The history is confused, but one thing is certain whether they originally flew off the set at Shepperton Studios during the filming of The African Queen in 1951, were released by Jimi Hendrix on Carnaby Street or escaped from an aviary during the great storm in 1987 wild-living ring-necked parakeets are thriving in the mild climate of south-eastern England, and their numbers are on the rise. Estimates suggest that the UK’s non-native parakeet population is increasing by 30 per cent each year the population stands at 30,000 across London alone, and the RSPB anticipates that this will rise to nearly 50,000 in two years’ time. Public observations of 50 or more at one time lend weight to those figures, with one of the largest colonies having resided for many years in the leafy surroundings of the capital’s Richmond Park. In a large cawing flock, the birds make an impressive, if somewhat incongruous, sight for Sunday morning strollers.

Despite the fact that, to many city dwellers, these birds add a touch of exotic colour and noise to back gardens, there is concern that the unchecked and rapid growth of the population could have a seriously detrimental impact on several native species of bird as well as the UK’s agricultural industry. Through a complacent and resigned approach to the birds’ expansion, as with the grey squirrel population, could we be setting ourselves up for an insurmountable conservation issue of the future, with the birds usurping woodpeckers, nuthatches and starlings through competition for nest holes, as has been suggested by some concerned observers.

In its native range in West Africa and sub-Himalayan lowland India, the ring-necked parakeet is already considered a serious agricultural pest, yet, despite being an alien species, in the UK the ring-necked parakeet is protected under the terms of the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act. While it is possible to obtain a licence to control the birds, it is not an open general licence, meaning control can only occur where specific problems arise after authorisation has been granted by the consenting authority, Natural England. The RSPB, in its own policy document on the birds’ status, suggests that there is growing evidence of damage to a range of crop species, notably apples, pears, grapes and other top fruit commonly grown in southern England. At a time of heightened concern over food security, it seems that through unchecked expansion of the birds’ range and quick action, we may be sleepwalking our way into a problem.

The situation, however, is not being totally ignored. Eight weeks ago, DEFRA, together with the Scottish and Welsh Governments, launched The Invasive Non-Native Species Framework Strategy for Great Britain. The document outlined three visions for the control of non-native species: the first was to create a wider understanding of the risks non-native species pose, the second to create a shared responsibility across Government, key stakeholders, land managers and the general public for actions to reduce the threats posed by invasive non-native species. So far, so PC, but the final vision was to create a guiding framework for national, regional and local invasive non-native species mitigation, control or eradication initiatives helping to reduce the significant detrimental impact of invasive non-native species on sensitive and vulnerable habitats and species.

The key words are control and eradication. While parakeets can be controlled under special licence in instances where conservation concern or agricultural damage can be proven, widespread control is not an option open to the many land managers and shooters with an interest in protecting the UK’s native bird life and agriculture. Perhaps with an eye on the inevitability of a public outcry attached to a potential cull (ref badgers, grey squirrels, ruddy duck and so on), DEFRA is currently funding research at the Central Science Laboratory investigating the feasibility of using chemical sterilants to reduce populations of the birds. Realistically, a Government-sanctioned cull, whether through trapping or shooting, would invariably require the assistance of shooters. Are we likely to see a return to the sort of programmes that proved so effective in eradicating the coypu 20 years ago and which have also enabled management of mink populations? Don’t hold your breath.

In its framework strategy, DEFRA states categorically: control or eradication of an invasive species once it is established is often extremely difficult and costly, while prevention and early intervention have been shown to be more successful and cost-effective. In other words, Government senses that for many species it could already be too late and too expensive to have an impact. Considering that the RSPB’s approach in its policy on ring-necked parakeets insists scaring and exclusion tactics should be tried and shown to be ineffective before lethal measures can be considered as a last resort, there currently seems little chance of that organisation lending its support to any actual reduction in numbers until a genuinely severe detrimental impact on other species is widely established. Do we need to wait until then to act? Apparently so. “There is theoretical evidence that the ring-necked parakeet could be a conservation problem,” confirms the RSPB’s André Farrar, “but the hard evidence isn’t established that they are yet, so in that respect, we support the work that DEFRA is doing to research further into the issue and the birds’ potential impact. The parakeet is one of a small group of highly controversial non-native species where policies are going to be governed by practicalities both in terms of what can be done and also what is acceptable.”

Is management of a non-native species really governed by public acceptability? “It strikes me that DEFRA is missing the point here,” says Dr Mike Swan, at the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust. “If these birds are likely to be causing problems locally and there’s no worldwide concern over their status, then it would seem to be a practical measure to put them on the open general licence. Though they aren’t yet established in our patch [at the GWCT’s headquarters in Fordingbridge], I have heard of a number of examples of ring-necked parakeets competing aggressively with native birds especially on bird tables and at feeders and there have been instances of agricultural damage occurring. There are other non-native species that are flourishing in the UK, such as the Egyptian goose and the mandarin duck, that also cause similar problems it seems silly that people have to apply for a licence The fto control them, when they could easily go on an open licence.”

With the extent of their population growth and the resigned attitude towards their control, it seems that the ring-necked parakeet is here to stay. In a recent BBC news story, one commentator from Thames Ditton outlined the situation neatly when she said: “What we once thought of as exotic has become so commonplace it barely raises comment.” Their commonplace nature looks set to extend to all parts of the UK, and if the situation worsens in forthcoming years maybe Government will be forced to call on the assistance of the shooting community put it this way, the birds make for a fairly distinctive target.