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The case against cormorants

Laurence Catlow questions why cormorants are allowed to thrive while trout numbers dwindle up and down the UK's waterways


The UK's cormorant population has increased significantly since the 1980s, threatening our trout

I remember telling you last month of how I returned from a fishing trip to Shropshire persuaded by the deep delight of my time there that life was really worth living; it was, I should have added, a priceless gift. I also told you that I was about to head off to East Yorkshire and one of its wonderful chalkstreams, hoping to return in a similarly bright state of mind. God be thanked this is how it turned out. (Read Laurence’s story of his battle with depression.)

The little stream I am fortunate to fish is beautiful; I was staying with old friends, and throughout the four days of my stay the weather was kind, with a breeze blowing obligingly upstream and with the sun looking down between white clouds on the bright water. Add to this that I caught a trout or two and you will agree that, given such blessings, it was impossible for me to get back home on a sunny evening and sit down with a cool glass of fino without at the same time repeatedly telling myself between grateful sips that it was indisputably marvellous to be alive.

Laurence Catlow trout fishing

This is precisely what I did tell myself, but I told myself something else as well: namely that life would be even more of a privilege and a joy if only Natural England could be persuaded to see at least the beginnings of some sense.

I wonder if you have already worked out that I am thinking of cormorants. Recent years have brought hundreds of wintering cormorants to my little chalkstream, where their hungry beaks have taken a heavy toll on the trout that live there. Yes, they have left a few for us fishers but there are many, many fewer than there were before they arrived.

You cannot really blame cormorants for doing what cormorants do, any more than you can blame crows for being crows, but you can and surely should blame Natural England for refusing to treat cormorants like crows and add them to the general licence. The Anglers’ Trust have been begging them to do just this for years but all their appeals, supported by evidence that I should have thought impossible to deny, have fallen on deaf ears, or rather on ears that are determined not to listen.

Even without the intervention of cormorants, trout are struggling in many of our fisheries, struggling from the effects of climate change and from multiple sources of pollution. I know of waters once teeming with trout where they live no longer or lead sad and lonely lives. Cormorants are in no such trouble. Our breeding population is growing, as too is that of wintering birds from the Continent.

Fish stocks are threatened, cormorants are thriving. Common sense, you might have thought, would suggest taking effective action to protect the threatened victims from the thriving predators. But, in their peculiar and largely incomprehensible version of wisdom, Natural England issues licences only reluctantly, at the same time so limiting the number of birds to be culled that it can have at most a negligible impact on the damage being done.

But you will be relieved to hear that, in spite of all this, I am refusing to surrender to dejection or despair.

I am insisting to myself that there are still trout in some of our rivers, I am remembering that the prospects for grouse look generally promising, reminding myself how pleased my dogs were to see me on my return from Yorkshire and concluding that life is most definitely a precious gift.

The ex-layers all appear to be doing well at High Park, with plenty of birds holding around the pens

Encouraging signs

Another reason to be cheerful is that my ex-layers seem to be doing well. In defiance of clipped wings, the birds in the bottom pen somehow released themselves earlier than intended. They seem – surprisingly – to have found their way to freedom through the funnels of the pop-holes, which are meant to allow birds back into the pen but to hinder their departure. The occupants of the smaller pen showed no similar enterprise, but I let them out after a fortnight when evidence of pecking, though not particularly serious, convinced me that they needed more space.

An encouraging sign is that, more than a month after their arrival, plenty of birds seem to be holding round both pens, where the hoppers are being well used. When I am not away fishing, which would you believe is most of the time, I wander round every morning with a small bucket of wheat and I often see birds sneaking out to peck up some of the scattered grains or retreating into cover ahead of my approach. They have been wormed. I have put out water here and there so that, in the event of prolonged dry weather (which now looks very unlikely), they will have everything they need. They are undoubtedly pampered ex-layers and I am expecting them to show their gratitude by staying put at High Park and flying high over the Guns when the time for shooting comes round.

red squirrel

Laurence has seen a few red squirrels at his hoppers, but he’s happy to share the wheat with them

This daily round with the bucket is something else that encourages me to look on the bright side. It is so peaceful and therapeutic. In high summer there is less noise from the birds, although chiffchaffs keep reminding me that they are still around, but most of the birds still singing seem to make softer and shorter music than in the spring. Two or three times I have disturbed red squirrels hanging from hoppers and stuffing themselves with expensive wheat. If they had been greys I should have resented the theft and gone straight to the shed to get out some traps, but the reds are welcome to help themselves to a small portion of my grain.

Anyway, the pleasures of wandering round High Park in the morning are manifold and they all stem from being abroad in a beautiful place with at least a pretence of a useful purpose. Another recommendation of this activity is that, as long as low cloud and mist are clear of the surrounding fells, I can lift my eyes to the hills where, just three days after this article appears, I shall be working my dogs and waving my flag and, unless it is raining bucketfuls and blowing a gale, telling myself all over again that God is somewhere up there above me in his heaven and that, however much is wrong with this old world of ours, quite a lot is right with it as well. I hope you agree.