Cormorants and Fisheries

CormorantAmy Lewis

An increase in the UK cormorant population, and a rise in the number of still water fisheries since the 1970s, has led to an increased focus on the impacts of cormorant predation on fish species.

Where there is evidence of damage to fisheries and where non-lethal methods of control have been tried but failed, Natural England may issue a licence for the shooting of cormorants and other fish-eating birds, such as heron, goosander and red-breasted merganser, which at all other times are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended).

The current licence system sets limits on the number of cormorants and other fish–eating birds that can be killed and also specifies time periods when shooting is allowed under licence.

In 2011, Defra launched a review of Natural England’s current licensing system for cormorants and the results are due to be published late in 2012. In July 2012, the Angling Trust, supported by the Salmon and Trout Association, the Wild Trout Trust, the Rivers Trust, the British Association for Shooting and Conservation and others, launched a campaign ‘Action on Cormorants’ that calls for cormorants to be included on Natural England’s ‘general licence’ - which does not provide the kind of specific safeguards of the current licence for management and control of fish-eating birds. On behalf of this coalition of organisations The Angling Trust presented a statement to Government urging it to add goosander, as well as cormorant, to the general licence.

The Wildlife Trusts’ position

The Wildlife Trusts are opposed to changing the current licensing system to enable a general licence to be issued for the killing of cormorants and other fish-eating birds.

We believe that the Government’s priority should be to strengthen and implement policies that will enable effective and speedy restoration of damaged rivers and wetlands, for example through reform of the current abstraction regime, effective regulation, and implementation of the Water Framework Directive. The Wildlife Trusts are working in partnership with others, including angling organisations, to protect and restore freshwater ecosystems that, with the right policies in place, will be able to support healthy populations of fish species, native fish-eating birds and sustainable fisheries in the future.

The cormorant’s chequered history

The cormorant is a native species first recorded in the UK in medieval times. Conflicts between fishing interests and cormorants have a long history and general persecution of these birds is commonly reported as far back as Tudor times. However significant increases in persecution occurred in some areas in the early years of the twentieth century – for example on rivers in the south west of England. The cormorant population, which was at a low ebb in the early 1970s, recovered in response to legal protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and increases in prey availability.

There are two sub species of cormorant in the UK. It is estimated that there were 8,355 breeding pairs of cormorant in the UK in 1998-2002 with a winter population of 35, 000 individuals in 2004-2009. Ringing data held by the British Trust for Ornithology shows that a frequent movement/migration of birds occurs between the UK and Europe. Find out more here.


GoosanderThe first confirmed breeding record of this handsome ‘saw-billed’ duck dates from 1871. Since 1970 the bird has increased its range across the UK and the UK breeding population is estimated at 2,300-2,900 pairs (1987) with 12, 000 birds estimated to over-winter. Find out more here.

Protecting fisheries from fish-eating birds

Culling of fish-eating birds is currently regarded as a last resort as there are several ways in which predation of fish can be reduced. Much advice is available on the subject, with non lethal techniques including the creation of refuges or cover for fish, for example by increasing the extent of marginal or in-channel vegetation or installing woody debris.

Under the current licensing system the average number of birds culled per year since 2004 is 1,395: 10-11% of the overwintering population. In 2011, Natural England licenced the shooting of 2,596 cormorants. The impact of current culling programmes on the conservation status of the species is currently unclear.

Further information

Facts about cormorants from the BTO

Details of the current licensing system

Information on protecting fisheries from cormorants