Anglers are urging the government to allow them free rein to shoot cormorants, in a bid to stop the birds eating fish they catch for sport.
The UK’s biggest angling organisation said it was encouraging members to kill more cormorants as a way to pressure the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) into raising an annual cap on the number that can be killed.
The call comes despite a failure to reach the quota of 3,000 cormorants anglers are permitted to shoot annually, in each of the past two years. In 2016-17, angling clubs and fisheries fell just short of the total, and last year the figure was as low as 2,400.
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“The Angling Trust is urging angling clubs and fisheries to submit more licence applications over the coming winter, to ensure that the maximum number of birds are controlled,” the organisation said in a statement.
“Government ministers have made it clear that they won’t consider raising the current 3,000 cap on the number of birds that can be shot until we can demonstrate that demand for licences is outstripping this figure.”
Despite cormorant numbers in the UK remaining steady over the past decade, the trust wants them placed on the general shooting licence alongside birds such as magpies and crows, which would mean no limit on the numbers that could be killed. It is “continuing to make the case” to civil servants at Defra, the statement added.
Mark Lloyd, chief executive of the Angling Trust, said the organisation was doing “all we can to protect fish and fishing from the rising numbers of cormorants and goosanders on our rivers and lakes”.
Despite “substantial political resistance”, he said the angling community needed to submit a “large quantity” of applications to kill cormorants and keep them at “sustainable levels”.
But animal rights activists branded the move “pure poppycock”, and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) said there was no proof killing was more effective than scaring cormorants, a species of large waterbird known for its ability to swim underwater for minutes at a time.
“Gunning down cormorants to ‘protect’ fish so that anglers can kill them [fish] instead – and often for fun, not food – is pure poppycock,” said Elisa Allen, director of Peta UK.
She added: “Anglers are already responsible for the debilitating injuries that millions of birds and other animals sustain after swallowing hooks or becoming entangled in fishing line, and this move just adds to their kill count.”
Gareth Cunningham, RSPB senior policy officer, told The Independent that instead of shooting birds, anglers must find ways to live alongside them.
“We do not believe the Angling Trust’s call to kill thousands of cormorants is justified. Evidence shows that poor water quality and temperature are the main factors affecting the number of fish,” he said.
“In fact, there is no proof that killing is more effective at reducing the presence of cormorants than simply scaring them.”
Mr Cunningham said an effective alternative to killing birds would be to provide underwater refuges for fish which, according to a Defra-led review in 2013, can reduce the number eaten by cormorants by up to two-thirds.
But Mark Owen, freshwater manager at the Angling Trust, hit back, citing research this year suggesting a correlation between increased cormorant numbers and a decline in fish stocks in Denmark.
Mr Owen insisted the birds do “significant damage” to fish stocks, with licence applications to shoot them requiring fisheries to provide proof fish numbers are being put under strain.
He said the cap on killing cormorants was not reached in the last two years because the Defra application form was little known and difficult to complete.
“The RSPB accepts the case for predator control when it suits them, and have shot or trapped over 1,000 crows over the last two years in order to protect curlews on their reserves,” he added. “Conservation principles apply as much to fish as they do to birds, and it’s hypocritical to suggest otherwise.”