Monday, 18 February 2013



Maybe beautiful if painted by one of wildlife's leading artists.

Nearly 2lbs from the Avon and still alive.

It takes ten years for a prime roach like this to grow to 2lbs. It takes a cormorant two minutes to consume it. Roach are in big trouble because they are running out of time.

PREDATION is a provocative word these days, even if it is a fundamental part of any healthy ecosystem. Perhaps our sometimes hostile attitude stems back to ancient times when predators used to eat us!
The eyes might have it but it's the nose that finds the prey.
I’ve filmed more than enough predators that could have eaten me if I hadn’t been paying attention but I loved them because they create dramatic stories for TV audiences.

A male tiger - big enough!

Tigers still consider humans legitimate prey, though this large male was not killed for eating one of us. A competing male had moved into the territory where we were filming, killed this tiger then ‘our’ female, who died trying to defend her cubs from him. He eventually killed a local who was gathering wood in the forest.

Makes the heart miss a beat c. Stanley Breeden

A mountain lion or puma - one eat a fisherman just after I'd finished filming c. Laurie Campbell
Apart from tigers, mountain lions kill one or two of us most years, grizzly bears likewise. There are always polar bears that threaten adventurous travellers, crocs can be deadly and if we are to believe some TV programmes, even fish have a nibble once in a while. But these are the freak show exceptions. 
Even a dentist might flinch at this mouthful c. Carl Englander

The truth is that it’s a dog eat dog world out in the wild and there is always something eating something else. We all know that pike eat perch and perch eat roach and roach eat little critters and some of us were hostile when fish eating zander where introduced to the UK, even leading to culling ... and in the bad old days we were  even encouraged to kill pike, so in spite of our possible hostility, predators are a natural part of our everyday life by the water.

A gripping story c. Jonathan Scott

At risk of stating the bleeding obvious, predators need prey and prey need predators, otherwise there wouldn’t be enough food to go round. In most healthy ecosystems, it’s the prey that control the predators … for without prey, the predators would starve and die. 

One classic and familiar relationship is the lions and wildebeast in the Serengeti. 

Leap of faith c. Jonathan Scott

Without the lions and crocs reducing their numbers, the herds would soon run out of grass and conversely, if the wildebeast fail to complete their migration to Kenya, the lions die.

Quenching your thirst comes at a price c. Deeble and Stone

Tempers flare when food is scarce c. Jonathan Scott

Problems arise when the balance between predator and prey is lost and that is exactly what is now happening in our rivers and lakes. Predators have eaten so many fish that some species like roach are in serious decline and this becomes even more critical when the prey species are so low on wildlife enthusiasts radar that they don’t even notice. 

Avon roach at Britford.
Fish are the great ‘unseen’ in our countryside - literally out of sight, out of mind. It’s only anglers who are aware of them and care about them and so it’s up to us to do something when the predator/prey relationship goes wrong.

They sometimes look quite cute?!

Ringing recoveries show where the cormorants are coming from.
Most anglers are now aware of just how much damage the winter invasion of between 20 to 30,000 cormorants from the continent do to our fish life and if scientists are correct when they say that each cormorant requires about a pound of fish each day to just survive, [not to raise young], then that means that throughout the winter, 20,000lbs of fish are removed from our waters every day.  

That deadly hooked beak.
So in four months, cormorants eat more fish than the largest fish farm in Europe produces in a year! This is surely unsustainable and must be damaging our biodiversity and this is exactly what has happened.

As the British Trust for Ornithology graph shows, cormorant inland breeding numbers have also increased from nil in 1980 to 2096 pairs in 2005, so there is no escape from the plunder, even in summer.

All of the above are the ones that survived the attacks.
The Hampshire Avon was once famous for it’s thriving roach populations but two recent Environment Agency Surveys shows just how dramatic the decline has been since the increase in cormorant predation. 

Missing millions from the Hampshire Avon.
The graph indicates roach presence in yellow and highlights the almost complete absence of them from the middle reaches of the river, historically their stronghold. Not content to see the river die, a group of us passionate roach anglers, led by Trevor Harrop and Budgie Price of the Avon Roach Project wrote a petition ‘Biodiversity in Danger’, raised 16,000 signatures and with the Angling Trust now supporting us, delivered the petiton to the Minister, Richard Benyon.

As a result of this and pressure from the Angling Trust, a  government review into the cormorant problem has been carried out by DEFRA. We are hoping the minister will place the cormorant on the general license, thus enabling river keepers to protect their fisheries more easily when and if necessary. We are expecting a decision in the next few weeks.

Decline of roach catches on the Dorset Stour.

Some of the evidence of declines put forward to the review group is alarming. For instance, I compiled this summary of the dramatic fall off in catches at the once famous roach fishery on the Dorset Stour at Wimborne, based on ten years of match results.

Cormorant increases in Germany.

Recent scientific reports from Europe show the extremely rapid increase in cormorants there … and they will be heading our way sometime soon. Cormorants are a big problem in Europe but it’s not clear why they have reached these epidemic proportions.

If you add all the other threats to our rivers … abstraction, pollution, siltation, American signal crayfish eating the fish eggs, hydro schemes, loss of habitat and not least climate chaos leading to dramatic floods or drought, then fish life has never had it so bad … and don’t blame the Environment Agency. They are doing everything they can to help our fish populations and have achieved impressive results in our neck of the woods. Alas, recent cuts in funding is limiting their ambition.

Everything in nature is complex and I bet it isn't only the cormorants that are to blame for the declines. Apart from those problems listed above, there are chemicals from trout farms and cress beds and even more important I believe, the loss of the refuge and nursery areas provided by the derelict water meadow carrier systems. Then if you add us humans to the equation the solutions become almost impossible. Suggestions by the RSPB that we should leave tree cover or build fish refuges in rivers are sensible if such structures weren’t removed by Natural England to provide better habitat for wading birds or by the EA to alleviate the risk of flooding. We humans have done so much to destroy our wildlife that it is no longer an option to do nothing.

Article in recent issue of BBC Wildlife.

I recently contributed to an article in BBC Wildlife ‘Licence to Cull?’ about perceived ‘troublesome’ species like mink, wild boar, deer, ruddy duck, badgers, grey squirrels, corvids, even hedghogs and yes, cormorants.

Predator eats predator - perch for breakfast c. Steve Allen
During his research, James Fair, a very experienced senior editor wrote that ‘in any discussion of culling, it’s noticeable that birds tend to have more friends than mammals’. So were does that leave our fish – with no friends at all? Us anglers need to tell the world what is happening out there, to work with the Wildlife Trusts and the RSPB, to get them to listen to our cries of help. If most of the wildlife protection organisations weren't so ignorant about fish,  admitted that there is a problem and stopped being in denial then our task of finding solutions might just be possible.

Another perch bites the dust c. Brian Bevan
I suspect there is a hint of 'anti-angling' in some organisations and if so, then it's up to us to tell them all the good work we do for our rivers and lakes. Through our rod licences and voluntary help we put at least twenty five million pounds back into the environment and all wildlife benefits from our care and attention. Without us there will be even fewer fish and as a result, fish eating birds and mammals will suffer. 

More than a mouthful of pike for this great-crested grebe.

So rise to the challenge and involve yourself with your local wildlife trust like I have. It doesn't take long to tell them about how important fish life is to their treasured freshwater ecosystems and what us anglers are doing to help. We all need to work together on behalf of our wildlife and that includes fish.

Big bill.

What every one of us can do is join the Angling Trust and the Salmon and Trout Association so at least our combined voices can be heard in the corridors of power. It helped us to progress with the cormorant problem so lets hope the Minister comes up with a solution that allows our fish stocks to start making a recovery. We are up against a million RSPB members but there are more of us than them, so just join us and get your voice heard. Membership costs very little but the results can be impressive :

Nearly a Test two for Martin.  

Below is a film I made with the Avon Roach Project and Martin Salter for the Angling Trust, ‘Action on Cormorants - Protect Our Fish' :


  1. Very nicely put and argued, thank you!

  2. Such a well written piece Hugh. Many of the points you make are a good starting point for anyone having discussions with their local wildlife groups.

  3. Here in Holland, where most of your cormorants probably originally came from, we have had many more cormorants for a longer time. Fishermen here complain about these monsters cormorants that eat all the(ir) fish too. As a (former) angler and now a wildlife filmmaker with a fondness for fish just like you (but not that professional yet: I really admire your work) I tend to think differently about cormorants.

    In Holland we used to have almost nothing but coffee with cream coloured, unnatural waters (stocked) full of roach, bream and carp. Since the return of the cormorants, that have been killed for ages, things changed under water. Where we used to have lots of middle class fish, now we have smaller amounts of small fish and much more big adult fish. Also water clearness is becoming much more common everywhere. Which seems to proof we have much more natural numbers of fish here now. I think we like to believe our waters were very natural, but I guess we used our countryside as a big fish farm, complete with gigantic amounts of furtilizer in the form of air transported phosphates.

    As a fresh water snorkler I see plenty of roach in my home pool where cormorants are common. Even angling associations tend to see the solutions more and more in other things then culling cormorants. Here in Holland our waters are almost like swimming pools, with little water plants or sunken wood and branches. Cormorant indeed can catch every last fish here. Were this natural state of lots of under water wood etc is brought back though, roach and other fish species survive in healthy and natural numbers. I guess Britain is different in having more natural waters, but still, I really wonder if we should blame a wild animal again.

    Cormorants are native to Britain, and not only the coastal subspecies, but your 'new' inland cormorants too. Until pretty recently in Yellowstone they killed most cougars and wolves too to save their wild game species. Now they don't do this anymore they are surprised to see how more natural their park has become with natural numbers wolves and other big predators. Yes, there are fewer elk, but oh boy, the landscape and other speices bounced back to their pristine beginnings. If fishermen like to have as many fish as possible in 'their' rivers that is very understandable, but please do not sell this as pure nature conservancy..


  4. Amazing capture! I first noticed your "grebe vs pike" photo. So could the bird really gulp down that big pike entirely okay?? Does the unlucky fish put up a good fight, if eaten, does it get swallowed wriggling all the way down as well?!