The gothic world of the much-maligned cormorant

ANOTHER LIFE: THE CORMORANT MIGHT have been made for November – that gothic black sílhouette, the wings like a broken umbrella…

ANOTHER LIFE:THE CORMORANT MIGHT have been made for November – that gothic black sílhouette, the wings like a broken umbrella hung out to dry. They're spread because the bird lacks waterproofing, the faster to dive after fish. Most anglers hate cormorants especially in autumn, when half of Ireland's birds move inland to feed on freshwater coarse fish such as roach and perch.

And cormorants are regularly bracketed with grey seals as over-conserved predators needing “management”. The chief executive of the South Western Regional Fisheries Board was reported recently as suggesting that, if matters were left to nature, seals and birds would eat out the salmon and eels and die themselves after ending their food supply.

That seems a curious notion of how nature works. What is true is that decades of protection have helped increase cormorant numbers across Europe, in some countries to extraordinary densities, and conflicts with fisheries range from the traditional to the phenomenal.

On the Continent, cormorants are sometimes drawn in hundreds to well-stocked angling lakes and intensive fish-rearing enterprises. Breeding colonies blanket great areas of shoreline with their messy nests and guano.


Mass shootings – of some 60,000 birds a year, mainly in France – just make room for more birds. A year ago, the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly for the Commission to draw up an EU-wide cormorant management plan, reconciling conservation with control. From a low point of population in the mid-20th century, protection of cormorants under national and then European legislation, helped to produce a dramatic rise in populationfrom 1970 to 2006. The current population for western Europe is put at some 500,000 individuals, each eating, on average, between 350 and 450 grams of fish a day.

The birds are of two subspecies – the mainly continental cormorant, Phalocrocorax carbo sinensiswhich favours inland breeding sites, often in trees, and some 40,000 pairs of the slightly larger Atlantic, P.c. carbo,nesting mainly on sea-cliffs and islands from the north of France to Norway. The latter is our native bird, though its nesting colonies have also used – and devastated – trees on lake islets near the Connacht coast and at other inland sites.

Up to the Wildlife Act of 1976, the Republic had bounty payments for killing cormorants – more than 3,500 were shot in the final three years of the bounty. Between 1970 and 1987, the population more than doubled, to 4,455 pairs, partly because of reduced persecution but also because of the extra food supply from the stocking of angling lakes and better control of predatory pike.

The big seabird breeding survey of these islands in 2000 found the number of native cormorants breeding on the coast had stabilised, or even declined in the west and south. But the migration and mobility of cormorants are part of Europe’s bigger problem, and Irish anglers and fish-farmers look with some apprehension to the “black plague” of birds farther east. A long-term wetland survey by BirdWatch Ireland found Ireland’s winter numbers have been increasing substantially, particularly along the south and east coasts, in the north midlands, and at Lough Neagh. By the 1990s, they had reached some 14,800 birds.

Year-round studies have found native cormorants hunting mainly wrasse and eels at the coast, and salmon smolts and sea trout where available. In winter, the waterways with the most roach attract the highest concentrations of birds. Indeed, by late winter this fish – ­introduced by anglers as a live bait for pike, and competing with native brown trout – meets more than 80 per cent of the cormorants’ diet.

The European Parliament vote of last December followed intensive, Europe-wide consultations and research, and massive reports from projects with elaborate acronyms: Intercafe, for example, the Interdisciplinary Initiative to Reduce pan-European Cormorant-Fisheries Conflicts. This followed Redcafe (don’t ask), which assembled national overviews, including one from Ireland’s Marine Institute. This reported that cormorant predation was “not considered a major problem in the aquaculture industry”, that studies on the Erne and Shannon found no serious predation of salmon smolts, and that anxious perceptions by anglers had little scientific support. Shooting needs a licence from the National Parks and Wildlife Service. Perhaps a dozen are issued each year, mainly for hatchery-stocked salmon and trout angling fisheries, with up to 150 cormorant casualties.

The EU Commission faces an enormously complicated picture of cormorant/fishery conflict, across 27 countries, while mobility and migratory paths of cormorants argue for an EU-wide management plan.

BirdWatch Ireland, meanwhile, insists any new control would have to be based on more research on the need for it, on proof that it would work to protect fisheries, and that there would be no impact on cormorants “at the population level”.

Eye On Nature

A pair of jackdaws nested in the top of a drainpipe opposite our front door. We watched frantic chicks vying for food, then one day they fledged.

Both parents were there; one watching as the other flew to a nearby part of the roof and made coaxing sounds, and one fledgling took off quickly to the roof. With the slower ones, the parents varied their calls between scolding and coaxing. Six young birds fledged but the parents continued calling for about a week. Later we found there were two dead fledglings in the nest.

Meriall Wearen, Kilmacanogue,

Co Wicklow

Earlier in November in Cashel (Connemara), on a cloudless evening just after the sun had gone down behind a hillside across the bay, the sky was pure gold. The tide was in and this gold was reflected perfectly on the mirror-like surface of the water, except where the shadow of the hill was jet-black.

Through the binoculars we noticed hundreds of small rings appearing on the black surface of the water and glinting with the golden light. It was as if minute fish were jumping, or insects were rising to, or landing on the surface, or bubbles rising from the muddy bottom. We have never seen this before.

Philip Jacob, Glenageary, Co Dublin

  • Michael Viney welcomes observations at Thallabawn, Carrowniskey PO, Westport, Co Mayo. E-mail: Include a postal address.
Michael Viney

Michael Viney

The late Michael Viney was an Times contributor, broadcaster, film-maker and natural-history author