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Bird-v-fish: how man has changed the balance

Friday 15 February 2008

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, a life-long angler and bird watcher, finds himself in a terrible tangle over how we should tackle the ever growing population of inland cormorants

THIS is the time of the year when cabin fever strikes. The trout fishing season is still a month away, I have a new rod ready to go, and more flies than the average midden. But in Wharfedale the other day, the “enemy” was already at work – and he doesn’t recognise the closed seasons of the angling calendar.

For once, I am not talking about an imported species like the mink or the signal crayfish, wreaking havoc in our waterways, but a local which – thanks to man’s greed – has lost its way: the fish-eating cormorant which has set up home miles away from the sea cliffs which were its natural breeding grounds for millennia.

There is a simple reason for this: with the North Sea almost fished out, the coast can no longer provide the fish necessary to support this glutton and the ravenous family it will be producing in the next few weeks (the avian breeding season starts on St Valentine’s Day, according to the experts).

But human greed in this particular case has been taken to obscene limits. With most white fish gone, Dutch and Danish trawlers which supply fishmeal factories took to coming into our coastal waters to dredge for sand eels, small but once populous creatures which were the basic food supply for coastal birds like the cormorant and the puffin – and as a result, the glorious, clown-like puffin has been wiped out in some coastal areas.

The evil looking cormorant, jet black apart from a white throat, was made of sterner stuff and began to fly inland looking for prey. And how they prospered: the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) says there were fewer than ten cormorant breeding colonies inland in England in 1981. And although there has been no accurate count, that figure had risen to between 250 and 600 by 2005. This has brought about a bitter row between bird lovers and anglers and, in particular, between massive charities like the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the trout and salmon fishing “industry.”

I don’t like to apply the word “industry” to solitary, open-air pastime like fly fishing but that is what it has become. In some rural areas, it is a major employer – there are more fish farms in Yorkshire than anywhere else in the country – and it provides an important source of income for ancillary businesses like tackle shops, pubs and B&Bs, particularly here in the Yorkshire Dales.

The problem is that cormorants have developed a huge appetite for game fish, probably because they tend to live in fairly shallow waters and are relatively easy to catch. Fish farms, which supply stock trout to angling clubs, are a virtual cornucopia – and at roughly £1 a pound at sale price, these birds swallow not-so-small fortunes.

One of the greatest pleasures of going fishing is to watch the wildlife around

North of the Border, Scotland’s most famous trout-fishing lake, Loch Leven, was once a hub for angling tourism employing hundreds of people. Now, that industry has virtually collapsed because the politically-correct members of the then Labour-run Scottish Parliament refused to allow the culling or hundreds of cormorants. Result: no fish equals no fishermen.

Here in England, no doubt watching the Loch Leven disaster, the environment department Defra has allowed limited culls of the cormorant colonies, despite howls of protest from some members of the RSPB. But so far, the long-term results of this limited experiment have not been gauged and the BTO is asking for more research.

All this leaves me in a personal quandary. One of the greatest pleasures of going fishing is to watch the wildlife around you, particularly the birdlife. On the other hand, the cormorant is a particularly ugly bird with most unpleasant habits: its colonies literally stink from all those fish droppings.

So what to do? Let the scientists come up with a proper management programme and mediate an acceptable compromise between the opposing interests. But we should stop one obscenity now. Those millions of sand eels taken by foreign trawlers are used to make fish meal ... for salmon farms. And that makes a total nonsense of wildlife management.

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