Fishermen take on the 'poaching' cormorants

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BIRD lovers and fishermen are entangled in a row over cormorants - large fish-eating birds which enjoy taking a fat trout when they get the chance, writes Oliver Gillie.

Over the last 10 years cormorants have increased in number and moved inland from their usual sea fishing grounds. Hundreds have settled on inland waters where they have reduced fish stocks, say fishermen.

They have been particularly attracted to the river Wharfe in Yorkshire, the Wye in Hereford and Worcester and the Eden in Cumbria. Fish farms have also attracted the bird. Last year frustrated anglers applied to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food for licences to shoot them in 53 areas. Another seven applications were made to shoot goosanders - saw-billed ducks which also prey on fish. But the ministry granted only 31 licences. However, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has objected to the licences and obtained permission from the High Court for a judicial review. It believes that other means of discouraging the birds should be tried first. It doubts whether cormorants and saw-billed ducks are reducing fish stocks as drastically as anglers think.

Robin Wynde, conservation officer with the society, said many of the fish they eat are species that anglers are not interested in. 'There are no proper case studies showing that cormorants or goosanders are causing serious damage to fish stocks. It needs to be demonstrated that shooting is the appropriate way of controlling them when there are alternative methods such as scaring them.'

But at Farmoor, near Oxford, cormorants are causing problems because of the thick deposit of guano they have left on water-quality monitoring towers in the centre of a reservoir. It is now so thick and slippery that it has become dangerous for staff to climb the towers to obtain access to the instruments.

Thames Water, which runs the reservoir, has tried frightening off the birds by firing blank cartridges and with electronic alarms, but has not been successful. It has now sought permission to use mild electric shocks to keep the cormorants off the tower.

The judicial review will begin some time after April and will probably take some months to complete its task. It not only has to consider the diet of cormorants but also to decide if the Ministry of Agriculture has itself complied with the law by issuing shooting licences.

(Photograph omitted)