College work and computer problems have meant this blog has been a little neglected of late. Meanwhile conservation issues in the UK have been thrust into the spotlight as a result of the government’s (now-abandoned) proposal to sell-off the forestry estate. Charging belatedly into the debate seems a little pointless; needless to say I’m happy with the outcome. The groundswell of opposition to the plan is encouraging and hopefully not just a fleeting response, since I am sure there will be further challenges ahead.
Instead, a trip back home to Kent this week prompted me to think about another issue that raised its head in the media recently. In the little pile of newspaper clippings that invariably wait for me at home, little bits of nature-related news that mum and dad save, there was an opinion piece from The Times (28.1.11) addressing the controversial topic of predatory species control. I read it in disbelief and promptly swore (sorry Mum!) I found it frustrating to say the least.
The article, written by Nick Forde (a trustee of a charity called Songbird Survival) discusses the widely accepted issue of falling farmland bird populations, the reasons for it and a proposed solution to combat it. So far, so good.
But the solution put forward is a controversial one. Forde it turns out, believes that blaming songbird declines on the “official reasons” of habitat loss and modern farming methods is “misleading” and that despite “throwing £1 billion a year into conservation” (a horribly flippant comment) the results don’t add up. Instead it is the predatory actions (yes those natural predatory instincts such as the taking of eggs or live prey) of corvids (the family of birds that includes Carrion Crow, Magpie and Jackdaw) and raptors as well as some mammals (foxes, rats and grey squirrels) that should be addressed. In short, the article calls for new research to back up the belief of Songbird Survival that a cull of predatory birds is necessary to potentially save other birds.
It’s an interesting stance (and not a particularly new one) for a charity to take; especially one whose website claims is made up of “lovers of the countryside, ornithologists and conservationists”. So what is the basis for this drastic proposal?
Nick Forde argues that habitats are actually improving and that for the £500million that is reportedly paid to farmers every year “to provide a paradise for wildlife” we should be seeing better results (that’s not what agri-environment schemes are for at all). He also points out that the evidence for minimal effects of predation is limited to a handful of papers and these are largely out of date. Sparrowhawks get a particularly bad rap for reportedly killing 50million songbirds a year (domestic cats are apparently responsible for 100million deaths). So unless these factors are recognised by DEFRA, Forde believes the long-term decline of farmland birds will continue.
Unfortunately I can’t find a copy of the article online to share but I don’t believe there is any credible defence for a cull of predatory birds. It is natural to assume that by removing songbird predators, songbird populations will increase but it is the wrong way to look at it. I’d like to look at where some of his figures come from, I don’t think it’s quite so easy to say that habitat is improving without a MASSIVE, in-depth nationwide survey. There is no consideration of inter-species population dynamics or of the fact that species that have seen severe population declines would surely take decades to recover. Predator-prey relationships are often not as straightforward as might be thought, removing an apex predator (eg sparrow hawk, owl etc) from a food chain would be foolhardy indeed. It is not the purpose of the article but has consideration been given to how this cull will be implemented, managed and regulated? How can we be sure that other birds won’t be targeted in error: kestrels, rooks or ravens for example?
He is not always so wide of the mark; I would agree that comprehensive, well-planned research on songbird populations might be beneficial. But that’s as much as I can concede. As a riposte I would suggest reading this passionate 2009 article about magpies by Chris Packham. Or read what Mark Avery has to say about it.
As a hopeful, future land manager I have no problem with the idea of having to control predators. I would however require the reasoning behind it to be sound, sustainable and in nature’s best interests. This proposal, I think, is not.