Cats, Crows & Culling
This article appeared in the August 2011 edition of Birdwatch
I am flattered by the editor describing me as the UKs most controversial birding columnist… I am about to live up to his billing as I delight 25% of you and alienate the other 75%.
Three separate items inspire my ire… one a research paper showing juvenile mortality among certain US suburban bird species is almost wholly down to domestic cats; secondly that a certain organisation has been lambasting the RSPB for favouring corvids and raptors at the expense of songbirds and, lastly, that old mythical chestnut disinterred by a government minister that urban foxes are being rounded up and dumped in the country.
It’s hard, with this much steam coming out of my ears, to see where to begin.
Let’s start with Birds. Unlucky crows and magpies are going to be the subject of an ‘experimental’ cull somewhere in the UK because of their putative decimation of songbirds. I have two things to say on this (if you don’t count expletives).
Firstly, corvids and raptors, just like grey squirrels and cats, do eat songbirds, especially nestlings. Notwithstanding the fact that they should be in our ecosystem (greys and moggies shouldn’t) it is a matter of absolute fact that predators and prey left to themselves must inevitably reach equilibrium. We do not have to control them unless we want to build up local populations of under-threat prey species. That is to say there is a case for culling foxes and corvids that predate Little Tern eggs but no case for stopping Peregrines from eating Pigeons nor Hen Harriers from eating Grouse chicks!
This brings me to the second thing I have to say on that matter… who is behind the urge to cull raptors? Well, I refuse to believe it is lovers of songbirds no matter what is claimed. Surely such people would make sure they were better informed about predator-prey dynamics, and anyway, if they are true to the RSPB’s purpose they would want to protect ALL bird species. On the other hand, if they are grouse shooters or pigeon racers then I can see they would have an axe to grind!
Now to challenge the rural myth of fox relocation. This one has rattled around the polity for as many years as, say, there has been a ban on hunting with dogs.
I listened to a radio interview. On one side someone who made a rigorous academic study of the subject and the other a rural politician. The academic said, unequivocally, there was absolutely no substantiated evidence of rural re-location of city foxes and he had personally interviewed all UK organizations that rescue or otherwise detain rural foxes. It simply does not, and has not, happened – what’s the point when rural foxes have adapted to entirely different food sources and habits. The politician quoted ‘anecdotal’ evidence of foxes shot in the country revealing surgical implants or other signs of city living. The problem with anecdotal evidence is that it doesn’t bear close scrutiny.
It was at the point that the beleaguered politico said ‘people would soon think differently if foxes looked like rats’.
It turned out to be the only credible thing he uttered! Moreover, it brings me to my last volley – if cats looked like rats then strays and feral cats would be culled and the damage they do acknowledged. Just as some people call grey squirrel ‘tree rats’ in an attempt to persuade others that they must be controlled for the sake of our native reds and many predated fledglings.
If cats were bigger and more like ferocious dogs people would better understand the need to control them. Why is it not OK for someone to allow their pekes or pugs to jump my fence, trample my tulips and defecate among the daffodils but is OK for their other pet to leave cat scat on my patio and a trail of bloody feathers beneath my bird feeders? If every night my neighbours turfed their Alsatian out the back door to roam the neighbourhood they would rightly face prosecution so why are not cats subject to the same constraint.
Were I allowed just one piece of legislation it would be to amend the law to require all pet owners to electronically ‘chip’ all their pets and to ensure they are unable to roam off their property. Individuals should be responsible for their marauding pets, but we collectively suffer the annual loss of millions of birds, reptiles, amphibians and small mammals in their claws.