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.
If you like what I write about, please consider showing your support by buying me a virtual coffee!
Click the button below! Thanks :)