* Natural England acknowledges Cormorant numbers are in decline but rejects plans for independent monitoring of culls
* In spite of warnings that licences might be facilitating illegal hunting....
Natural England has acknowledged a decline in the Cormorant population but has rejected our plan to monitor the culling of the birds.
This in spite of our warning that illegal hunting may be contributing to the downturn in the birds population.
The story so far....
Earlier in the summer I alerted Natural England to accounts of illegal shooting of Cormorants, being facilitated through misuse of their own lethal control licences.
I'd discovered that members of an online forum had been openly discussing anecdotal illegal use of the licences at inland fisheries and angling clubs across the country, where the birds are culled to protect fish stocks.
At that time Natural England seemed concerned by this, their Head of Wildlife Licensing going so far as asking my advice on how they could address the problem.
"I would be very keen to hear your views on how NE might access data intelligence to monitor cormorant licensing better," he told me, adding that, "Intelligence and information from members of the public etc is critical in helping NE with its compliance/enforcement activity. We often visit sites as a result of information we receive".
So, back in June I proposed a plan to overhaul the Cormorant licences, and I had an assurance from Natural England that it had their attention:
"We are considering how we might evaluate changes to cormorant licensing.... some early views which we will try and develop. Reform/change might take some time to do alongside our other licensing priorities.... but I want to reassure you this has our attention."
I remained optimistic over the summer, even through significant staff changes at Natural England, which saw two new faces heading the licensing department, but then last week I had a very disappointing update from them and an outright rejection of our proposals.
It was a disappointing and lacklustre response.
While acknowledging that Cormorant numbers are in decline, Natural England have now dismissed our call for better, independent monitoring of culls - in spite of the suggestions that their own licences are being used illegally.
"We do not know the reason for the decline"
Natural England recognise the dwindling numbers of Cormorants but said they 'don't know' the reason for the species decline in recent years.
They told me, "it is important to note that we do not know the reason for the recent decline", adding that "we will continue to monitor the situation and adjust licensing levels accordingly".
I believe the reasons for the Cormorant's decline might actually be very clear indeed.
Unmonitored shooting 'out of control'
The shooting of Cormorants in England is largely underregulated, unmonitored and apparently out of control.
Some of those hunters tasked with killing Cormorants under licences issued by Natural England might be doing so with scant regard for their legal obligations, perhaps killing many more of the birds than is legally permitted.
The plan I put forward to tackle this problem was based on suggestions from readers of my blog and supported by members of our campaign which now has nearly 400,000 signatures.
Our plan would have enabled the public to report potentially criminal misuse of licences and required police checks on those carrying out the culls.
This has been dismissed by Natural England.
They explained: "While we understand the public interest in licensed control of wildlife, advertising of specific dates and locations of shooting is unlikely to result in positive debate or understanding and is unlikely to be supported by the Police."
They didn't elaborate further except to say,
"on the suggestion that Natural England licences should be checked by the Police for suitability of those licensed to shoot, this is not a responsibility that the Police will be able to take on in addition to their issue of Firearms Certificates, determining the use permitted in each case".
"Trend shows an increase in birds"
In an attempt to justify their continuing policy of culling Cormorants, Natural England says "the 25-year trend shows an increase of 50%, and the 10-year trend shows a smaller increase of 23%"
But, however they try to dress it up, Cormorant numbers are now in decline.
With apparently little or no monitoring of the Cormorant culls and Natural England dismissing hopes for public and/or police involvement, the government agency gives the unfortunate impression that it puts the interests of anglers and fisheries above the wildlife it claims to protect.
An 'emotive' issue
In conclusion, Natural England told me, "We understand that the control of wild birds is an emotive issue, however as a regulator we must ensure we carry out our duties in accordance with the legislation and Defra policy which will result in licences being issued where the tests have been met."
Public have lost confidence in Natural England
But it's clear to me that Natural England has lost the confidence of the public and should not underestimate the power of public opinion.
I've now asked Natural England what, if any, monitoring they have (or intend to) put in place to combat this potentially illegal shooting of the birds.
They said they would get back to me and I'm awaiting their response.
Meanwhile our campaign to protect all wild birds continues, please sign and share the petition HERE.
* England and Northern Ireland entirely fail to engage over nature education plan for schools
* Wales and Scotland provide enthusiastic and thorough responses
* The devolved nations lead the way in environmental education - while England and NI remain apathetic and disinterested
Recently I wrote to the education ministers of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland asking them to put nature at the core of primary school education, starting with the re-introduction of nature tables to the classroom, something that was common until the early 1970s.
There was huge support for the idea from my readers.
Many of you agreed that educating children, from the youngest ages, to respect and appreciate nature is perhaps our best hope if we are to encourage biodiversity regeneration in the UK.
Alas, as you'll see, in England and Northern Ireland at least, it seems unlikely.
Those two governments failed to respond at all.
We have to look to the devolved nations of Scotland and Wales for direction and forward thinking. Both countries provided full and enthusiastic feedback to my suggestions.
Prompt and thorough response from two devolved nations
The Scottish and Welsh governments responded quickly and comprehensively, and pointed out a range of policies that they have established in order to provide their country's children with a positive view of nature and an involved interest with the environment throughout their schooling.
The response from Scotland
The Scottish Government Directorate for Education Reform told me:-
"While climate change, biodiversity and nature are currently covered under sciences, technologies and social studies within Curriculum for Excellence, we also encourage sustainability education to be investigated across the curriculum."
Eco-Schools in Scotland
The Scottish government also continues to fund the 'Eco-Schools' initiative, giving schools the chance to earn a Green Flag award which shows the schools commitment to 'Learning for Sustainability'. This is an international scheme, recognised in 74 countries around the world.
"But, we are not complacent", they told me, "we will continue to engage widely with children and young people and with education partners from early years through to higher education and lifelong learning, to ensure our young people gain the knowledge, skills and competencies required to help conserve nature in Scotland and internationally."
The response from Wales
The Welsh government is already very proactive too in educating the country's children about nature.
The STEM policy branch of the Education Directorate explained to me in great detail about the plan already in place for significant change, under the new Curriculum for Wales which commenced last September.
Within the framework of the curriculum, the government allows great flexibility for teachers to meet the specific needs of children depending on their individual circumstances. I feel this is a really excellent approach to education generally.
'Spiritual development and well-being' in Welsh schools
I particularly liked what they told me with regard to nature education; using carefully chosen and thoughtful words they said:-
"Experiencing the wonder of the natural world can contribute to learners’ spiritual development and well-being, and can help to cultivate in them a sense of place and sense of belonging, as embodied in the Welsh word 'cynefin'*"
Among the elements that focus on nature education, the Welsh government says:-
"The world around us is full of living things which depend on each other for survival. By recognising the diversity of living things and how they interact with their environment, learners can develop an understanding of how these have evolved over significant periods of time."
I think it is a particularly encouraging strategy from the Welsh government, it gives specific direction to educators who are then free to tailor the programme with great flexibility, allowing teachers with empathy and understanding to share their knowledge and enthusiasm with their pupils.
Empowering children in Wales to take action
But the Welsh government goes even further than this. They told me that:-
"through two programmes, 'eco schools' and 'size of Wales', the Welsh Government are able to go further than the classroom and actively engage with children and young people with policy development and taking action, listening to their views and creating opportunities for them to have their voices heard. These programmes empower children to learn about climate change and the importance of forests and nature and to drive change, improve their environmental awareness and take action."
Seems like Wales already has a brilliant system in place, one that other countries would do well to emulate.
I do still maintain that the simple inclusion of a nature table in the primary school classroom would bring huge and long term benefits for both the pupils and the natural world. Though Scotland has not committed to this directly, the Welsh government has implemented a framework within which this and much more can take place.
England and Northern Ireland - No Response
I did not receive so much as an acknowledgement from the education ministers of either England or Northern Ireland.
We know that the governments in Westminster and Stormont are in disarray - and it shows.
Nevertheless, their silence speaks volumes, it shows a shocking ignorance and suggests a lack of interest in expanding the horizons of young people.
The shambolic chaos and apathy at government level surely ripples through the schools system in both countries, to the detriment of children's' education.
Scotland and Wales lead the way forward
So, for those who live in Scotland and Wales, I think it is a time of hope for nature education. While neither country can boast a particularly impressive track record across the board for environmental protection, learning lessons and recognising the need to teach children about the natural world is key in the longer term, and both Scotland and Wales have each implemented a national curriculum that reflects this need. They understand the impact and influence a good education can have on the natural world and are actively encouraging teachers and children to share knowledge and enthusiasm for nature.
England and Northern Ireland? Well who knows, it's anybody's guess. I'd love to hear from them but for now it seems they have nothing to say - and quite possibly nothing to offer. Which is a scandal.
No wonder the UK as a whole has a deplorable environmental record, one that is worsening rapidly.
* Cynefin is a complex Welsh word that describes the relationship between one's natural environment and relationship to that environment.
Being of a certain age, I have found it terribly sad to see the destruction of nature in this country in my lifetime.
I've written often about growing up with nature all around me, and the delight and wonder I found in being a part of it all.
Many of the species I remember from my childhood are, alas, all but gone now, in the wake of human desecration of natural habitats.
There is a disconnection between people and nature that simply did not exist to the same extent fifty years ago.
I have written before about my early schooling and the way in which nature formed a core component of my primary school education, encouraged by a wonderful teacher whose lessons enriched and informed my whole life.
I know it was a similar story for many of my generation.
Now as I see first hand, almost daily, the wanton destruction of nature, I feel anguish and pain. It is truly heartbreaking.
These days, most people are aware of the importance of looking after nature and encouraging biodiversity, but few actually care enough to act.
That is a truth we must acknowledge.
No amount of messaging will influence those who are unmoved by the plight of the natural world.
So I have concluded that, if we are to really make a difference, we must look to the youngest generation and break the cycle of ignorance by instilling in them the same love and respect for the natural world that we were privileged to have all those years ago and which has clearly been lost along the way.
I have today written to the education ministers of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, asking them to share my vision of establishing nature as a core subject to be taught in primary schools, including a plan to bring back the widespread use of nature tables to classrooms, along with teachers who will enthusiastically share their knowledge.
This is what I wrote to them:-
As a writer and campaigner on environmental matters, I am writing to you with an idea that I hope will inspire your interest and engagement.
I'm sure you will agree that the state of our natural environment is at a critical point and that action to address the decline of nature is imperative if we are to repair the damage that has been done in recent years.
It is with great sadness that I have witnessed in my lifetime a terrible decline in biodiversity in this country and a tragic disconnection between people and nature.
While current efforts to encourage biodiversity are valuable, I believe that the single most important contribution to conserving nature would be to instill in the very youngest minds a love and respect for nature and the countryside.
After all, it will be the next generation and those that follow who will have the task of securing the future survival of our natural world.
And so it is so vital that today's children are taught to respect and appreciate nature from a very early age.
Growing up in the late 60s and early 70s, I was taught in school (from the age of three) about the importance of the natural world around me.
Knowledge was shared with enthusiasm by educators who had genuine empathy and passion for nature.
And because of this we grew up with a real respect for the natural world.
These early lessons inspired wonder and delight in our young minds that turned into a lifelong fascination and appreciation of the flora and fauna with which we share this world.
And this joy in discovering nature, if once again taught in schools, could be the single most valuable contribution to the future survival of our countryside and all the diverse species that still manage to survive in an increasingly hostile environment.
So, I would like to see the subject of nature at the core of teaching in every primary school across the UK. It is a vision that I feel could be realised quite easily and it would be a powerful contribution to a better future, with wide ranging long term benefits.
Initially I would like to see the reintroduction of nature tables in every primary school classroom. This idea has been mooted in recent years but I believe now is the time to act on it and bring back the nature table across the whole country.
Some schools, Montessori establishments for example, have always recognised that nature is central to children's education. I believe it is imperative for mainstream education to follow this lead.
I am contacting you along with other important decision makers across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to make this happen.
I have already had early discussions with the MS for North Wales, Carolyn Thomas, who has agreed that nature study should be at the core of early learning education across Wales.
This needs to come to fruition and also be introduced across the rest of the UK.
I sincerely hope I can count on your active support in influencing policy for this initiative, and I look forward to hearing from you.
I'll keep you posted about the responses I receive.....
* Update expected soon on Cormorant licence reform plan
* New head of licensing at Natural England ready to engage with our campaign
Hope you have all enjoyed a good summer!
As I write, the swallows are gathering ahead of their epic journey to Africa. migratory geese are arriving from distant lands, there's a chill in the air and we find ourselves suddenly in Autumn...
"Is not this a true autumn day? Just the still melancholy that I love—that makes life and nature harmonize." George Eliot
I know I've been silent for a little while but that doesn't mean I haven't been busy!
From trying to stop councils and landowners decimating hedgerows, to calling for nature education to be at the core of primary school teaching, I've been pushing for increased awareness of our environment on various fronts.
But, as many of you will know from your own experience, it often seems like a hopeless task - the vast majority of those who might have influence simply do not understand the importance of nature, or perhaps they do not want to understand because they are too heavily invested (often literally) in destroying it.
Anyway, on to birds and licensing.
And it's looking good.
New faces at Natural England
My helpful contact at Natural England (the then Head of Wildlife Licensing) left the post at the end of July and two people were subsequently appointed in his place.
I've made contact with these two people who are now responsible for wildlife licensing across England - and so far so good.
I've been told to expect an update on the plan I put forward to stop the reckless Cormorant culls, potentially saving thousands of these majestic birds from being shot.
As you may recall, Natural England told me in July that they were considering our suggestions to reform the Cormorant control licences and hinted that they might be introducing some of the ideas we discussed.
I'll bring you the latest on that as soon as I have it.
There may also be a meeting set up to explore reforms to the licensing system more generally.
Teaching nature as a core subject in schools
That's the extent of the update as far as licences go, but in other matters, I had some interesting correspondence with the member of the Welsh Senedd for North Wales, in which we discussed a range of matters relating to the state of the natural environment in the region. I shared with her my belief that education from an early age was key to a life-long appreciation of nature and probably the only long term hope we have to secure what precious little of the natural environment we have left.
She agreed and has vowed to press the Welsh government to introduce nature lessons as a core subject in primary schools across the country.
If this did happen it would be a huge step forward.
I believe it is essential to instill a love of nature in the next generation.
I remember being taught from a very early age, (as many of us were), to delight in the discovery of the natural world. It's still a constant and wonder-filled journey for me even fifty years on! And that's why I see it as vitally important to educate our young people as they are the ones who will ultimately be responsible for preserving the remnant of the natural world that survives.
This step would be for Wales only, but of course it would be of huge benefit if England, Scotland and Northern Ireland were to consider a similar scheme of putting nature at the core of children's education, and when I get time I will contact the relevant authorities in each region with the same proposal.
In the meantime, to sum up, there are hopeful signs of further co-operation with Natural England and their continuing engagement with our campaign.
We've made huge progress that has already saved the lives of countless wild birds, and there's lots to build on.
Let's keep going strong. For the birds.
Plan to end uncontrollable Cormorant culls "has our attention", promises Natural England
This week I had an email from Natural England's Head of Wildlife Licensing - with some really promising news.
You'll recall that last month I pooled all of our ideas aimed at ending the uncontrolled Cormorant culls, and I put forward a 5 point plan to Natural England suggesting reforms to the current broken system.
I'll quote from the message.
Just a quick update for you.
We’ve started some internal discussion on this and we are considering how we might evaluate changes to cormorant licensing. I’ve had some early views which we will try and develop. Reform/change might take some time to do alongside our other licensing priorities....
But I want to reassure you this has our attention."
Now, I know we all want change to happen quickly, I'm a 'get it done now' kind of chap, and it's frustrating to hear the words 'this might take some time', but nevertheless I am encouraged that Natural England is now actively seeking to change the current system. Believe me, it's real progress.
Significant change doesn't happen overnight, not in today's world of politics combined with environmental detachment.
Governments - and much of the public - have lost a vital connection to the natural world.
Often it seems morality and ethics are perceived as inconvenient.
And so, because of this, it's difficult to quickly alter perceptions and attitudes that don't have respect for nature at their core.
The bigger picture
Growing up, I was instilled with a love for the natural world, and nature was everywhere, from a biodiverse countryside to suburban gardens full of life.
I know that those of a certain vintage like myself will remember those days.
I was privileged to have a wonderful primary school teacher, Mrs Slater, who taught me very early on in my life to discover magic in nature and to find an infinitely bigger view of the world around me. It's been the most valuable and wonderful advice.
Now I'm in my 50's, and I see our countryside ravaged by industrial farming and clumsy development, and suburbia turned into a plastic nightmare.
But rather than giving up any last shred of hope (which would be so very easy to do), I try to see the bigger picture.
Although it is desperately frustrating, indeed heartbreaking, to see ongoing destruction of nature, including birds being lethally controlled as in the case of Cormorants, I cling on to the hope that our efforts today will secure the survival of wildlife in the years ahead.
It's that thing about 'people who plant trees under whose shade they will never sit'.
It's still the right thing to do, and the policy changes we are influencing now will benefit birds and other wildlife for future generations.
Empathy with nature
Empathy is what is required, and especially an empathy with nature.
I think that's where we come in.
You and I instinctively know that killing cormorants to protect fisheries is wrong.
That shooting gulls because they 'steal chips' is wrong.
That culling badgers is wrong.
You and I know that chopping down trees to build roads is wrong.
And that replacing grass with plastic is wrong (and absurd).
It's so obvious to us, but not, it seems, to the majority.
There's no cure for the selfish behaviour which is at the core of much environmental destruction, but respect for nature can be taught - as it was when I was growing up.
Education is key, and the best educators have empathy and understanding.
It's an uphill struggle trying to defend and protect the wildlife and environment that I knew in my youth; it is, to quote the playwright Tony Kushner, "a kind of painful progress. Longing for what we've left behind, and dreaming ahead".
But do let's dream ahead. Today's hope will make tomorrow a better day.
And we are making progress.
Yesterday's email from Natural England is good.
In fact it's really good.
It's a bit of light.
And it's so far removed from the long silences and dismissive responses I used to get from them when I started the campaign.
Please be assured that our campaign is working.
Together we have stopped local Starling culls, we have largely ended the supply of Black-headed Gull eggs to restaurants (at least for this year), and we have saved many urban gulls from being lethally 'controlled'.
Now I am hopeful we will see an end to Cormorant culling too.
But that's just the start, because I believe that we have also fundamentally changed the way Natural England approaches each and every licence application. This means that our wild birds are safer now than they were before.
We have gained the respect of Natural England, who now listen to our suggestions and actively engage with us.
Perhaps most of all, we have increased public awareness of the plight of our wild birds.
Because ultimately the future of our natural environment will depend not on governments but on wider public perception and enlightenment.
Education and empathy.
All of that is why our campaign continues.
On behalf of the birds, thank you.
* Radical overhaul of Cormorant cull licences is being considered by Natural England
* Proposals to scale back culling will be discussed
* Ongoing licensing reforms could be good news for the iconic species
A radical plan to save Cormorants from controversial mass culling is being considered by Natural England.
I put forward the plan following a request from Natural England in which they asked me, and readers of my blog, for suggestions on how to reform the lethal control licences.
The government agency has approved the annual culling of thousands of the iconic birds for many years, on behalf of inland fisheries and angling clubs, who complain about the birds eating fish.
I initially raised concerns with Natural England after I was contacted by a number of people who had been deeply shocked by the sheer number of Cormorants being killed each year.
(The statistics are now published annually in full, for public scrutiny, a direct result of pressure from our campaign).
In response Natural England told me they would be interested to hear both my suggestions, and those of my readers, about ways to improve the current system.
So, after great feedback from followers and supporters of my blog and campaign, I have put together a plan to overhaul the Cormorant licences.
I'll come to the details in a moment.
Anglers against "disgusting practice" of culling
Interestingly, I was also contacted by keen anglers who are strongly opposed to the culling of Cormorants in the name of their hobby.
One told me "I have been a keen angler since the 1950s and have never met anyone who would support the slaughter of any seabirds. This disgusting practice must be stopped, not licensed."
So if it's not the anglers themselves backing the Cormorant culls then who is it?
Presumably the owners of the fisheries who invest heavily in (over?)stocking their reservoirs, thus attracting Cormorants which, naturally enough, consume some fish - though only around 500g each per day.
For the owners of these fisheries, of course, maximising profits is everything - but the government too rakes in huge income from fishing licences....
Over 1 million (1,090,068) fishing licences were sold to anglers between 1 April 2020 and 31 March 2021, generating £24,583,342 in income.
Lots of vested interests then in keeping profits up and fisheries happy.
But is it at the expense of wild birds....?
Cormorants in noticeable decline?
There are lots of reasons why I'm worried about the majestic Cormorant.
Although not officially of conservation concern, it is my belief that the species' population in the UK is approaching a critical point. Many people have told me they hardly see any of the birds now, compared to just a few years ago when they were a much more common sight.
There appears to be a very noticeable decline.
Indeed, it's a trend that may be reflected across much of Europe too. According to the European Commission in 2020, "In the last years there have been signs that numbers are in decline in several of the core breeding areas."
The population stats are complicated by the fact that there are two different sub species of Cormorant living in Europe and the UK; we really need to be mindful of this, because it would seem the population status of each can differ dramatically and might perhaps lead to a misinterpretation and inaccurate overestimates of the actual population status.
With Natural England clearly willing to listen to our concerns, I have put forward a plan to save Cormorants from the culls.
'5 Point' Plan
Point one: is that ideally we want to see a complete end to mass culling of Cormorants.
It's that simple.
Killing a species because it impacts on a hobby or an industry's profits is not reasonable and cannot be justified on those grounds alone.
So point one, overriding all the other points, would be to stop issuing licences that enable the culling to continue.
That said, we live in the real world.... I might be an idealist at heart but when it comes to dealing with government, I know that idealism doesn't cut it.
So, with that in mind, I would begin with a major overhaul of the current approach to licensing. This would include tightening up eligibility requirements for applicants, making it more difficult to obtain a licence, and especially ensuring better monitoring of both the actions carried out and of the persons permitted to shoot the birds.
Which brings us to...
Point 2: Independent volunteer monitors should be present at each cull (if Natural England can't effectively monitor the licences then perhaps the public can...)
Point 3: Any individual who obtains a licence is required to post a notice in a public place stating their intention to shoot Cormorants on a given date, ahead of the day of culling.
(Note: I have already suggested to Natural England that there should be public notices on display ahead of any proposed bird culls, especially in public places such as parks, when in the name of 'public health and safety'.
There was much general support for this idea when I proposed it in response to the destruction of Mallard, Coot and Moorhen eggs, a couple of years ago.
People do want to be made aware of these activities, and have a voice in local decision making).
Point 4: Licence holders should upload date stamped photographic evidence of birds killed, within 24 hours of the action being taken.
This may not 'prove' the extent of the action taken but is another requirement that would encourage discipline.
Point 5: Currently, it seems that a minority of those shooting Cormorants may be lacking integrity and might even be acting illegally.
In the light of alleged incidences of inexperienced and/or irresponsible persons being employed to shoot the birds, Natural England should have a verified list of persons in different parts of the country whom they could task, where deemed necessary, to carry out any shooting permitted under the licences.
If a licence holder were to employ an individual directly, then Natural England should (of course) confirm that the stated individual has a valid gun licence - in this case all lethal control licences should be passed to the relevant authority, perhaps the police, for verification.
Once approved, no other persons can be subsequently added to the licence.
Any amendments would void the licence and prevent renewals.
(I would suggest too that fines should be imposed for proven misuse of the licence).
Proposals will be discussed and considered
Natural England have already responded positively to our initial proposals and have told me that the suggestions will be discussed.
"We’ve got a comprehensive programme of licensing reform ongoing at the moment so we could programme some changes in." they told me, adding that "given some of the changes proposed, we may need to consult and/or seek the views of stakeholders too (e.g. Angling Trust) so we might not be able to make these immediately which I am sure you will understand."
They told me that "the suggestions will be considered and we will update in due course."
Those are very promising words from Natural England.
Knowing that we have already influenced policy on similar licensing matters (the majority withdrawal of licences to collect gull eggs for human consumption, for example), I feel confident that we will see the implementation of new licensing regulations benefitting Cormorants too.
We must save these beautiful birds from a steep and potentially irreversible decline.
I would like to see the end of Cormorant culls and increased protection for this iconic species.
I think we might achieve it.
Special thanks to all those who contributed ideas, too many of you to mention by name - but each and every one very much appreciated.
In particular I would like to thank the many people who wrote constructive comments on my blog (HERE), on Change.org (HERE) and the good people who sent me direct messages too.
It's heartening to know that compassion and kindness are alive and well out there, along with a generous amount of common sense.
You will see that several of your comments and suggestions form part of the proposals I've put forward to Natural England, and everyone can be justifiably proud of a real team effort that will (hopefully) bring more protection for our wild birds.
Thank you for your support.
I'll be back in touch when I have heard again from Natural England.
* Licences issued to cull more than 11,000 Cormorants in past 5 years
* Suggestions that illegal culling may be taking place
* Many more birds may have been shot than licences allow
* Natural England: "we are reliant on honest declarations"
"None of the people I have ever encountered who had licences to shoot Cormorants could count..." (quote from online 'country sports' forum)
Natural England has admitted that their Cormorant culling licences rely on the honesty and integrity of applicants - but there are suggestions that some of those employed to shoot the birds might be killing many more than their legal limit.
A number of readers have asked me to look at the licences that Natural England approves annually, enabling the culling of Cormorants, so I did some research and discussed the matter with Natural England's head of wildlife licensing.
It's a worrying situation and I believe there are signs that the licences may have been misused.
I've discovered that some of the people entrusted with shooting Cormorants may be doing so unlawfully, outside of the strict stipulations of Natural England's licences, including an example of a licence holder who was officially permitted to kill 5 Cormorants but allegedly ended up culling 100 birds before they 'sank out of sight'.
Generally these licences are issued to angling clubs and inland fisheries who say that Cormorants pose a serious threat to their fish stocks.
At least 11,000 Cormorants were licensed to be culled during the past five years, in England alone.
I believe that this level of killing could adversely affect the sustainability of the Cormorant population (a mere 9,000 breeding pairs in the whole of the UK, swelled by around 40,000 winter migrants).
It's a thorny issue for the government though, as anglers provide a lucrative income stream for Defra, who sell fishing licences at up to £82 each. With an estimated 95,000 anglers in England alone, this amounts to significant revenue.
Most anglers are no doubt responsible hobbyists, many might even love Cormorants as much as the rest of us, but there remains an element for whom the birds are considered a 'pest'.
Lack of monitoring - and Natural England seem concerned....
But - it is the lack of monitoring around the licences that worries me most.
And, having discussed the matter with Natural England, I'm sensing that they might have their own concerns over the Cormorant culls.
Indications of licence abuse
On a public forum of one of the major 'country sports' websites with 48,000 users, there are open discussions about killing more than the maximum quota of Cormorants permitted under the licences.
There is no attempt to hide the fact that some members of the angling and/or shooting community hold these magnificent birds in contempt and would happily despatch as many as they could, given the chance.
Indeed there are reasons to believe that many more of the birds are indeed shot each year than the legally permitted number, potentially leaving the Cormorants vulnerable to unregulated hunting.
One contributor to the forum said, "None of the people I have ever encountered who had licences to shoot Cormorants could count..."
Another wrote glibly "I don't know any anglers who would give you grief for shooting a few extra 'black death'..."
And another, "if I were asked to carry out such work,I would go really early and shoot as many as I could..."
Worryingly, a novice Cormorant killer wrote and asked for advice on how best to shoot the birds. He or she had been added to a licence issued by Natural England, had no experience at all, yet was entrusted with killing these magnificent birds.
There's something very wrong here.
Cormorant culling cannot be adequately monitored.
And if we cannot trust those with licences to act responsibly then who knows how many birds are actually being shot?
The situation is alarming and needs urgent attention.
The questions I put to Natural England
So I asked Natural England to shed some light on what processes they have in place to monitor the system.
Though they are very willing to discuss the matter with me, I found their response somewhat unsettling, as they are clearly unable to monitor the large number of licences that they issue.
Indeed they have asked me and my readers for suggestions as to how they can improve the system for issuing and monitoring Cormorant cull licences.
Which I think illustrates that they themselves don't know how to adequately control it.
Natural England 'reliant on honest declarations'
Describing the application process, Natural England told me that they require applicants to declare any convictions for wildlife crimes by ticking a box and providing details, but they freely admit that they are "reliant on the honest declarations from licence applicants." They told me that they would be keen to hear from me, or my readers, if there is any different information we think they should capture as part of the application or renewal process and added "We could consider this as part of our reform/improvement work."
Natural England offer to discuss proposals
While I strongly emphasise that I remain entirely against any culling of Cormorants, I doubt that Natural England are anywhere near that point, and so I have suggested to them that the numbers of cormorants culled at least needs to be reduced significantly, as a matter of urgency.
With that in mind, I also indicated that Natural England needs to have a verified list of persons in different parts of the country who they could employ, where they deemed necessary, to carry out any shooting permitted by the licences, rather than allow the licence holders themselves the freedom to add people to the licence (perhaps enabling those with limited or no qualifications to carry out the culling).
I'm pleased to report that Natural England have told me that both of these points will be discussed with their improvements team.
I hope the changes will be implemented going forward.
Collaboration with Angling Trust
Natural England's Head of Wildlife Licensing Service told me "I concede NE [Natural England] is exposed to the honesty and integrity of applicants for the cormorant licence....we also collaborate with the Angling Trust to ensure that their members are aware of their duties and, in particular, non-lethal measures are used fully (even if they have a licence to shoot)."
He added "It is not possible for NE to be everywhere at every moment on every licence. That’s true of all our licensing work. Therefore, I would be very keen to hear your views on how NE might access data intelligence to monitor cormorant licensing better. Intelligence and information from members of the public etc is critical in helping NE with its compliance/enforcement activity."
Natural England reiterated that they would be happy to hear our recommendations for improvements to the system. If implemented, they said "we could do this in collaboration with the Angling Trust to aid their smooth introduction."
It's a generous offer from Natural England, although one that doesn't instill confidence in the current process as it stands.
In addition to the points I've put forward already, please let me have any ideas you have too and I will pass the information on for consideration.
As you know, our campaign has already been able to influence decision making at the highest level and will continue to do so.
It's disheartening to realise time and again that human mentality has not changed much since the days of killing Dodos, Great Auks and Passenger Pigeons. People may protest that 'it's not the same thing' - but it is, it really is.
So many animals gone forever.
Callous killing to satisfy the whims of humankind must be stopped, or we will surely lose more and more species.
And that is not okay.
Thanks, as always for your support and encouragement.
* Shocking 99% decline in Lesser Black-backed gulls at Suffolk coastal site
* The amber-listed gull is especially vulnerable to collision with offshore wind turbines
* Plans to further expand industrial wind projects in the area could prove disastrous for birds
A shocking 99% decline in the population of Lesser Black-backed gulls raises serious questions over the impact of industrial wind farm development in the North Sea.
Huge wind farms nearby....
The alarming reduction in the numbers of breeding birds at Suffolk's Orford Ness coastal reserve has been noticed over several years, and so is probably the result of many contributing factors - but we cannot ignore the fact that two vast areas of wind turbines lie just off the coast.
Massive industrial wind turbines have been operating in the vicinity since the Greater Gabbard wind farm was completed back in 2012, joined by the Galloper wind farm's array of 56 huge turbines in 2018.
With plans announced for even more industrial wind development in the area, the seas off the Suffolk coast could soon prove to be deadly for many species.
"Not clear" why numbers dropped so dramatically
The National Trust which manages the Orford Ness reserve told the East Anglian Daily Times that "In recent years we’ve seen [LBB Gull] numbers dwindle even further, which means we need to do more to protect them.”
They said that "it's not clear why numbers dropped so dramatically", pointing out that disturbance from visitors to the site is 'almost certainly' one cause.
Species especially vulnerable to turbine collisions
It has been well established that Lesser Black-backed gulls are especially vulnerable to collision with wind turbines. A 2019 study by the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) used GPS tracking to show that the species is particularly at risk from turbine blades during migration and in winter months.
Key data 'ignored' in some planning assessments
A recent study by the Zoological Society of London, focusing on wind farm development off the Welsh coast, pointed out the UK has some of the best seabird monitoring anywhere in the world, but lamented that "key data is being ignored during offshore windfarm planning assessments."
Project to protect remaining birds........ funded by wind farm
Now, as the local Orford Ness LBB gull population has dwindled to just 210 breeding pairs, a project has finally been initiated, aimed at protecting the remaining birds.
Two 'gull officers' have been appointed to monitor the site and 'raise awareness' among the local community in an attempt to limit human encroachment on the gulls' territory.
The cynical among us might feel uncomfortable that these 'gull officer' positions have been funded by.... the Galloper Offshore Wind Farm.
It seems a little ironic that the wind industry is financing the project, rather than the National Trust which manages the site.
Catastrophic threat to sea birds
Raising awareness of the gulls' decline is welcome, but I fear that the project is a drop in the ocean and will do little to protect the gulls from the obvious and potentially catastrophic threat lurking offshore.
With the frenzied expansion of the wind industry in Britain's seas, we must acknowledge that the tragic decline in seabirds might not be caused solely by local environmental effects - but also by direct impact, quite literally, from the huge wind turbines that continue to proliferate around our coasts.
A two year bird survey programme, carried out as part of Galloper Wind Farm's marine licence obligations, will conclude in June 2022 and report to the Government's Marine Management Organisation.
I don't know if the results of these surveys will be made public, but if so then it will be interesting to see how the wind farm has affected bird populations since its operations began.
Meanwhile we can only hope that the Orford Ness gull project will not only raise local awareness, but also highlight the real plight of birds being decimated at sea by the expanding presence of the offshore wind industry.
If you like what I write about, please consider showing your support by buying me a virtual coffee!
Click the button below! Thanks :)