My passion for wildlife was stimulated in my teenage years, mainly thanks to my Mum (a biology teacher) who made me look at the world differently and being inspired by writers such as Paul Colinvaux. This early interest developed into biological research in my 20s, when I did practical conservation work in places such as the Comores and Mongolia.
Today, any free time I have I spend pottering around the flatlands of East Anglia or escaping to our hut on the Northumberland coast looking for wildlife and castles with my wife and children.
I studied Biological Sciences at Oxford and Conservation at UCL, and worked at Wildlife and Countryside Link before spending five years as Conservation Director at Plantlife.
I joined the RSPB as Head of Government Affairs in 2004, became Head of Sustainable Development in 2006, before becoming Conservation Director in 2011.
Regular readers of this blog will know what the RSPB thinks about the Angling Trust’s calls to get cormorants and goosanders added to the general licence – I’ve blogged on this subject here and here.
I invite you now to read someone else’s view. In the latest issue of Birds magazine, Simon Barnes offers his own opinion on the controversy surrounding the much-maligned cormorant. You can read his article at the bottom of this post.
Simon is a writer on the environment and sport (you may know him as the Chief Sportswriter for The Times newspaper). He doesn’t pull any punches in this article, but why should he? Any decision to permit the killing of wild birds must be based on facts and evidence, not anecdote, perception and myth. To the best of my knowledge, none of the sports gripping the world’s attention at the London Olympics are calling for the unrestricted and unjustified destruction of part of our native wildlife.
I’ll return to this topic soon, as we are concerned that some facts – regarding the real causes of failing fish stocks – are being at best forgotten, at worst ignored. The Government’s Water White Paper identifies water industry discharges and agricultural diffuse pollution as the two biggest pressures on waters in England and Wales, while the impact of fish-eating birds is not even mentioned.
In the meantime, what do you think of Simon’s article?
It would be great to hear your views.
IT’S HARD TO DEALWITH HATE by Simon Barnes
No matter how calm and rational you are, you’ll never argue people out of hate. You can explain gently that the object of their hatred is not half as bad as they thought, but you won’t get anywhere. They don’t think they’re hating: they believe they’re fighting evil.
For some anglers, cormorants are evil. They are embodiments of greed and voracity and should be shot to bits at every opportunity. The idea of a cormorant sitting insolently on its tree with a belly-full of fish, drying its wings with a smug expression on its face, knowing that the angler is unable to do a thing about it – well, that makes the angler’s blood boil.
Especially if he is having a poor day. Under investigation It’s a visceral response from the guts of the hunter: a howl of anguish from a person who feels unjustly deprived of what should be his by right. And there is a cormorant: so big, so black, so gloriously ugly. Of course it’s the cormorant’s fault: you only have to look at the expression on its face.
That is what many fishing people feel, and it’s fair enough. The problem is that they want this howl of anguish to become the law of the land. They want the right to shoot cormorants any time they see one, any time they feel like it. The world, they believe, would be a better place without cormorants.
How can you oppose so deep-seated a feeling? Rationality doesn’t work, facts don’t convince, anger is not going to help. As I write, Defra is reviewing the position of cormorants in England. With any luck, by the time you read this, this won’t have made things worse for cormorants. As we stand, cormorants can be shot in certain circumstances. You can apply for a licence to do so, and it is considered on a case by case basis. Since 2004, it’s become much easier to get such a licence in England.
You no longer have to show that cormorants are causing serious damage: you just have to show they are there and therefore might cause serious damage. And up to 3,000 a year can be shot.
That’s not enough for the angling lobby. They are campaigning to have cormorants put on the general licence. That would mean that you could shoot them without reference to anybody, just as you can shoot magpies, crows and woodpigeons. This would be devastating: there are about a million woodpigeons in Great Britain; there are just 35,000 cormorants.
A number of bogus arguments have been put up to support the anti-cormorant lobby: arguments that make good headlines, but which lack a basis in those pesky things called facts. It has been claimed that cormorants are not native British birds: that they are vile interlopers like Canada geese and ring-necked parakeets.
That is simply wrong: cormorants are as much a part of British life as the robin in your back garden. Other arguments grossly exaggerate the amount of fish that cormorants take: in a year a cormorant eats the equivalent of a blue whale, or enough to feed a third world country for five years – I exaggerate, but so do they. Cormorants eat what they need to survive, and no more.
There is another suggestion that cormorants eat the fish that would otherwise be taken by kingfishers and grebes, and so they are depriving us of our ‘real’ British birds. It’s an argument that reminds me of the famous marginal note from a national newspaper editor: “interesting if true”. And it is not. There is no decline in kingfishers or grebes. It’s an idea that’s just been made up, plucked out of the air. It convinces people because one look at a cormorant tells you that they are capable of any enormity. Cormorants eat fish. That’s accepted.
In some cases, they cause problems to those who take part in the sport of angling. The RSPB doesn’t oppose shooting in such cases as a last resort. But it’s also a good idea to introduce such things as fish refuges, which give the fish somewhere to hide. Such practices are more sustainable than shooting a cormorant every time one comes along. But constructive moves don’t appease the hatred. Only destructive moves will do that. The perfect enemy Cormorants look like vultures. They look sinister. What they do for a living can compromise what some humans do for fun.
They are the perfect enemy: a bird that attracts little sympathy. I love them for the heraldic shape they make when they hang their wings out to dry, for their pterodactyl silhouette in flight, and because they are just so damn good at fishing. Precisely the reasons they are hated, but there you go. I’ve just given you some emotional reasons for having cormorants about the place. We must discard them at once. And the opposition needs to discard emotion as well. We have a serious clash here, and no amount of shouting will solve it. We bird-people must set aside love as we continue the argument, just as the anglers must set aside hate. And it is always a sad day when hate wins any argument.
Sooty - you did well to weave cats into a piece on cormorants!
An excellent article of Simon Barnes and, as Glossy Ibis says, "spot on". Hate so often stems from ignorance and prejudice. Better education especially in science and teaching people to think for themselves and not necessarily to accept the conventional thinking, will all help to lessen hate in long term. However these are not instant solutions and in the short term, ie now, hate, as you say, is hard to deal with. Courage and facing up to it "square on" is probably the only way.
One of the first articles I turn to when "Birds" drops through the letterbox is Simon Barnes'. Always perceptive, amusing, beautifully written and well researched, this one on cormorants and anglers is spot on and one of his best.
I agree with Simon. I didn't even realise there was such hate against cormorants until I read this article. It's too bad that some of these 'haters' can't find something more worthwhile to object to instead of an innocent bird.
Hi Martin,lots of problems with Cormorants that I think can be dealt with under the special license which I have no problem with as in this day and age almost everybody's hobby can cause some problem for wildlife and cormorants have definitely become a inland waterway bird in the last 30 years or so whereas before that they were never seen inland as I remember birders being really excited by seeing the first one 30 miles from coast.
I do not however wish them to be shot at by anyone at any time.
How can the government however identify water industry discharges and agricultural diffuse pollution as the two biggest pressures on water quality.
What a load of rubbish and a complete cop out it is quite obvious if anybody thinks about it and is honest that the biggest pollution is from the run off from roads,60 million peoples everyday life and all these aircraft flights which all gets in the waterways,wherever does the public and government think all this pollution from vehicles on the roads goes,do they think it goes in the drains and miraculously is clean water.
Just a cop out like the RSPB not blaming cats as it may rub cat owning RSPB subscribers paying future subs.