with SSSI and SAC designation such as the iconic Hampshire Avon.
86% (2015 EA classification) of our rivers in this country are currently failing to meet the standard of good ecological condition measured against the Water Framework Directive (WFD). And it is worth noting here that part of the assessment of the health of our rivers in the UK is on general fish assemblage - and not only the presence of designated species such as the salmon, lamprey and bullhead, but what is often overlooked is this also includes the presence of coarse fish, with roach, for example, having shown a perilous decline in many rivers up and down the country in recent years resulting in the very survival of some local populations being threatened by the direct conflict with the number of cormorants.
Furthermore, there are only 210 precious Chalk Streams in the entire world with 85% of these being found in England, and all of these globally rare, fragile habitats are under increasing threat with, sadly, 77% of those in England also failing to meet the standard of good ecological condition measured by the Water Framework Directive (WWF Englands Chalk Streams). Again, we have to remember that part of the consideration of this condition is fish assemblage.
The chalk streams characteristic clear shallow waters make predation by fish-eating birds relatively easy. Yet we stand by and allow their protected native wildlife to be plundered by a non-native ‘protected’ bird knowing, as is stated in the Defra - Evidence Summary - Review of fish eating birds policy. 19July 2013 ‘The EC accepts that cormorants can deplete fish stocks rapidly…’
Additionally, we have the desperate plight of the Eel. The Environment Agency’s Eel Management Plans submitted to the European Commission under the Eel Regulation has made eels the most protected fish in Europe due to the collapse of their population numbers to a critically low 5% of historic levels, yet the plan estimates the number of eels consumed by cormorants in inland and estuarine waters in England and Wales to be between 29-43 tonnes during the birds’ breeding season.
Ecological alarm bells have been ringing for decades, yet here we are dragging the same unaddressed problems around with us and failing to deal with the fundamental issues.
In ‘The Moran Committee – Cormorants the Facts’ publication it states that ‘…if fish numbers fall to a very low level, predation by birds could become a factor in the survival of local populations’.
There is clear evidence that this is the situation right now, and an urgent review and overhaul of the currently inadequate and inflexible fish-eating bird licencing policy is desperately needed to allow fisheries managers, river keepers and angling clubs the legal right to effectively protect their vulnerable fish populations before it’s too late (it may already be too late).
CURRENT LICENSING AND POPULATION
‘Annual licensing levels are adjusted so that the population maintains a five-year average equal or greater to the reference threshold level (over-winter average for the period 1996 – 2001). This is a wintering English population of 20,134.’ (Defra - Evidence Summary - Review of fish eating birds policy. 19July 2013.)
This date has been set arbitrarily and is confirmed in the same document under section…
(184.108.40.206. Key messages)
‘The Review Group recognised that the current population baseline used for management purposes and for setting levels of licensed shooting was arbitrary. The Group further recognised that this figure could be changed, but that reducing the level would increase uncertainty and levels of risk. This, in turn, could make management more difficult (e.g. requiring large adjustments or complete cessation of licensed shooting) in response to the annual assessment cycle.’
The arbitrary setting of the baseline over-wintering average number of 20,134 as at 1996 – 2001 is unacceptable and unsustainably high and in urgent need of amendment as it coincides with the highest ever estimated wintering population of the species in Europe demonstrated on the graph below taken from… The Journal of Applied Ecology (British Ecological Society) December 2017 – Where do wintering cormorants come from? Long-term changes in geographical origin of a migratory bird on a continental scale…. Frederiksen M, Korner-Nievergelt F,Marion L, Bregnballe T.
It is the rapid colonisation of the UK from Europe that had already played a significant part in the decline of our rivers, lakes and streams in the UK. This number of birds had already done the damage, so it is wholly wrong to be maintaining the wintering population at this high level.
For evidence of this we need look no further than the Avon Roach Project www.avonroachproject.co.uk which was started in response to the Environment Agency Fish Stock Surveys of 2005 which confirmed what we all feared and showed a perilously low number of roach in the middle reaches of the Hants Avon. Salmon and eels, bullhead and lamprey were already known to be at critically low levels. So, I repeat… the damage had already been done….. Yet here we are with a policy aimed at maintaining this unacceptably, almost all-time high level of non-native fish-eating birds.
Subsequently, it was recognised that many other rivers throughout the country were suffering the same fish population declines. With our help and guidance, many other Roach Projects, in one form or another, have been started on rivers such as the Kennet, Wensum, Severn, Warwickshire Avon, Bristol Avon and more, and all cite the cormorant as a significant element in the decline and ongoing problem both in terms of numbers and management.
We need to consider the rapid colonisation of the UK from an acceptable level of 2000 birds in the early 1980’s to 14,554 in just seven years then on to double in number over the coming six years with a staggering 15-fold increase in numbers in just over 20 years.
There is an urgent need to change the arbitrarily chosen population baseline to a more realistic level and not be maintaining it at the species highest ever European population level.
And, far greater consideration should be given to the protection and preservation of the designated fish species in the UK, which have inevitably found themselves in direct conflict with this unsustainable growth in over-wintering European cormorants.
With each bird consuming a pound of fish every day it doesn’t take a genius or fortune teller to recognise the devastating ecological impact these birds were inevitably going to have on our native fish populations, which was confirmed in the 2005 and 2008 fish stock surveys of the Hants Avon.
‘In practice, there is no recognised population level at which the species conservation status can be considered ‘favourable’, and the reference level could be set to any agreed value.’ (Defra - Evidence Summary - Review of fish eating birds policy. 19July 2013.)
NON-LETHAL PROTECTION OF FISHERIES
Scaring does NOT work as a countrywide broad-based solution. It simply moves and scatters the problem, most likely to the quieter watercourses such as our more remote rivers and streams in which some of our most endangered and ‘protected’ fish species live.
Fish refuges cannot be applied to river and stream so the only method of reducing the devastating impact of fish-eating birds here is to control numbers.
Changing stocking policies in trout stillwaters, either with larger fish or delaying until just before angling is permitted to give the anglers the chance to catch the fish before the cormorants do, and stocking commercial fisheries with larger cormorant proof fish is a blinkered, short term fix that cannot be applied to the wider natural aquatic and riverine environment – nor indeed can it be applied to the increasingly popular still water ‘mixed fishery.’
The level of cost and man management to protect fisheries has become too high and unsustainable. An example of which is below and is a case referred to in – (Defra - Evidence Summary - Review of fish eating birds policy. 19July 2013. (Review group site visits))
‘In the case of the large fishing club, considerable volunteer time was involved (a three man team working three days per week) to co-ordinate bird-scaring tactics and exercise licensed control, with four-wheel drive vehicles and walkie-talkie radios employed to locate and co-ordinate the scaring of cormorants, as well as the use of trained dogs to recover shot birds’.
While this level of individual commitment is commendable it is unreasonable to expect anything like this throughout the entire country while maintaining the unacceptably high numbers of birds.
‘With many deterrents, their impact is likely to diminish with time as habituation tends to occur with any scaring technique that is not reinforced by a demonstration of real danger.’
‘In all cases where licences had been granted it was felt shooting to kill to aid scaring was the most effective deterrent measure for other birds and kept them away for longer periods than other scaring tactics. Exactly how long varied between waters.’ (Defra - Evidence Summary - Review of fish eating birds policy. 19July 2013)
However, due to the inflexibility of the current policy, the true number will never be revealed as the consequences for anyone failing to stick within the allocated number are made very clear, with threats of a criminal record, police involvement, £5000 fine etc.
‘By its very nature, the scale and scope of unlawful lethal control is unknown, and very difficult to quantify. This remains an evidence gap.’ (Defra - Evidence Summary - Review of fish eating birds policy. 19July 2013)
It is extremely likely that considerably more than the allocated number of cormorants are actually shot each year.
Add to this the unacceptable level of intransigence exercised by local NE personnel regarding licence allocation and the true picture and level of disparity between requirement and allocation will forever remain impossible to demonstrate.
So, it is unsurprising that…
‘Over the past 6 years an average of 71% of the birds licensed have been shot, meaning that the number shot has remained below the threshold set by Defra.’ (Defra - Evidence Summary - Review of fish eating birds policy. 19July 2013)
Despite this, and given the groundswell of discontent at the existing inflexibility and shortfall of allocation against requirement, it is likely that a number of river keepers, land owners and fishing clubs throughout the country will consider there to be no alternative to risking prosecution to protect their livelihoods.
This will never change as all the returns will always fall within the threshold set because of the threat of prosecution for failure to do so.
It is worth noting here that…..
‘All fishery owners granted a licence felt that the numbers of cormorants allowed to be shot were inadequate; there was a general reluctance to request more in case this jeopardised the granting of any birds, given a perceived ‘quota’ system and the number of birds was suggested by the NE officer rather than by the fishery owners.’ (Defra - Evidence Summary - Review of fish eating birds policy. 19July 2013 - Common themes identified in the responses to the Angling Trust survey - Perceptions of a difficult, inflexible licensing system.)
One catchment, embracing the ABL without fault, demonstrated unequivocally the woeful inadequacy of numbers of birds allocated against the number required to enable a reasonable level of protection. The catchment was also fully embracing all the alternative non-lethal methods such as starter pistols, flairs and mannequins.
The catchment was allocated 121 birds to be shot in the season.
However, within a reasonable amount of time as the numbers shot reached 109, the catchment applied for a further 80. This number was based upon the current level of lethal control being exercised and the time left to the seasons end. Disappointingly, the request was turned down leaving the river keepers reliant upon the non-lethal alternatives, which failed to be effective after a very short time.
‘With many deterrents, their impact is likely to diminish with time as habituation tends to occur with any scaring technique that is not reinforced by a demonstration of real danger.’ (Defra - Evidence Summary - Review of fish eating birds policy. 19July 2013)
The birds were protected while the fish were not; despite the river having SSSI and SAC status and containing designated ‘protected’ fish species.
This MUST change as why should the protection of a species that is recognised worldwide as causing enormous ecological damage, existing at an unacceptably high population level and which has historically been robustly managed be of greater importance than the protection of designated fish species estimated at critically low population densities?
‘…if fish numbers fall to a very low level, predation by birds could become a factor in the survival of local populations’. ‘The Moran Committee – Cormorants the Facts’
Below has been translated and taken from recent publications in Norway…
In 2008, the European Parliament called on the EU Commission to establish an inventory management system for the Cormorant. Since then, nothing substantial has been done by the EU Commission in this regard.
The President of the German Fisheries Association, Holger Ortel, says to the demands of the Parliament: “The previous inaction of the European Commission and the Federal Government in the face of the Cormorant damage jeopardises the existence of near-natural fish farming in Germany and Europe…”
The President of the German Fishing Association, Dr. (med) Christel Happach-Kazan, makes it clear: “Article 1 of the European Birds Directive explicitly provides for protection as well as measures for stock regulation. The prerequisite for this is the long overdue admission of the cormorant to Annex II of this directive. The goal must be an orderly and cross-border co-ordinated inventory reduction, as the European Parliament demands now in an unprecedented clarity.”
The Chairman of the Cormorant Commission, Stefan Jagar, says: “The self-regulation of the population often mentioned in connection with the cormorant problem is an expression of away from reality wishful thinking. For many years, we have seen massive damage to fish fauna even in relatively small streams, the cause of which is demonstrably in the rapidly growing cormorant stocks…”
Published in May 2018, a Primary Research Paper - ‘Change of foraging behaviour of cormorants and the effect on river fish.’ N. Jepsen (&) _ H. D. Ravn _ S. PedersenDTU Aqua, National Institute for Aquatic Resources,Technical University of Denmark… presents the results from studies using radio-telemetry, PIT-tagging, and traditional fish surveys to estimate the impact of predation in Danish lowland rivers.
It opens with… Since the European population of great cormorants (phalacrocorax carbo sinensis) rapidly increased 30 years ago, Denmark has been one of the core breeding areas for this colonial water bird. Following a 10-year period with stable breeding numbers in Denmark, the population of great cormorants decreased. At the same time, a combination of cold winters and low availability of coastal prey fish apparently triggered birds to seek new foraging areas. Thus, cormorants began to appear in rivers and streams coinciding with an observed massive decline in fish, mainly brown trout (Salmo trutta) and grayling (Thymallus thymallus). In this paper, we present the results from studies using radio-telemetry, PIT-tagging, and traditional fish surveys to estimate the impact of predation in Danish lowland rivers. Recovery of PIT-tags revealed that an estimated 30% of wild trout and 72% of wild grayling tagged in a small river were eaten by cormorants. In another medium-sized river, 79% of radio-tagged adult grayling were removed, presumably by cormorants during winter. Thus, predation from cormorants appears to be at a level that explains the observed collapse of grayling and brown trout populations in many Danish streams….
And ends with… The documented effects of predation in combination with frequent observations of foraging cormorants in the rivers keep the conflicts and angler frustration intense. Thus, efforts are being made to test the efficiency of great cormorant harassment and lethal regulation in reducing the predation to an acceptable level. If successful in altering cormorant behaviour and reducing predation, similar measures may be taken in many other river systems to safeguard vulnerable populations of freshwater fish. If not, the only way to protect the river fish seems to be a general reduction of great cormorant numbers.
It states in… The Journal of Applied Ecology (British Ecological Society) December 2017 – Where do wintering cormorants come from? Long-term changes in geographical origin of a migratory bird on a continental scale…. Frederiksen M, Korner-Nievergelt F,Marion L, Bregnballe T.
Cormorant wintering populations in Europe consist of mixtures of birds of different breeding origins. These mixtures are also highly variable over time. These factors reduce the chances of successfully limiting conflicts in specific wintering areas through, for example, regulation of breeding numbers in one breeding area. The dynamic nature of cormorant winter populations means that conflicts are best addressed when and where the conflict occurs, or on the scale of the entire continental population. It is unlikely that the latter will be cost-effective and politically realistic.
This all demonstrates that the Europe-wide conflict is widely recognised, but points to the fact that we should, while continuing to work closely with our European neighbours, focus our efforts on robustly addressing the UK issue, which we have every means to do so with the sensible amendment to our own deeply flawed licencing policy.
The work of the award-winning Avon Roach Project is recognised throughout the country and has been replicated on other rivers and still waters in an effort to arrest the decline of our inland fish populations with some success. We have worked our rocks off over the past 15 years, as others have, to try to reinstate self-sustaining roach populations in our precious waterways along with widespread habitat reinstatement work benefitting many other fish, invertebrate and even bird species. Now we need the legal right to adequately protect the fruits of our labour with a positive and sensible change to the cormorant licencing policy with the birds placed on the list of species a General Licence can be applied and granted for, enabling a practical and balanced level of control – instead of continuing to hide behind an inflexible and flawed set of erroneous policy criteria and protection status conditions while sitting on our hands and continuing to do nothing as our native wildlife, designated fish species and Chalk Streams continue to be plundered unchallenged.
CONCLUSION AND SUGGESTIONS
We at the Avon Roach Project began the campaign to have the licencing regime changed, with a call for the cormorant to be removed from the protected list and placed on the General Licence (Management of species causing conflict with conservation or human interests), thus allowing the legal right to adequately protect our vulnerable and protected fish populations, and in February 2012 delivered a petition of 17,000 signatures to Richard Benyon, the minister at the time, in London, who expressed the desire to ‘do something significant.’
However, we are extremely disappointed that the review makes no reference to this despite it being a strong, widely supported and compelling argument for change and review.
Now, after many years of inaction, we find ourselves faced with the same issue of what to do and how reasonably we deal with the huge ecological imbalance and the direct consequence of the devastating level of conflict the huge numbers of fish-eating birds are causing in the UK – confirmed by fish stock surveys, salmon counts, eel management stats etc.
Simply, the growing number of ‘Roach Projects’ in England and the common view that an uncontrollable overpopulation of fish-eating birds is a significant factor in the necessity for these projects is a key indicator that action needs to be taken, and changes made to this policy.
We need to recognise the simplicity of enabling a long-term sustainable conservation strategy based upon the failing fish populations in our inland watercourses and the unacceptably high percentage of our rivers and streams failing good ecological status.
Irrespective of how difficult predator control may be, it is certainly more manageable than climate change and general ocean conditions, and should be considered as an option to protect declining salmon populations. (Institute of aquatic resources, Danish Technical University, Silkeborg, Denmark - The impact of Cormorant predation on Atlantic salmon and Sea trout smolt survival)
A simple and basic calculation to add to the shocking, irrefutable perspective… If we take the baseline over-wintering average number of 20,134 for the period 1996 - 2001, used as the current reference threshold level, then the minimum daily requirement of each individual bird of one pound of fish, then take the period they spend here in the UK but reduce that to the period they are at their highest population density within that time of five winter months, the weight of fish consumed by this European winter visitor is a staggering and unsustainable 3020100 (Three million, twenty thousand, one hundred) pounds of fish every year.
The very presence of cormorants is accepted evidence of conflict. Of course, further evidence exists in the form of countless images showing the damage and impact on general fish populations, our eels, lamprey and the devastating hammering they give our endangered salmon each year; images, for example, of cormorants stuffed beak to bum with salmon parr, yet the current woefully inadequate and inflexible UK licencing policy falls way short of allowing the fish the level of protection to which they are entitled under their own designated status, even under the same law.
With the dramatic increase in numbers of European cormorants over-wintering in the UK directly coinciding with the dramatic decline in our native wild fish populations and desperate plight of our globally important Chalk Steams, and with the arbitrarily set base-line protection status level currently at the highest ever cormorant population density, it will be irresponsible to continue to do nothing about the deeply flawed current licencing policy which favours a species almost globally recognised as causing enormous ecological damage and conflict and requiring robust management.
We need to move away from the overprotection of an unacceptably high, arbitrarily set number of over wintering fish-eating birds to a more balanced and acceptable regime of protecting what was here first but has fallen behind in terms of its protection in favour of the very thing that is a direct threat to their survival.
We can continue to dance around the problem or take responsibility and face it. It is a fact that we will very likely always have a cormorant issue here in the UK considering that Europe, from where our problem stems, are grappling with a population of more than 1.2 million. But, this should not prevent us making the changes we need to help protect our own desperately vulnerable native wildlife.
‘It was noted that cormorant numbers across Europe are very much greater than they are in the UK (tentatively estimated at around 1.2 million in 2007 in the whole western Palaearctic region, although potentially well in excess of this figure).’ (Defra - Evidence Summary - Review of fish eating birds policy. 19July 2013)
‘It is likely that the species is now more numerous across Europe than ever before.’ (REDCAFE - Final Report - Centre for Ecology & Hydrology Banchory… Report of a Concerted Action funded by the European Union. Study contract no. Q5CA-2000-31387: Reducing the conflict between cormorants and fisheries on a pan-European scale.)
‘The enormously increased impact of cormorant predation on fish species conservation and the losses caused to aquaculture pond owners, professional fishermen and anglers has reached unacceptable levels.’– (EUROPEAN INLAND FISHERIES ADVISORY COMMISSION…. SUMMARY PROGRESS REPORT……. Ref: EIFAC/XXV/2008/5 …)
‘There is a need to explore the consequences of moving the cormorant to the status of Annex II, 2 of the EU Birds Directive 79/409/EEC (non-protected species). – (EUROPEAN INLAND FISHERIES ADVISORY COMMISSION…. SUMMARY PROGRESS REPORT……. Ref: EIFAC/XXV/2008/5 …)
Isn’t it little wonder our rivers and streams are in such a poor state? And, we have ourselves to blame for years of inaction and a woefully inadequate and stiflingly inflexible licencing policy.
Placing the cormorant on the General Licence here in the UK and allowing the legal right to maintain a reasonable balance and health in our own fragile and struggling aquatic ecosystem is likely never to impact on the huge problematic general European population which is directly responsible for the 15-fold increase in our own over-wintering cormorant numbers since 1980.
The next stage in the cormorant issue is underway with the introduction of three Fisheries Management Advisors (FMA’s), employed by the Angling Trust and funded by anglers’ Rod Licence revenue, together with a new area licence allowing and encouraging greater flexibility for fisheries being able to work together for greater effect.
They are in place for a twelve month period, after which the effectiveness of the policy change will be assessed by Defra, the Angling Trust and others involved in this issue. We expect to be included in this.
Ministers have confirmed that if, after this trial period, monitoring of the combined need for lethal control exceeds the current national limit of 2,000 cormorants (and up to 3,000 for short periods), the limit will be reviewed.
The FMA’s are working hard up and down the country, and are in no doubt about the scale of the task ahead of them.
They will need everyone to get involved and take part. They will need a high level of uptake and energy; and the early signs are good, with a great reception so far. This needs to continue.
As is often the case with anything like this, those who have been at the hub of it for so long need to show a deal of stamina, and we think we have done just that, in bucket-loads. This now also applies to those who have simply sat and watched and waited. It’s easy to get tired and weary of what seems to be yet another hurdle to overcome, but the fact is, unless we in angling all get our fingers out of our arses and wake up and start working together for the common good, our sport is destined for suicide by apathy.
Two of the FMA’s came and presented at our local Wessex forum and I (the Trevor half of the ARP partnership) was asked to give a ten minute talk on the background to the campaign, how we have reached this stage and an introduction to them. I didn’t leave anyone in any doubt about the seriousness of the situation and the burden of responsibility that rests on all our shoulders.
In fact, ears were pricked; eyes opened and attentions grabbed with hard facts and subtle poignancy.
It was suggested afterwards that it would be an advantage if I could deliver the same introduction at all the forums around the country just ahead of the FMA’s presentation. This, of course, would be out of the question due to Avon Roach Project duties.
Two options were to either have what I said written and read out ahead of the FMA’s, or make a little film of it.
Well, would you believe it? Great mate and ARP supporter from day one, Hugh Miles offered to make the film with us.
The link is below.
A few weeks after their presentation at the local forum, the two FMA’s, Richard Bamforth and Jake Davoile, came and visited us here at Project HQ, then on to our stews at Bickton, and we were delighted at their enthusiasm and energy. They deserve everyone’s support; and indeed need everyone’s support, as without it they will be unable to deliver what we all need them to.
Details of these guys can be found on the Angling Trust web site http://www.anglingtrust.net/page.asp?section=1031
Please, give your support. Encourage the application for cormorant licenses on all fisheries with a problem through your clubs, syndicates, river keepers and land owners, and encourage as many as possible to take part in what may be the last chance we get to make the difference we have all been bellyaching about for so long.
If a fishery has a problem with cormorant predation but there has been no licence application then the assumption will be that there is, in fact, NOT a problem.
Doing nothing is no longer an option.
I mention in the film, our ‘Biodiversity in Danger’ document and that it can be found on our web site, so for convenience we thought we’d drop it in here below