* 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.
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