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News for April 2001

Bird On! News
3rd April 2001

David Tomlinson

Foot and Mouth - the impact on conservation

A month ago the foot and mouth outbreak in Britain had only just been announced. It was confidently expected to peak by the end of the second week of March, and then start to decline. It has, of course, done no such thing, and the current projections suggest that there might be as many as 4,000 outbreaks before the disease is brought under control.

The strain of the disease affecting Britain (and now also neighbouring countries) is remarkably virulent and contagious, the virus apparently spreading on the wind. Many suggestions have been made as to how the disease can be brought under control, but fortunately the suggested wildlife culls have been dismissed as unworkable. It seems highly plausible that gulls, pigeons or starling, moving from one pasture to the next, are capable of carrying the disease, and there are suggestions that this how the disease was carried across from Essex to the Island of Sheppey in Kent. However, controlling bird movements is as impossible as trying to wipe out the birds themselves.

Whatever happens next, there's no doubt that the foot and mouth outbreak will have major repercussions on wildlife, and wildlife conservation, throughout Britain. One of the first nature reserves to be infected by the disease was Blue House Farm in Essex. Here the Essex Wildlife Trust was using grazing to make the pastures attractive to wintering brent geese - geese can only graze fields that have already been short-cropped by livestock. The destruction of the farm's sheep and cattle is a huge setback to the Trust's efforts to manage the habitat for the geese and other wildlife.

Elsewhere in Britain, the loss of livestock is certain to have equally wide-reaching affects. The appearance of much of upland Britain has been shaped by centuries of intensive livestock grazing, creating the wide-open spaces where curlew, dunlin, redshank, snipe, lapwing and golden plover all breed. Take away the grazing and the habitat will soon change, with scrub taking over. This may be a more natural habitat, but it is unlikely to be anywhere as rich in these nesting waders that make our uplands so special.

Apart from changes to the habitat, the other major knock-on affect of the disease will be in a considerable loss of income for all the major conservation bodies. Many wildlife trusts rely heavily on the income generated by their visitor centres, but no visitors means no income. The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, another charity that depends for much of its income on entrance fees to its reserves, will also be suffering heavily.

With virtually all our nature reserves closed, and access to the wider countryside severely limited, there are certain to be far fewer records of rare and unusual migrants this spring, as most will pass through unseen and unrecorded. Annual surveys carried out by the British Trust for Ornithology, including the Common Bird Census, the Waterways Breeding Bird Survey and the Constant Efforts Sites Scheme, will also come to a halt. Conservation depends on knowledge of bird populations: this year we are likely to learn next to nothing.

One-off surveys will also have to be cancelled or postponed. This year, the BTO Scotland was organising the first Peregrine Survey for 10 years, looking at past sites and new potential sites. Many other organisations were involved in this important survey, as we all as hundreds of field workers throughout Britain. It seems virtually certain that it have to be postponed until next year.


Slaughtering the migrants

From one unhappy subject to another. The killing of migrant birds in the Mediterranean region has long been a subject of concern, and there have been many campaigns, such as Stop the Massacre, to try and reduce or stop the annual slaughter. Quite how many birds are killed annually is unknown, but informed estimates put the figure at 20 million in Cyprus, 100-150 million in Italy, and 55 million in France. Even if these are gross over-estimates (which seems unlikely) the scale of the slaughter is vast.

What was once regarded as traditional hunting, and for many poor people an important source of protein, is no longer so. In Cyprus, for example, the much greater wealth and affluence enjoyed by most of the population compared with 30 years ago means that there is no longer any justification for killing migrant birds. However, the greater wealth of the shooters and trappers allows many of them to be able to afford four-wheel-drive cars, so they can drive to new hunting grounds in the mountains. While once the cost of cartridges restricted the number of shots fired, this is no longer the case, and the result is that the so-called hunters will fire at anything indiscriminately.

Modern technology also allows the trappers access to modern mist nets, as well as inexpensive tape players that can be used to lure birds into traps, onto lime-sticks or within range of waiting guns. While once the annual harvest of migrants was sustainable, it is no longer.

Quite what can be done to curtail the slaughter is a challenge to conservation. In the long-term, the answer is education. If Cypriot or Maltese children can be persuaded to become interested in birds as creatures of beauty, to watch and enjoy rather than kill and eat, then there is some hope.

In the short-term, enforcement of existing legislation is the answer, but it is one that the governments of most Mediterranean countries are curiously reluctant to become involved in. In the European Community, the Birds Directive gives widespread protection to almost all migratory birds, but countries like Italy and Greece have done little or nothing to implement it. There are, of course, many reasons for this. The hunters are a powerful political lobby that many politicians are afraid to offend, while in Italy the cartridge makers also have considerable political clout.

It has been suggested that if Cyprus is admitted to the EU, then it will be forced to act to control and curtail the activities of its many thousands of bird trappers and shooters. However, Cyprus already has comprehensive bird-protection laws that would be quite satisfactory if only they were enforced.

Further horrifying statistics and details about the slaughter of migratory birds can be found in the April issue of the monthly magazine Birdwatch (see www.birdwatch.co.uk). The magazine also gives a list of addresses of people to write to in a bid to try and curtail the killing. Ironically, here in Britain Parliament is busy debating banning foxhunting, a past-time in which Lord Burns in his recent enquiry found little or no cruelty, and in which the deaths of just a few thousand foxes are involved. If only some of the money raised to try and ban foxhunting could be diverted to stopping the massacre of the millions of migrants, then something worthwhile might be achieved.


More oil on troubled waters

It seems certain that for as long as we transport oil by sea, or extract oil from the seabed, major oil spills will take place. During recent months there have been some notoriously bad spills. The sinking of the Erika off the coast of Brittany in late December 1999 is known to have killed many thousands of seabirds. Some 61,000 oiled birds were picked up, but estimates for the number of birds destroyed by this disaster range from 100,00 to 300,000, far exceeding estimates for the numbers killed by the Torrey Canyon in 1967.

Arguably the worst incident last year was when fuel leaking from the Treasure off the west coast of South Africa last June threatened up to 40% of the world population of jackass penguins. Some 20,000 unoiled penguins were moved temporarily, while another 23,000 were treated for oiling.

In January this year, the tanker Jessica ran aground in the appropriately named Wreck Bay off Isla San Cristóbal in the Galápagos archipelago. Five globally threatened species of seabirds were at risk, and the islands came perilously close to losing many of its unique seabirds and marine life. At its height, the oil slick was estimated to cover an area the size of Los Angeles. Fortunately, a change of wind direction and sea conditions saw the slick drift north-eastwards, and disaster was averted.

The latest potential oil disaster is off the coast of Brazil, where the world's largest oil rig sank on March 20th. Here, BirdLife International is deeply concerned about the critically endangered spectacled petrel and the near-threatened Atlantic yellow-nosed albatross which both occur in the area. Britain's most numerous shearwater, the Manx, also winters in this area, and could be badly affected by any spill. The rig had 1.5 million litres, or 9,500 barrels, of crude oil on board when it sank.


Returning migrants

This month's bird report is inevitably a gloomy one, but if you want to be cheered up, look out for the returning migrants: April sees the return of the first of nearly all our summer visitors in Britain, with only spotted flycatchers, swifts and nightjars not arriving until May. It's not too late, either, to erect nest boxes. Many species will readily adopt boxes erected in April, while birds like house martins seldom start prospecting for next sites until well into May. Up to four pairs of house martins nest on my house every year, but I'm hoping to increase numbers by replacing a single artifical nest under the apex of my eaves with a double nest produced by specialist nest-box makers Schwegler. I will report in due course as to whether it is successful or not.

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