John Bailey: Coping with cormorants

Believe me, I hate to keep getting back to the troubled waters of predatorial control and, left to myself, I'd leave well alone. However, more trouble has broken out between the RSPB and the angling body in the shape of the Angling Trust.

The well-respected journalist, Simon Barnes, has recently written a remarkably inflammatory piece in the RSPB magazine, condemning anglers as narrow-minded, self-centred fools unable to see the environment in a wider context than catching fish alone. He labels the anglers' concern over cormorants as both idiotic and self-serving. In short, typical incendiary stuff and, as a member of the RSPB myself (and an ambassador for angling with the Angling Trust) I'm infuriated.

With a foot in both camps, I'm constantly outraged by the mindless uninformed codswallop we as anglers are subjected to on an almost weekly basis. I've said much of what I'm going to say now before. However, I do think it is important and my views are constantly refining and updating. Remember, I love fish, I love birds and I respect every element of the UK aquatic environment. I suspect, as an angler like you, I see all the issues involved more clearly than many people who do not fish, Mr Barnes included. If anglers like me and you didn't learn from our days on the waterside, they'd be totally wasted.

Right. Let's consider. In the summer, we have a population of around 18,000 cormorants, give or take. In the winter, because of migration, this number moves up to 35,000 or thereabouts. Cormorants, therefore, are particularly a winter problem. It's interesting to note that probably as many as 20,000 of our winter cormorants actually come from Denmark or Holland. This is important. We're not talking about our UK cormorants, but alien cormorants. It's also significant for us in East Anglia because, of course, from both countries our waters tend to be amongst the first ports of call as it were. Cormorants for us in East Anglia are a serious winter issue and make no mistake.

By common consent, an adult cormorant eats something like a pound of fish per day. So, let's say 20 cormorants are allowed to camp out on a stretch of river. They're probably eating 80 to 100 young roach every 24 hours. They are also targeting other species as well, of course, including eels that have already suffered a 95pc decline in recent years. We cannot delude ourselves. Cormorants in significant numbers visiting our waters for noticeable lengths of time can only have a very detrimental effect.

Unchecked, cormorants denude waters completely. The whole ecological structure simply collapses quickly afterwards. I can think of several lakes and pits which are now dank and overgrown. There are no grebes, herons or kingfishers. The gravels become choked because the fish are not keeping them clean so fly life deteriorates. We witness the departure of martins, swallows and swifts as a result. Anglers, birders, all of us are losing out here.

What to do? Well, over the last couple of years, I've been involved in a project along a stretch of the Wensum to try and keep the water here as cormorant-free as possible. This does not mean shooting cormorants. There are all sorts of possibilities. Human disturbance – that is me – is all-important. The prime feeding time for cormorants is a little after dawn and I've made it my business to visit just as often as I can around this time. It's tedious work, but it's well worth it, I feel. You will always have the odd cormorant or two, but what you are not doing is allowing them to settle in large, debilitating numbers for extended periods of time. This, I believe, is when the huge damage is done.

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This stretch of river is also benefiting from modern sensitive river management. There is far more weed, far more marginal growth and far more overhanging trees than you would have seen 20 years back. These fish refuges are a vital part in combating the cormorant. You've simply got to give fish somewhere to hide when the cormorants arrive. In the days of old, when our rivers were treated little better than concreted drains, all fish were easy targets.

The result of these efforts has been extraordinary, even within a couple of years or so. The roach and dace populations, in particular, seem to have increased markedly. There are far more better roach, too, than we have been seeing for the past 15 or 20 years. Of course, I have the Environment Agency to thank for the habitat and my own efforts which are directed at making me as irritating and as disruptive as possible to the cormorants at breakfast time.

Mr Barnes, I for one fail to see why we should lose our natural, wild fish and the fascinating creatures that depend upon them simply because of the rapaciousness of Dutch and Danish cormorants. I'm not advocating disturbing cormorants today and disturbing grebes or kingfishers tomorrow. The buck stops with the cormorants and until more of us take an active part in managing our fisheries with real vigour and belief, these black birds will continue to rule the roost.

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