Ministers in a flap over culling of ruddy ducks

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The Independent Online

Ministers were yesterday considering secret advice over the problem of Britain's ruddy duck population after an earlier report urged a large-scale extermination programme.

The proposed trial cull of the birds, which are threatening the rare Spanish white-headed duck, has been recommended by a government advisory group and would see hundreds of birds shot in the spring.

But confidential advice on the matter from English Nature, the Government's statutory advisory body on wildlife, has also been sent to the Department of the Environment .

John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, is still considering the next move despite reports that he had abandoned plans for the cull because of fears of a public outcry on the strength of English Nature's advice.

Ruddy ducks, a North American species which escaped into the countryside from captivity in the 1950s, have been flying to Andalusia, in Spain, and mating with the prized white-headed duck.

The hybrids are viewed by the Spanish and wildfowl protection groups as unwelcome interlopers and the ruddy duck is shot on sight in Spain.

Under pressure from the Spanish the Government in 1993 formed a ruddy duck working group, made up of voluntary conservation organisations such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and various civil service departments.

Research showed that it was necessary to control the British population of 3,500 birds if the white-headed ducks, which number just 19,000 worldwide, were to be saved.

Initial tests revealed that the most effective and cost- efficient way of tackling the problem was to shoot the birds, a proposition due to be tested in the West Midlands and Anglesey in the spring if the Government gives the go-ahead.

But a spokesman for the Department of Environment said that no decision had been taken and it would announce one "as soon as possible".

A spokesman for English Nature declined to disclose what advice they had given. "We have not had any decision from the Government as to whether any form of regional control trial will take place."