* 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.
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