Sporting estates are drawing up plans to lobby for blanket permission to shoot more birds to stop them eating salmon, according to an internal document leaked to The Ferret.
Landowners and angling groups want rules to be relaxed so that they can kill and scare larger numbers of the goosanders, cormorants, herons and red-breasted mergansers that feed on young salmon in rivers.
But campaigners have described the leaked proposals as “problematic”, citing concerns about declining bird populations. They also question whether the birds are to blame for the sharp drop in wild salmon numbers.
The Ferret reported in July 2019 that licences to kill over 2,600 fish-eating birds had been issued in Scotland over the previous five years. They included 1,560 goosanders, 777 cormorants, 246 red-breasted mergansers and 37 grey herons.
Now estates with salmon rivers and angling businesses are preparing to bid for more licences to sanction more shooting. The proposal is included in a private strategy document drawn up by the Atlantic Salmon Trust, which campaigns to protect wild salmon fisheries.
The 11-page document, entitled ‘Removing the Barriers’, said its author was the trust’s chair, Robbie Douglas Miller, who owns Hopes estate in East Lothian. It was described by the trust as “purely an internal discussion paper that is a work in progress”.
The document set out 14 proposed reforms, on which it was aiming to win support from ministers, government agencies, environmental and industry groups. It was written for the Missing Salmon Alliance, a coalition of angling and conservation groups launched in November 2019 by the trust’s patron, Prince Charles.
The document, which is being published by The Ferret, pointed out that the population of wild salmon in rivers and seas had crashed by 75 per cent in the last 20 years. “If the current trend continues, wild salmon could be extinct across Scotland within the next 20 years,” it warned.
One of the reasons for the crash was that birds fed on juvenile salmon as they swam downriver to the sea, it argued. The impact had become “disproportionate and unsustainable” as salmon numbers fell, it claimed.
The document added: “In order to reduce this impact a more adaptive and flexible approach to the current licensing system should be considered. If we wait until we have all the science to prove every single point, there will be no salmon left.
“We are convinced that significant improvements to the current ‘shoot to scare’ licensing regime can be made which would benefit juvenile salmon without jeopardising protected birds or causing stakeholder alarm.”
The document suggested asking the Scottish Government to “urgently pilot a new regime which gives all Scottish rivers a de minimis annual shoot to scare allowance.” This would be based on historic bird counts and save estates from having to recount them every time they apply for a new licence.
It also proposed changes for the fish farming industry, hydro-electric dams, water management, pollution control and tree planting. The proposals “will sometimes require substantial funding and a change to current thinking,” it said.
Along with other areas, predation by birds was “clearly very sensitive” and making progress would be “particularly challenging”, the document acknowledged.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) pointed out that Scotland already had a licensing system which required “rigorous testing” before shooting was permitted. “The Scottish population of red-breasted mergansers is showing serious declines as an inland breeding bird,” said a spokesperson.
“There is ongoing research into the impacts this species and others have on salmon numbers. RSPB Scotland would be disappointed if advocates for a relaxation of the current system felt unable to wait until the results of this work were published and pursued such action now.”
The Scottish animal campaigns charity, OneKind, described relaxing restrictions on shooting fish-eating birds as “problematic”. It argued that the crash in wild salmon numbers was due to human practices such as overfishing at sea and lice spread by the fish farming industry.
“There is little evidence that the natural predators of salmon such as goosanders, mergansers and cormorants are exacerbating any declines to wild salmon,” said OneKind’s campaigner, Eve Massie.
“With human practice at fault for the decrease in wild salmon, it seems the first step to increase wild salmon numbers must be to modify human practices. This is in line with the international consensus principles for ethical wildlife control.”
She added: “It is also imperative that any regimes implemented to kill or harass animals to reduce populations are evidence-based and cause the least welfare harms to the least number of animals. We maintain that lethal control of animals must be the last resort rather than the default.”
Massie warned that non-lethal deterrents such as shooting to scare birds could also harm them. “Sadly there is the likelihood of both the killing and wounding of birds, as well as fear, stress and habitat disturbance,” she said.
Bird declines could ‘go unnoticed’
The Scottish Wildlife Trust agreed that urgent action was necessary to address the long term decline in wild salmon. “However, any measures must be based on strong science, and not lead to negative impacts on other species,” said the trust’s conservation director, Sarah Robinson.
“While we accept predation has an effect on salmon populations, this is just one of 12 impacts that have been identified by the Scottish Government.”
She pointed out that goosanders and cormorants were both protected birds. “The spring smolt run, when scaring is likely to take place, coincides with their breeding season,” she added.
“Relaxing the legal requirement to carry out bird counts alongside licensed control could potentially lead to declines in numbers going unnoticed.”
The Atlantic Salmon Trust described the document as “very much an internal discussion paper”. It was prompted by an event in January at the Scottish Parliament that highlighted the crisis facing wild salmon.
“As a salmon conservation organisation, like any other conservation organisation, we need to gather the information, discuss these issues, and consider all options if we are going to make sensible policy decisions,” said the trust’s chief executive officer, Mark Bilsby.
“This informal paper was part of that process. Our work needs to be based on evidence and that is why, with our partners in the Missing Salmon Alliance, we are developing the likely suspects framework to review all the pressures on salmon in both the freshwater and marine environments.”
According to Bilsby, work by the trust in the Moray Firth had shown that about half of young salmon smolts “go missing in action as they migrate downriver”. One of the suspects was predation from fish-eating birds, he said.
“When you add in degrading conditions at sea for salmon, you can start to see why the decline in this iconic species has been so dramatic,” he told The Ferret.
“If we are going to halt this disastrous decline in salmon, then we are going to need to fully understand how best to look after this fish and work with other organisations and partners to deliver the most appropriate ways to do this. For the sake of salmon, we can’t shy away from continuing to look at these difficult issues.”
The government’s wildlife agency, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), accepted that the decline in salmon was “a significant cause for concern”. It worked with others to ensure “evidence-based approaches” were taken.
“SNH can, and does, license the control of fish-eating birds to help prevent serious damage to fisheries, said an SNH spokesperson. “Licences are only granted where alternative non-lethal methods have proved unsuccessful or impractical.”
“In licensing shooting we have to consider and minimise the effect on the species being controlled. Licensed shooting is therefore limited and in the first instance, should be undertaken to scare rather than kill, where this is a feasible option.”
The Scottish Government is funding research to better understand the diet of fish-eating birds, which is due to be published later this year. “The decline in the numbers of Scottish wild salmon is very concerning and we recognise the problem is down to a range of complex factors,” said a spokesperson.