Conservation charity’s call for debate on predator control

The head of a conservation charity wants to provoke an 'open and honest' debate on the emotive issue of predator control in order to protect vulnerable species further down the food chain.

Robin Page, chairman of the Countryside Restoration Trust (CRT), said British wildlife was being killed and eaten at an 'alarming rate' by predators including foxes, mink and birds of prey.

But he said the potential solution of predator control was a taboo subject due to the 'Disneyfication' of wildlife, where creatures with a marketing appeal were promoted at the expense of species like the water vole or lapwing.

But his criticism has been dismissed by conservation bodies in East Anglia, who said the entire food chain needed to be protected to maintain the natural balance.

Mr Page said: 'With more wildlife reserves than ever before, Britain is still losing wildlife at an alarming rate. One of the reasons is the increasing population of predators – foxes, mink, grey squirrels, crows, magpies, and yes, some birds of prey.

'Part of the problem in trying to discuss the problem is the fact that in addition to the Disneyfication of wildlife, some conservation bodies seem to be putting marketing before conservation.

'They seem to think that legacies, membership renewals and the sale of Bambi-like calendars are more important than telling the truth about what is happening to the brown hare, the water vole, the lapwing, the snipe and many more vulnerable species. We want 2012 to be a time of honesty, openness and action'.

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Mr Page said he had received an 'astonishing' response to an article he had written for the trust's newsletter, in which he says those who advocate predator control can be unfairly labelled as 'bloodthirsty'.

The article points out that Natural England controls fox numbers at the National Nature Reserve at Holkham to preserve the population of nesting birds.

Natural England has been engaged in predator control at Holkham since 1990, when animals including foxes, carrion crows, stoats and rats were identified as potential culprits for the low breeding success of birds.

Subsequently, 'legal and humane control methods' have reduced predator numbers and boosted nesting productivity at the reserve, which last year saw the return of a breeding colony of spoonbills for the first time in 300 years.

Natural England also issues licences authorising landowners to kill or take certain wild birds, including crows and magpies, to conserve flora and fauna under the Wildlife and Countryside Act. Conditions include a requirement that the licence-holder must be satisfied that legal – including non-lethal – methods of resolving the problem are ineffective or impracticable.

Mr Page said some of the responses to his newsletter article from trust members also included 'serious and considered criticism of the RSPB, particularly on the subjects of magpies and sparrowhawks'.

Erica Howe, the RSPB's communications manager for eastern England, said: 'Some of the UK's songbird population are struggling as are some of our much-loved garden bird populations. The RSPB believes that this is in no way as a result of predation by birds of prey. The RSPB works to protect all wildlife, from bugs and insects to golden eagles.

'All form a vital part of the ecosystem in our environment. We need to focus on the real issues at the heart of this problem and that involves reversing the changes occurring in our countryside.

'The RSPB is working closely with farmers in the East to improve the fortunes of songbirds in our countryside to great effect. Farmers creating skylark plots and utilising agri-environment schemes will benefit both them and the environment, not just now, but for future generations too.'

The CRT is a farming and conservation charity based in Cambridgeshire. CRT trustee and wildlife photographer Chris Knights, who runs a farm at Narborough, near Swaffham, said: 'The situation is serious. There is no doubt about the fact that predator numbers are increasing and the potential damage to some species as a result is frightening. I have a fantastic number of stone curlews on my farm – one of the rarest birds in Britain. Without predator control they would vanish very quickly. We must take the threats seriously'.

Mr Knights described the feeding frenzy on his farm as 'blitzkrieg' at times, and said that on one occasion he found five dead stone curlews which he believed had been eaten by a bird of prey.

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