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Who killed Cock Robin? Farmer Giles not guilty

Friday 02 June 2006

After years of taking the blame for the mass murder of wild birds, Britain's farmers have been found Not guilty. The true culprits are the grey squirrel - and the domestic cat, reports out countryside commentator John Sheard

BRITAIN'S long suffering farmers have been in the dock for almost fifty years now, accused of the mass murder of our precious wild birds. When anything goes wrong in the countryside, urban-based conservationists have an automatic reflex to point the finger of blame at dear old Farmer Giles.

Although birds of prey were poisoned by pesticides in the 1960s, and daft old MAFF paid out billions of pounds to persuade farmers to grub up thousands of miles of hedgerow, I have always though that the blame for those tragedies should have been laid on the shoulders of the agro-chemical industries and the civil servants - the farmers were acting on the best available advice at the time.

However, the reflex condemnation has gone on unabated until, this week, there came a reprieve for the poor farmers from a very unexpected but highly knowledgable source, a science-based pressure group called SongBird Survival. And they say that for the past 15 years, the main killers have been the imported grey squirrel and (gasps of outrage from the suburbs) the domestic cat.

Bill Oddie: fusing the media
Who killed Cock Robin? Farmer Giles not guilty

Professor Roy Brown, of Birbeck College, London University, who undertook a research project on the problem, estimates that a massive 180 million songbirds are killed each year, either as eggs or nestlings by marauding grey squirrels or, as mature birds, by cats.

Now I have suspected this for years. My wife and I only ever had one cat, a traditional black and white moggie we bought one autumn when the house had been invaded by field mice, and he was a natural born killer. He murdered not only birds and mice but regularly dragged baby rabbits in through the cat flap. He was a character, that cat, but he had a blood lust that he took to the grave. We never replaced him.

Over the years, I have tried to get estimates about cat kills from the great conservation bodies - but without success. Even the admirable Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has been strangely quiet on the subject, perhaps worried that a criticism of a popular family pet might offend their tens of thousands of urban-based members.

If my memory serves me correctly (and I could be wrong) even the British Trust for Ornithology once told me that cat kills probably numbered between two and three million a year, a mere fraction of Prof. Brown's figure. Both maintained for years, and still do, that modern farming methods were the main culprit - despite the fact that the common house sparrow, which lives mainly in towns, has declined in numbers more than any other British bird.

Now there is not a lot we can do about cat numbers, except to hope that owners who look upon them as fluffy, cuddly, living dolls come to realise that they are in fact super killing machines. What's more, they kill by instinct and possibly for pleasure, because few domestic cats go hungry - ask any vet who has to treat their teeth rotted away by tinned food. With luck, such owners will keep their pets indoors more - or not keep them at all.

Thankfully, action is already underway against the grey squirrel, albeit a century too late: this pest was introduced from America in the 19th Century by landowners who, presumably, did not know it was a vicious carnivore, keen of raiding birds' nests, unlike its resident red cousin, a vegetarian.

After decades of dithering, politicians and civil servants have at long last set up a national scheme to protect our few remaining red squirrels which will encourage landowners and farmers to shoot greys. They will be doing our song birds a great favour at the same time, if Prof. Brown's startling figures are correct.

Why it took MAFF and its successors at Defra so long to get round to this bit of legislation is a mystery but here in the Yorkshire Dales were are lucky that we still have two surviving colonies of red squirrels which will now get the extra protection that they have so long deserved.

One is in Upper Wharfedale at the Kilnsey Trout Farm, where the owners have been breeding reds if captivity for years. Some have escaped to set up house in neighbouring woods. And in Wensleydale, the Yorkshire Dales National Park is offering grants to local farmers to protect a colony of reds by culling encroaching greys.

All this is a case of better late than never. But that goes for the blame game, too. At last, the people who actually created the habitats in which most of our wild birds breed, ie the farmers, have received a Not Guilty verdict in the Cock Robin murder trial. Perhaps someone owes them an apology!

Your views:

  • We usually enjoy reading your aricles and agree most of the time, but when were farmers ever accused of "mass murder" of birds?? This statement says they're accused of actually killing birds - when what you surely mean is that they are responsible for the decline of farmland birds because of the changes in farming practice over the years (not their fault, they were only following government instructions).

    If birds have enough food and nesting sites they'll survive - you know this, you're an intelligent man, but you have said some daft things in this article. Of course farmers don't kill birds and squirrels & cats do but the decline in numbers is due to both. I think you chose the wrong words - murdering birds and aiding their decline are NOT the same thing. Squirrels and cats kill in gardens mainly I would think, not farmers fields so why should farmers be thought to be responsible for that? Read what you've put again and surely you'll see what I mean.

    By the way, house sparrows have probably declined in towns due to lack of nest sites - you talk as if farmers were blamed for their decline too! It's tree sparrows that live in the countryside and can't find food any more because of farming practices. That can't be blamed on "townies" - it is down to farmers indirectly because really it's the government's fault.


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