John Bailey: United front needed to confront the cormorants

Don’'t overlook the damage cormorants can do to even big fish.

Don’'t overlook the damage cormorants can do to even big fish. - Credit: Archant

It doesn't matter if you're a sea angler, a river angler, a stillwater angler or a game angler, the cormorant threat to your fishing is real, evident and growing.

From now on, we'll be seeing more cormorants wreaking more damage to our East Anglian fisheries and we are, by and large, doing little if anything to minimise the threat. But there's hope.

Last year, the Angling Trust worked with DEFRA with a view to reducing the impact of predation by fish-eating birds in England. The result was the establishment of Fishery Management Advisors, three experts who are now touring the country taking to all angling clubs and riparian owners about cormorant control.

Their aim is to join neighbouring fisheries together and get them to apply for an Area Licence to combat the cormorant menace. At present, isolated fishery owners apply for individual licences to protect their own waters. This might work, but all it does is scare the birds elsewhere.

It's not a long-term solution, it's not even a partial solution. The Area Licence scheme, by contrast, if taken up, promises that cormorant control can be blanket, can be complete and the cormorants will have nowhere to hide.

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Of course, lethal control does come into the equation but, by working together, fisheries can employ all manner of non-lethal control measures.

Some of them are extraordinary. Have you heard of Scary Man? This is an inflatable orange monster that pops up every few minutes looking like an neon-clad shooter. He can flash lights, make noises and look Hulk-like horrendous. Green laser pens work. Falconers can have an impact. And, above all, by letting the aquatic habitat grow as wild as possible, fish refuges can be created and this will make life, once again, much harder for the cormorant to hunt.

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How can this possibly work? Well, I'm fishery director at the Kingfisher Lakes in Lyng. With the help of the Fishery Management Advisors, I should be talking to all the interested parties up and down the valley. How about getting on board Dereham Anglers, Norfolk Anglers Conservation Association, the Taverham Fishery and even Basil Todd? The Norfolk Flyfishers is already incredibly aware of the cormorant threat and works extremely conscientiously to protect its own lake and river. I'm sure they would come into an Area Licence scheme like DEFRA and the Angling Trust are proposing.

I'm sure you see where this is all leading. Instead of working in isolation and largely in the dark, by working together we can have far, far more impact. For example, we'll learn where there are more cormorant roosts to target with Scary Man. There's even something called a Quadcopter, a little remote controlled helicopter that cormorants abhor. They're expensive, but by clubbing together we can really keep the birds moving on.

We don't have all the time in the world. Not only will cormorant predation start in earnest as the cold sets in, this is a scheme, too, that has a finite life. If a number of Area Licences are not granted, by April 2015 DEFRA will conclude that anglers are apathetic or that the cormorants pose no real problem after all.

The Angling Trust has manoeuvred a massive window of opportunity for us anglers with this scheme. We've got to get behind the Trust, the FMAs and push our clubs into applying for Area Licences. If we don't and if there are no more river roach in years to come, then we've got no-one to blame but ourselves.

Finally, as a birder and as a long-term member, I have to ask why the RSPB is so staunch in its defence of rising cormorant numbers. I've never been in a hide and heard oohs and ahs of admiration when a cormorant comes by. And just the other day, I went to a North Norfolk lake which has had its fish stocks completely annihilated by cormorant attention over the last 10 years.

I used to love taking my binoculars there to watch herons, kingfishers and grebes. Now there are a few ducks and a pair of swans. I'd say this to the RSPB: by your blind support of the cormorant, you're actually helping eradicate the fish-eating birds that we actually do love to see.

Everything with feathers has to be cherished and because of cormorants, I'd have stood more chance of seeing kingfishers in King Tut's Tomb than on that North Norfolk lake of mine.

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