The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Viscount Ullswater): My Lords, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food already issues licences to kill or take fish-eating birds where there is proven evidence of serious damage to fisheries and where there is no other satisfactory solution. The Joint Nature Conservation Committee has advised that research is needed on the effectiveness of licensed controls on fish-eating bird populations, including cormorants, before long-term decisions affecting their protection can be considered. Appropriate research projects are in preparation.
Lord Stanley of Alderley: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer, but is he aware that I am not happy with it? It flies in the face of all practical experience to wait until a problem becomes totally uncontrollable before taking any action. Will the ministry consider selective culling of cormorants' nests?
Viscount Ullswater: My Lords, on present, largely circumstantial, evidence, there is no scientific or conservation case for embarking upon a cull of cormorants rather than issuing a licence to kill where there is serious damage. But the Government, as I indicated, intend to take a rigorous scientific approach to the problem of increased predation by those birds. Research will be carried out as quickly as possible to enable the Government to develop strategies for the benefit of fishing interests and to strike an appropriate balance between conservation and management duties.
Viscount Tenby: My Lords, if, like me, the Minister had seen cormorants on a fishing expedition floating on the tide past the Palace of Westminster within the past two weeks, would he not agree that the policy of protection because of rarity should be reassessed? Will he undertake to make such a reassessment as urgently as possible?
Viscount Ullswater: My Lords, I am delighted to think that there is something worth the cormorants' while that they should be floating down the Thames opposite the Palace. The number of birds in this country is not very great; there are about 19,000 spread along
Lord Kimball: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the action we should all like to see him take is a total exclusion zone inside the three-mile high watermark around Great Britain? It is now necessary to eradicate the three major inland breeding colonies which were established in Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire and Essex.
Viscount Ullswater: My Lords, I hear what my noble friend has to say, but the only evidence that the ministry is likely to take into account before issuing a licence is that serious damage is being done to fishing interests. Unless that can be proved --licences have been granted in the past year for the killing of these birds--no blanket operation can take place.
Lord Moran: My Lords, what have been the results on rivers such as the Tweed where licences to kill cormorants have been issued? In particular, is there evidence that in the case of such culls the serious damage for which the licences were issued has been alleviated?
Viscount Ullswater: My Lords, during 1993-94, 88 applications for licences were made of which 24 were granted. In the same period, 81 cormorants, out of a licensed potential maximum of 319 birds, were shot. I am afraid that I do not have evidence as to what has happened on the Tweed. If I can find out anything further I shall write to the noble Lord.
Lord Beaumont of Whitley: My Lords, is the Minister aware that of the 25 seabird species that breed regularly in this country, only four have smaller populations; that experience in Europe has shown that if we open the doors to serious destruction the population may decrease rapidly; and that in a couple of countries they became extinct at one time?
Viscount Ullswater: My Lords, that probably justifies the way the Government are approaching this matter. By issuing licences where serious damage to fisheries is taking place--the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has increased the number of licences it has been issuing over the past few years--it is taking care of the serious damage. On the other hand it is leaving the population undisturbed where it is not creating serious damage.
Lord Morris: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that in response to previous questions, he mentioned fisheries and fishing interests? Is he aware of the enormous distress and anxiety which those predators cause to amenity interests in ponds and lakes? Private interests as well as fishing interests need to be looked after.
Viscount Ullswater: My Lords, I understand that, but a balance must be drawn between those who wish to see the birds wiped off the face of the map--and herons, too, I am sure some will say--and the need to give them the protection required under the birds directive and the
Baroness Hilton of Eggardon: My Lords, I should declare an interest. I have a large pond full of fish. However, I am also enthusiastic about seeing cormorants not only floating down the river but flying over Westminster Bridge. In 1991 only four licences to kill cormorants were issued. Last year, the figure had risen exponentially to 24. Will the Government assure us that without the scientific research which they say they will conduct they will not succumb to the pressures of the fishing industry, fishermen and pond owners and increase the numbers by a further six times this year?
Viscount Ullswater: My Lords, the simple answer to that question is that cormorant numbers have risen slightly, as have the number of them wintering inland rather than on the coast. That may have something to do with their feeding habits out at sea. The number wintering inland on rivers, lakes and reservoirs has increased. That is the basis for increasing the number of licences; it is not merely a case of more licences being issued. The situation is changing. The cormorants have moved inland to other fishing grounds.
Baroness Nicol: My Lords, I welcome the Minister's reply with regard to this problem. Will the research to be undertaken look into the question of whether some of the fisheries are being depleted by water pollution or will it merely concentrate on the number of cormorants?
Viscount Ullswater: My Lords, the research must look at a wide variety of matters. We do not know enough about the underwater biology of the birds or the size, number and condition of the fish they catch. Until we have answers to some of those questions, we shall not know whether the issue of licences to cull on the basis that serious damage is being caused should be amended. Certainly, at present, there is no intention to put them on the Pest Schedule.
The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch): My Lords, there are now 24 cases under active investigation. Of those, 15 were reported by the Hetherington-Chalmers inquiry and investigations were started when the Metropolitan Police War Crimes Unit
Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, I thank my noble friend very much for the Answer that she has given, which shows that 16, if I heard her right, of the men who are now under investigation were under investigation already in 1988 and 1989 when the Hetherington-Chalmers investigations took place. Was it not as a result of that report that the War Crimes Act was introduced to have trials on the evidence on which it then stood?
In view of the fact that those investigations are still continuing and as we are told by the Government that no end may be predicted to them, will they keep an open mind as to whether some form of limitation on proceedings might be introduced?
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