Angling Trust jumps off the fence and tackles cormorant problem

Having had the coldest December for 100 years, it is blatantly obvious to anyone who has a stretch of water that has remained ice-free during the extreme tempera-tures that cormorants are going to have a huge impact on our rivers this winter.

The numbers on my local stretch of the Thames are up three-fold on the regular haunts that I visit and observe. That means three times as many dace, roach and chub as usual will be scoffed and three times as many skimmer bream killed in an attempt to be swallowed.

Numbers are not yet up to the 1993 figures, when I counted 76 roosting cormorants on one Thames island, but they are half that and I’m assuming that the remainder have found somewhere else to feed, such as the Jubilee River, which is a cormorant paradise, with lines of birds on every sill, overflow and powerline.

So, with that in mind, I am delighted that the Angling Trust has taken the step of writing a very balanced letter to Fisheries Minister Richard Benyon, not just detailing the damage they cause but also providing recommendations to reduce the numbers of cormorants.

There has been massive speculation as to why these birds are here, mostly based around declining numbers of prey fish in the sea. I believe that argument is flawed because it is simply not true.

My take on the matter, that the cormorants followed dwindling eel stocks upstream to find a land of plenty in freshwater, has far more factual evidence going for it and adding that to the dramatic improvement in air quality which has brought an increasing number of many avian species to our towns and cities, it provides a better case.

However, there is one thing that is rarely cited as a reason for cormorant multiplication, something that only came to my attention a few weeks ago.

Prior to 1975, cormorants were managed ¬ they were shot by gamekeepers and wildfowlers. It was only when the extremely misguided law was brought into force protecting the pygmy cormorant, trapping the two larger European varieties in its web at the same time, that we saw numbers increase dramatically, along with some nice, almost purpose-built hunting and roosting grounds for them in the form of enormous reservoirs.

When cormorants first started to make a significant impact many anglers were up in arms but the NFA seemed reluctant to act. It had already given line to the bird lobby in the case of swans and lead, so to come out all guns blazing (yes, please!) against the black plague could have been seen as hypocritical. Angling’s representatives on the Moran Committee, set up to study the problem, were no help either, stating that shooting them wasn’t going to be the answer. A five-year controlled trial might have been niceŠ Now the Angling Trust has laid its cards firmly, and face-up, on the table.

They are asking Mr Benyon to take action. His constituency, in Newbury, has fisheries that have been almost wiped out by cormorants ¬ although it isn’t that difficult to find some almost anywhere ¬ and, as an angler, one hopes he will have the cojones to stand up to the birders and put right what 25 years of inaction have made wrong.

The best bit for me is that not only have they asked for action, but actually recommended what should be done ¬ basically allowing fishery owners and managers to take whatever steps they think necessary to protect their investment and livelihood. Who knows, if this meets with approval it could form the basis of laws allowing waters important as fisheries to be protected from all predators and invasive species, even furry ones.

I am delighted that the Angling Trust is off the fence. We all know they don’t have the clout of numbers or finances behind them, finances that could be used to set up study groups on angling’s side, for a change, and prove the damage done. My opinion is the damage isn’t irreversible because nature is a bit like that. What is certain is that things won’t improve one iota left as they are.