They're big, they're black, they're increasing - so shoot them?

Anglers say cormorants are damaging fish stocks and should be culled, but ornithologists want them protected. Martyn Kelly reports
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The trout fishing season started last week on many large reservoirs in southern England, with many anglers concerned that the fish stocks they have paid to conserve for their sport are being damaged by cormorants.

Last August, Henry Bailey and Bill Griffiths were acquitted by Leominster magistrates for a crime they both admitted committing. They had shot three cormorants they said were causing serious damage to fish stocks in the River Wye. Shooting the birds was not a crime in itself; they had a licence from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff). What incensed conservationists was that the licence stipulated that 28 days had to elapse between each shooting, whereas Bailey and Griffiths had killed all three birds within a fortnight. It was the first time the so-called "farmer's defence" - whereby an animal can be shot if it is causing a nuisance - had been extended to fisheries.

The problem has pitted anglers and ornithologists - two of the largest and most powerful countryside lobby groups - against each other. Robin Wynde, of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, puts the conservationists' case: "The cormorant is big, it's black, it's conspicuous, it's increasing. People think that because these birds eat fish and are increasing, they must be damaging fish stocks. That's not necessarily the case."

David Bird, a former president of the National Federation of Anglers, says, "We're looking at waters where the only change is the arrival of cormorants. There is no change in angling activity, no pollution, no degradation of water and so on. So I discount looking at non-existent other causes."

Recent research by Dr Mark Feltham, of John Moores University in Liverpool, showed that a cormorant can eat up to two pounds of fish per day. But, Dr Feltham point outs, not all of this will be species of interest to anglers. Moreover, artificially stocked still waters can act as aquatic "bird tables", attracting cormorants with easy pickings.

That the problems caused by cormorants - termed the "black plague" by the angling press - are increasing, both Wynde and Bird agree. The first recent records of cormorants breeding inland was 1981, when the Wildlife and Countryside Act became law. Previously, cormorants bred around the coast but not inland. However, Wynde explains, the cormorant is not a purely marine bird. "That perception is a result of the level of persecution to which they have been subjected inland and the availability of food and habitat." Suitable habitats were created as a by-product of other conservation schemes and the Wildlife and Countryside Act prevented indiscriminate shooting. The nine pairs nesting in Essex in 1981 increased to 19,000 by 1990.

To be issued with a licence to shoot birds, a fisheries manager must prove, to the satisfaction of the Government's agricultural advisory service, that cormorants are causing serious damage. The licence allows birds to be shot but as a means of scaring the colony rather than culling, and only when other means of scaring can be shown to have failed. Wynde and the RSPB say the system is too lenient and that fisheries managers can get a licence based on anecdotal evidence.

Bird rejects this. "Good observation is an important part of natural science. Why is it wrong in this case?" The problem, he says, is that hard evidence of serious damage can only be shown retrospectively, and meanwhile angling clubs and owners of fisheries will have suffered losses. "One of the reasons the RSPB says, 'No, you can't kill them', is they couldn't face their membership if they had to say, 'Right, there has to be a cull'."

The RSPB begs to differ. "We are not opposed to the principle of licensed control under certain circumstances," explains Wynde. "Control of cormorants should be of small numbers, to assist with scaring rather than to control population. Culling, in our terms, is population control and we don't believe that that is appropriate."

Both sides must now wait three years for the results of a pounds 1m research project funded by Maff. "If in that time angling clubs and commercial fisheries have gone out of business, who will reimburse them?" Bird asks. "It won't be the RSPB and it won't be the bloody government."