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Monday, 7 December 2009

Championing the cause of the RUDDY DUCK - my thoughts and feelings on the cull







Tom Gullick was instrumental in saving the White-headed Duck. He helped bring over the eggs from Pakistan to augment the failing (down to the last 22-23 birds) population in Iberia not long after he relocated to that country from Britain. The reason that the population became so endangered was because of shooting by the Spanish (WHD are easy targets, just like Ruddy Ducks, as they refuse to fly far in daylight) and degradation of prime habitat. The EU provided Spain with large amounts of funding to improve the habitat and place an embargo on the shooting of this species - and to pay shooters to kill off any stray Ruddy Ducks that may have got there (the first arrived in 1982).
Whilst negotiating with the Spanish government over troop supplies for the Iraq War, high ranking British officials signed up to one of the policy agreements tendering the destruction and eradication of the Ruddy Duck in Britain (funded likewise by the EU) after it was established that the majority of Spanish Ruddy Ducks had originally descended from escaped birds at Slimbridge WWT. The Spanish did supply troops for the campaign but withdrew them later after the Madrid bombings.

The average European Ruddy Duck survives for about 13 years and is highly migratory, dispersing in spring to breeding sites well north of its breeding sites. In its peak, the British population was just over 8,000 birds, but with virtually eight years of killing, now numbers just over 1,500. Iberian White-headed Ducks are also highly migratory, with many moving south to winter in Morocco, but have recovered from a low of 22 in 1977 to perhaps an all-time high of nearly 5,000 birds after being saved from the brink in 1981.

DEFRA organised its culls through the Central Science Laboratory (CSL) and trialled them in 1999-2002, soon finding out that they were a 'sitting target'. At that time, information compiled by the BTO in the form of WeBS surveys were used to establish the locations in which they could target their quarry. A further £3.3 million pounds was funded from October 2005 to carry out further killing until May 2010, at which time it was perceived that 60% of the population would be wiped out.

At the same time, EU Life provided the Spanish authorities with 3.16 million Euros in aid, and over a 12 year span, a total of 159 Ruddy Ducks (including 57-65 hybrid-types) were shot and killed. This programme ceased in 2006.

Two important developments have taken place since 2002 which widely relate to this debate -:
1) Firstly, the gradual warming of the planet is having a serious effect on the movements of Ruddy Ducks. We know longer receive what are deemed as severe winters in Britain just very wet ones and relatively mild. Consequently, it is very rare that large reservoirs or water bodies completely freeze over and Ruddy Ducks have learnt that they only need to travel as far south as Staines Reservoirs and Chew Valley Lake to survive (with peak counts of over 1,000 individuals at both sites in the late 1990's). Subsequently, British Ruddy Ducks have become much more sedentary and form huge flocks close to their breeding grounds (or in many cases, actually ON their breeding grounds). During this same period in Spain, statistics I was provided by the SEO saw a major collapse in wintering numbers there and the EU-Life programme registered just 99 direct kills between 2000 and 2006, just 16 of which were proven hybrids (22 in 2000, 9 in 2001, 18 in 2002, 23 in 2003, 16 in 2004, 7 in 2005 and 4 in 2006). There was no direct link between the Spanish birds and of those non-naturalised birds in Britain and it was felt more likely that they had derived from France, Germany or The Netherlands.

2) Tom Gullick confirms that White-headed Duck populations are flourishing in Iberia, with population estimates between 3,000 and 5,000 individuals. Last year, I discovered White-headed Ducks breeding successfully in Morocco, further confirming the success of this species. Drakes now have plenty of choice for selective pairing/mating, very unlike the precarious situation in 1982-1992, when numbers were still relatively low. Unless both birds are actually the same species, then I would expect natural pair-bonding to take place now, should the Ruddy Duck be allowed to sustain itself side-by-side in Iberia. There is no proof that hybridisation would be rife if numbers of Ruddy Ducks were allowed to increase (by the nature of restricting numbers to a very low number only precipitates interbreeding, particularly as the WHD is the dominant partner).

Therefore, there is no proof, despite years of observation, that the non-naturalised Ruddy Duck population has had any deleterious effect on any indeginous species. It seems an absolute crime to me to keep pursuing this goal and a pointless waster of resources and funding that could be much better spent on conservation matters. It would make far more sense to divert these funds in to controlling real dangers to our wildlife, such as escaped American Mink and Red-eared Terrapins, or perhaps control the number of feral Atlantic Canada Geese.
So, in summary, the cull is pointless. It has no end game nor target. The fact that so many WeBS counters no longer submit their Ruddy Duck data, isolated populations are left unscathed and DEFRA themselves openly admit that they are not out to get every last one, then why do we have to put up with this ongoing disruption and disturbance? Germany, France and The Netherlands do not partake in the cull neither, making anialation of the population in Britain futile. Unless the cull is sanctioned and implemented across the whole of Europe, it will be ineffective and a potentially never-ending complete and utter waste of money and resources. European native species are being shot in the crossfire (including a Slavonian Grebe, Long-tailed Duck, at least 2 Smew, several Northern Pochard and many Coot, along with a vagrant drake White-headed Duck!) and temporal disturbance is being granted to the wintering and breeding grounds of a Schedule One breeding species - the Black-necked Grebe. Much more disturbance is being caused to other wetland species. The White-headed and Ruddy Duck stable hybrid zone is also a legitimate scientific hypothesis which also negates the reasoning behind the cull.
I must remind readers too that it is not a given right by DEFRA to carry out these culls. They DO NOT have ANY rights of entry - it is up to the discretion of the Landowner to allow the cull to take place on their land.

The RSPB has such a high profile these days that it is the only bird organistaion that most of the general public have heard of. Therefore, both landowners and county councillors have asked if the RSPB approves of the cull or not, and have then followed their recommendations. Whether or not the RSPB is interested in the views of its membership is unclear, but what is certain is that many local bird groups and individual members have serious reservations about the cull and its aims. If it is the general opinion of ACRE members that the cull should be reviewed, one aim would be to pursuade the RSPB to change its mind.

**The list of countries I claim as not supporting the cull can be confirmed by any search of EU-LIFE reports on the Ruddy Duck eradication programme. These countries are often berated by EU-LIFE for not participating in the scheme. The politics is such that none of the governments of any of these countries owed any debt of gratitude to the Government of Spain in 2003 in direct contrast to the present UK government which very much did.

I'm very pleased to see (from recent observations of culls in progress) that Ruddy Ducks are not shot at when flying as CSL contractors use rifles, thus there is a considerable risk of shot ricochet. Last February, a local site manager commented that their safety and risk assessments were ludicrously lapse, considering what he had to do when controlling Feral Pigeons on the land he was responsible for.
DEFRA in general

Furthermore, are we really to believe anything of the 'world class scientists' approved by DEFRA. In August 2007 at one of their establishments at Pirbright (Surrey), DEFRA deposed of live foot and mouth virus into a public drain which was known to be defective, thus causing the second outbreak of the disease. This really shows monumental incompetence on an unprecedented scale of what is O-Level science. The lack of knowledge, lack of risk and safety assessment and the tax laboratory procedure is astonishing, approaching that of criminal negligence. Many biological scientists (especially pharmacologists) hold DEFRA in contempt. Had the biological agent been anthrax, the death toll would have been in the thousands. The cost to the tax payer in compensation to the farmers was horrific, and it is interesting to comment that the farming industry, regulated by DEFRA, has the highest incidence of suicide than any industry in the UK.
Lee G R Evans