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Facts about the

Great Cormorant

Scientific name: Phalacrocorax carbo

Bird Family: Cormorants and shags

UK conservation status: Green

At a glance

    • UK resident and winter visitor still recovering from very low numbers in the 1950-60s.
    • Formerly exclusively a coastal breeder in the UK, the first inland colony was established in Essex in 1981.
    • Natural England has issued licences to fishery owners to kill more than 11000 Cormorants in the past five years.

 

A large, mostly black waterbird, the Great Cormorant (or ‘cormorant) is one of 36 species of cormorants and shags worldwide. The majority, including all Northern Hemisphere species, have mainly dark plumage, but some Southern Hemisphere species are black and white and a few quite colourful. Many have areas of coloured skin on the face (especially the gular skin) which typically become more brightly coloured in the breeding season. Their feet are four-toed and webbed, a distinguishing feature among the Pelecaniformes the Order that cormorants belong to.

Cormorants are striking birds, often seen near water bodies standing on bare branches, posts or rocks with their wings held out to dry. The UK’s resident birds are joined in winter by large numbers of cormorants from Europe and while typically an estuarine species they are increasingly being seen inland at reservoirs, lakes and gravel pits.

That has not always been the case though. Historically, cormorant populations both here in the UK and in near-Europe have been kept at a low level due to persecution by fishing interests and through reduced breeding success (in the 1950-60s) as a result of pesticides  concentrated in the bodies of fish (the use of DDT severely reduced the Double-crested Cormorant in North America through the same mechanism).

 

Thankfully through the EU Birds Directive it became illegal in 1979 to disturb, capture, or kill cormorants, or destroy or rob their nests. Legal protection coupled with reduction of water pollution and a ban on many dangerous pesticides helped the cormorant population bounce back across Europe. While the cormorant population has decreased a little in Scotland, and northeast and southwest England, there has been a significant range expansion in England and regions bordering the Irish Sea.

Cormorants are increasingly nesting inland too. Almost exclusively a coastal breeder in the UK, the first inland tree-nesting colony became established in1981 at Abberton reservoir in Essex. Interestingly, this colony was later found to be birds of the continental sub-species P. c. sinensis, triggering a series of identification articles and debates that carry on to this day.

Sadly, though, some people just don’t like to see wildlife recovering. Echoing the calls to kill Buzzards by the shooting industry,  population increases have led to calls for licences to ‘cull’ cormorants by the fishing and aquaculture industries.

Recreational fishing (or angling) is a huge business. A 2021 report by the River Trust estimated that the UK’s water bodies “provide enjoyment for a million anglers with annual economic benefits in excess of £1.7 billion”. Much of that ‘economic benefit’ goes to fishery owners who regularly ask for (and get) licences from the government to kill birds like Great Cormorants (and ducks like Goosanders and Red-breasted Mergansers).

These birds are obligate piscivores – in other words, unlike us they eat fish and nothing else. For these species fishing is not a ‘sport’ but a means of survival. Well-stocked lakes and reservoirs will always attract them.

Despite that Natural England, the government’s adviser for the natural environment in England, has issued licences to fishery owners to kill more than 11000 cormorants in the past five years . NatureScot states on its website that “We can grant licences to permit the killing or taking of wild birds to prevent serious damage to fisheries” – the damage they’re talking about here is of course economic, not environmental.

The calls for ‘lethal control’ are not confined to the UK. In October 2022, the European Parliament voted on a report calling for an “EU cormorant management plan”.

Problems with fisheries are usually far more complex than just losing fish to cormorants. The INTERCAFE (Interdisciplinary Initiative to Reduce Pan-European Cormorant-Fisheries Conflicts) research project identified a whole range of reasons why fish production is in decline, including invasive species, climate change, impoverished water quality, pollution, or the increase of algae in waters (aka eutrophication). They clearly state that killing Cormorants won’t change anything – restoring the natural habitats of cormorants and fish, and sustainably managing wetlands will make far more of a difference.

 

 

 

Again echoing the shooting industry’s experience, killing predators of any sort – unless on a monumental scale and for the foreseeable future – simply doesn’t work. If a site has an abundance of fish whatever cormorants that are left in the area will continue to come back and migrants will continue to find them.

Being far too eager to reach for the gun – often with Natural England’s support – is the knee-jerk response to ‘wildlife conflicts’ which are almost always economic rather than ecological. We already live in one of the most nature-depleted countries on the planet. Allowing economic interests to dictate what species we see and in what abundance, simply should not happen – especially when demanded by those that make their money from exploiting animals in the first place.

How will we end the shooting industry?