The Angling Star 18.12.2000

I cant say how pleased I was last month when, on the eve of yet another cormorant survey (this time on a European basis), I read Billy Makins latest epistle on what I too consider to be the greatest threat to our fish stocks ever. Absolutely brilliant, even for a Lanky!

Cormorants have had a low profile for some time now and I had already begun to worry about this even before Bill went to print.

It looked to me as though yet another year would pass without comment. Another year for the birds to become more established at inland waters and another year during which the bureaucrats and bird watchers would argue that they are part of our environment and should be left alone.

If you don't believe that this is the end game, read on, for I have been looking closely at the cormorant situation recently and have come to the firm conclusions that an official conspiracy shrouds the issue. A conspiracy of silence and secrecy, where those with information are encouraged to be discrete, where information is deliberately withheld. Why? Because the problem is out of control, because it is becoming so big that to cure it would cause an outrage, and because the bureaucrats do not want anglers in particular, to appreciate the damage that is being done. So well done Bill, for raising the ante, you beat me to it. Now here are some of the facts which have shaped my thinking about these predators.

Four years ago cormorants were big news. There were articles in The times, the Daily Telegraph, the Sunday Telegraph to name a few, and there were programmes on TV. Anglers were up in arms and tempers were high, particularly in areas that were affected.

Four years ago the heat was taken out of the cormorant debate with the announcement of a multi-million pound study into their habits and their effects on fisheries and the like. I believe that even then the potential damage was recognised, but these investigations were nothing but a ploy to prolong the debate until the birds gained acceptance. And its almost worked.

The result of the £3 million exercise was four reports. They cost £140 to buy and were therefore not likely to be purchased by the local angler or club, and added little to what anglers knew all along, that cormorants eat fish and lots of them.

Having read almost every word of the above findings, I can honestly say that even if anglers had bought the reports they would have soon put them down. They were technical documents for technical readers and their authors, the DETR (Department of the Environment Transport and the Regions)and MAFF(Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food ) must have recognised this. So why then couldn't a few pounds of the £3 million have been spent preparing a summary booklet, at a reasonable price that everyone could afford and understand?

In four years , it seems we anglers are no further forward in resolving our problems and now there are more surveys. For, in addition to the European one, MAFF now have another £1 million to carry out investigations into fish refuges. The aim of this latter work is to advise fishery owners how they can spend more of their money constructing places where, when the cormorants do come, the fish can hide! Its true the grant was offered in April, but, as yet little work has been carried out! The worrying fact however is that this effort is only useful in the belief that cormorants are going to be around forever. If the problem was going to be solved, fish refuges would not be required would they?

Four years ago cormorants were a rarity in South Yorkshire. But in four years, things can change. In four years the birds have become established in ever increasing numbers, as they no doubt have in other areas, and plunder our fisheries at will.

The key to resolving the problem, of course lies in understanding it. Unfortunately, it can't be understood if information is not available, which leads me back to the conspiracy theory.

The RSPB preach that the birds are "simply exploiting new opportunities","that cormorants are an inland as well as coastal species". Such explanations from such an august body satisfy everyone but anglers, and are complete rubbish. I've fished for 35 years and have never seen a cormorant until recently. How about you?

The root cause of inland cormorant predation is more likely to do with a real hot potato that no one wants to take hold of, and that is the dwindling fish stocks at sea. I'm told that in the seventies, we took 350,000 thousand tonnes of cod from the north sea. This years quota is 34,000 tonnes. If that's the case, the sea birds who after all are the fishes greatest predator, after other fish that is, must also be going short. Each year there is mounting evidence that the fishery will calories, it happened in Newfoundland and it could happen here, (a fresh water fishery could easily collapse due to cormorants.) Fisheries either inland or at sea seem to be a difficult concept for governments to grasp.

But what about the exploitation argument? I have just returned from Sweden where anglers and naturalists reported that cormorants are appearing for the first time at lakes in the centre of their country. Now Sweden's 96,000 lakes have always held fish, since Adam was a lad, so why are cormorants only just appearing now? Could it be because they are just hungry?

My search for answers about cormorant predation has taught me a lot, and I am still learning. And what I have learned to date reinforces the view that the problem needs to be put back at the top of the agenda. So for what its worth, I'll blow away some of the myths that so called experts perpetuate, in the hope that everyone will have a better understanding of the serious situation facing us. But first let me ask you some of the questions I asked myself two years ago. How many of you would recognise a cormorant if it flew past? Be honest. How many have seen cormorants feeding, when they are really hungry? Even less I'm sure because if many anglers had seen them take a fishery apart day after day then the fuel tax issue, BSE, and Europe would be back page news.

I would recommend all anglers do both. Visit one of the many local nature reserves, Spotborough flash, Denaby Ings, Rother Valley Country Park, Thrybergh Reservoir, Old Moor Wetlands Centre are all close to where I live. You may know others and you are bound to see some at one of these places. When the whole of S. Yorks was flooded a good friend of mine counted hundreds at Old Moor. But what you wont see there, with the possible exception of Thrybergh and Worsborough, are cormorants feeding. They did once upon a time, but many of these reserves are now so devoid of fish stocks that the cormorants travel elsewhere to feed, returning only to rest up, and breed, in safety. And hence our problems.

Seeing birds really feeding in anger so to speak is not that easy. Under ideal conditions, cormorants take a hearty breakfast at dawn. Often as light breaks rather than after sunrise. My first experience saw 30 birds fly into a small fishery, in almost darkness, to feed. The whole process took 20 minutes, after which they were disturbed and left. It was a sobering experience I can tell you, to see such efficiency in action, and to see 60lbs of fish (worth £400) disappear so quickly. When anglers arrived it was all over except for a few dying fish in the margins.

I've seen the same thing happen after sunrise and watched 20 birds corral fish into the shallows before taking their fill. Every angler ought to watch the same occurance. Their blood would boil.

I had a similar experience at a local trout fishery, frequented by bird watchers, seeing 20 or so birds day after day, feed, and leave when it became busy, and yet the bird watchers records for the site said up to five birds /day.

When I first asked "experts" about feeding they told me that they fed only at day break. That's wrong, they do if they can, but also again later in the day, particularly if they are disturbed. Indeed I have reliable evidence that they will also feed during darkness on very clear nights.

I was also advised that the birds arrived in autumn, leaving again in spring. Perhaps so in the initial instance, but once, having plundered our trout roach and bream stocks with such ease it is only natural that they do not wish to return to the rigors of the sea. And so it is no longer true to say that the birds are winter visitors, they are here all year and their numbers are increasing. Already I hear the ornithologists questioning the numbers and suggesting populations are stabilizing. Now I wonder why that should be?

Accepting these facts gives a whole new dimension to the problem. Two cormorants for six months is bad enough. Two for twelve months is twice as bad, and takes no account of family responsibilities.

One question which everyone asks is "how much do cormorants eat?" This aspect of cormorant predation was established by the initial surveys, and is still being recorded on birds which are legally shot. The figure now seems to be accepted as approximately 2lbs / day / bird. Not much perhaps, but its £10 of fish at today's market prices! By extrapolation therefore it is easy to establish that each bird is costing someone somewhere, but not the RSPB or MAFF or the DTER, the grand total of £3650/year in food! A staggering thought isn't it? But it doesn't stop there for this is only part of the problem. In addition to eating £10 of fish per day, each cormorant also leaves a trail of death and destruction behind it. Again speaking from my own experience, I have seen fish jump out on to the banks to escape being eaten. I have seen fish dying in the margins, so traumatised by their murdering predators, that they died as a result of the experience. At one small pond visited by the birds, coots could be seen each day bringing dead fish from the bottom to eat. Its not simply what the birds eat that counts its also what they destroy by their activities. Some may remember a few years ago when the demise of the River Trent was headline news, that divers were reporting seeing dead fish all over the bottom of the river. Without signs of pollution their findings went unexplained and were dismissed.

The strange thing about all these points is that they have all been confirmed by experts afterwards, and yet those self same people make no effort to make such knowledge public. Why?

While numbers of cormorants feeding together are a daunting prospect a single bird may well go unnoticed. Unfortunately they learn quickly and flocks target waters where the feeding is good and they can feed in peace. So for the benefit of all of you who have no experience of cormorants I'll take you through a little scenario that happened to a pal of mine.

Imagine that out of the blue your own favourite water, two acres in size, becomes a target. Don't laugh. Believing it wont happen is a grave mistake. It will sometime. Just let me say that I can watch cormorants from my office window in a steelworks, almost every day. I've also seen them on any number of still waters in the area and they are regular visitors to the less inhabited parts of the Don, Rother, Dearne and S. Yorks. canal systems. And this is despite the valiant efforts oft few who try to discourage them. So what do you do?

A first port of call might be to the Environment Agency, after all your fishery is at risk and who has the statutory duty to "maintain improve and develop fisheries"?They do. Well you might as well phone your bank manager! The E.A. simply do not want to get involved. By their actions it appears their policy is one of adopting a low profile and keeping their head down. I will no doubt upset a lot of people by saying so but its true, and they know it is. It's scandalous. The question is why?

So what else can you do? Cormorants are a protected species and so the obvious answer is illegal. But MAFF is in a position to grant licenses that make the obvious answer quite legal, and so you contact them, but where? The number given by the Environment Agency, who were quick to point out that it wasn't their area of responsibility was the Lowestoft office. They explained that they only examined dead birds and they didn't issue licenses. They gave another number in Cambridge. Unfortunately they couldn't help because they weren't the local office and so it went on. I'll save everyone the time, effort and money and suggest that anglers in Yorkshire contact MAFF in Northallerton on 01609 773751, or by letter to, Government Buildings, Crosby RD Northallerton, DL6 1AD.

In return MAFF send you a form to fill in. In brief it asks you to demonstrate that you have suffered as a result of cormorant predation and that you have tried all the other appropriate methods to deter them without success. If you cannot answer both of these points in any details unlikely that your application will get far, and answering properly is not easy. You are in a chicken and egg situation. You weren't expecting a cormorant attack and so don't have any previous catch records to go by, but without them you can't demonstrate the problem. A good friend of mine failed for this very reason. He bought a fishery, found that cormorants were a problem, but couldn't prove it because the previous owner didn't keep records.

As for trying appropriate methods to deter cormorants what are these? There are any number, so why not go and buy £140 of reports and read up. For example you will need a gas gun (£300), pay someone to patrol the water to scare birds (£?) etc., etc. In short, more time and more expense. Another gentleman I know extremely well had his application turned down because he had omitted to "shoot to scare". Nowhere does it say you have to do this, but that was the decision. He wrote back seeking an avenue for appeal to be told there wasn't one! I would suggest caution too about lying, for the second stage, some weeks later, assuming the application gets that far, is for a site visit by someone from the FRCA ( Farming and Rural Conservation Agency ) on behalf of MAFF, to audit the claim. After the form and the visit, and again some weeks later, MAFF consult with the RSPB and English Nature to seek their views, before making a decision. I don't need to say more do I?

Assuming success,HA,HA, permission will be granted for a period say of five months. Not for a cull, but to shoot , perhaps one tenth of the reported number of birds that are causing the problem. What happens if the problem is with less than ten birds is anyone's guess.

Of course all this takes time, weeks certainly, months probably, and all the time your fish are being eaten. Bill did an excellent job with his statistics and so I'll not labour the issue. suffice to say that Two cormorants can destroy a two acre fishery in one year, four birds will destroy it in six months and 16 birds in just six weeks! Time is obviously not on your side and so MAFFs delay is intolerable. But in true English tradition a cormorant is innocent of eating fish until proven guilty!

If you are successful, you are lucky, all you need now is a gun and a license to shoot it. If like me you've never shot a gun before, you then begin the long process of getting one. First, a discussion with the police. They are horrified that you want a gun for no other reason than to shoot cormorants. Their aim is to limit guns if they can and not have every angling club wanting one. Who has put you up to that they ask? You tell them and the answer is unrepeatable, but because you say that you want to shoot clay pigeons, are of sound mind, and have never been in trouble, you get a license. Now more money has to be spent on cabinets, insurance the gun itself, and before using in anger, some training to show you how to use it safely. More time and more expense. By now you have spent a fortune in time, energy and equipment, and the chances are that it has all taken so long that all your stock has been eaten as well, leaving you with another bill for £5,500 for restocking! Unable to beat the system, with nowhere to fish and with no money, you seriously consider turning the gun on yourself.

There is however an alternative. You can forget all the bureaucratic, expensive, time wasting and take a different course of action, like erecting a sign which says " This fishery belongs to Billy Makin, enter at your peril!"I'm told that this is a most effective technique.

Now with a plan in hand, and assuming there is still time, you manage to scare the birds away from your waters and on to someone else's. Unfortunately your neighbour is no slouch either and within days he too has scared back to you. It's like a game of tennis.

Hopefully they begin visiting a river rather than your enclosed water. Unfortunately the poor anglers here have lost before they begin, because it's impossible to prove damage on a stretch of coarse river until the whole river is depleted.

Yet this is the situation that we are currently being legally offered and will have to accept unless we can do something about it.

The way the whole cormorant issue is being handled beggars belief, but until more people appreciate what's happening nothing will be done.

To begin with MAFF and its European cousins need to go back to the root cause of the problem, the fish stocks at sea, and put this right. In the interim there are some other important actions which need to be taken.

First and foremost we need the Environment Agency, to get off the fence and help fight our case.(Each adult anglers rod license costs £20 they must be made aware of our concerns), They know better than most the damage that is being caused and they understand what needs to be done to correct the problem.

Secondly, MAFF should make available simple guideline documentation advising riparian owners, clubs and individuals of the problems that can be faced from bird predation, with further guidelines regarding the methods which can be used to prevent damage and the effectiveness of these various methods.

Thirdly, MAFF should draw up rules on a national basis, not locally, for acceptance of a submission to shoot to kill, making perfectly clear what these rules are, and judging each application by them. In addition they should put in place a straightforward, quick and easy to implement mechanism for appeal.

Fourthly, MAFF should put a compensation scheme in place,whereby applicants, who can successfully demonstrate financial loss caused by bird predation, can be reimbursed.

And two final suggestions. Organisations such as the RSPB, English Nature and the local Wildlife Trusts on whose reserves the birds prosper, should be made to stock their waters with £3,650 worth of fish each year for each bird present.(Why should anglers subsidise their hobby, they do not subsidise ours.)

Anglers, clubs, commercial and riparian owners are going to need all the help they can get to maintain their fishing and their incomes. I'm doubtful that we can do it alone and so I suggest we take every opportunity to seek help else where.

In this respect I am sending a copy of this article to my local MP with a covering letter. Also I will ask Derek Law, who was a guest speaker at one of Jim's writers evenings, and who was offered to make a TV programme of something anglers felt strongly about for help. Derek, if your offer is still open your help would be greatly appreciated.

An up dated article and how to get a copy of the English Nature report.
A tragic tale about U.S. fishermen and the intransigent birdwatchers.
An insight into the size of the problem within Europe and figures for the huge population increase.
Some staggering statistics about appetite.
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