Little Egrets have come a long way since I first twitched one at Walthamstow Reservoirs in 1972. Locally, the first breeding of Little Egrets in the Lee Valley occurred in 2006 when a pair reared 4 young amongst the Grey Herons at Walthamstow Reservoirs. The valley total for this year seems to be at least 26 pairs in three colonies, at Walthamstow, Amwell and Netherhall. All are tucked rather unobtrusively into Grey Heron colonies but at least 20 broods have been seen to fledge. Further afield, the UK breeding population is now getting close to 1,000 pairs at around 100 colonies. One of the largest colonies is at Northward Hill in north Kent where numbers grew to a peak of 124 breeding pairs in 2009, equalling and then exceeding the numbers of Grey Heron, before dropping to 114 in 2010 and then 94 pairs in 2011 as a result of two successive cold winters. So this mainly fish-eating bird is on the rise.
By contrast, breeding Cormorants peaked in the Lee Valley a few years back at a little under 400 pairs. Since then total numbers have dropped despite an increase in the number of colonies. This year the number of active nests in the Valley was around 250 and reflects a steady decline locally over recent years.
Which brings us neatly to the recent call by angling groups to add Cormorant to the general licence, thus easing the restrictions on killing. Now, I spent a lot of time ‘angling’, well electro-fishing to be accurate, and then I’m only the assistant, brought along to get wet and carry the boat. In attempting to create new wetlands, much time is and effort is spent enhancing the underwater ‘fish’ habitat. Fish populations reaching a critical threshold is one of the trigger points for getting birds such as the Bittern to breed. Many reserves support good fish populations and the key issue is habitat quality, notably underwater landform, structure and connectivity, the water quality and the diversity of aquatic vegetation. Cormorants have never been implicated as a problem on reserves except in an isolated case where an isolated pool was over-stocked to try and create a specific feeding area for birds. And there perhaps we hit the main issue. Not only do angling clubs frequently stock way above natural densities but they often tend to have sites with poor habitat quality. Redundant gravel pits for example, which even if earmarked as an angling lake, have little or no attention paid to the underwater habitat in the restoration process. So the recent outburst against Cormorants smells rather fishy. Rather than a serious attempt to address the real problems this looks like another attempt to solve a perceived issue with a gun.
Conservationists and anglers should be on the same side. Wouldn’t it be great to develop partnerships on some sites where we both work to improve fish stocks through good habitat management?