It’s time for us to take a harder look at slaughter of the innocents

Daniel Reilly with the fish he caught at Cashel trout fishery.
Daniel Reilly with the fish he caught at Cashel trout fishery.

As I drove across Slievenorra Mountain on Wednesday, thoughts came flooding back about the great men (and women) and their magnificent pointers and setters, who once graced this part of the Glens of Antrim.

That was a time when up to 10 gamekeepers would have been employed on Slievenorra, Glenariffe, Cushleakle, Ballypatrick and the moors above Cushendall, Cushendun and Ballycastle.

My mood was sombre as I recalled great days on some of those moors with friends, unsurpassed in skill, integrity, sportsmanship and compassion.

How things have changed on Slievenorra. Twenty-five odd years ago that doyen of good sense and environmental concern, Andy McLean, the Forest Service’s wildlife officer and I pleaded with the Forest Service intelligentsia to create space for indigenous wildlife on Slievenorra. But I am afraid our pleas fell on deaf ears. The reply we got was: “We have men and machines and they must be kept working.”

I am glad to say that concern about the fate of indigenous wildlife is spreading in the countryside among those who really care about what happens to our robins, blackbirds, larks and sparrows.

But when you have read the letters below I will leave it to you to decide whether the spirit of goodwill to all creatures great and small extends to all urban areas.

Michael Martin of the Six Mile Water Trust had put the cat among the pigeons in a letter directed initially to Amy Colville (nee Ryan,) Media Officer of the RSPB and copied to me.

Indeed it may be that Amy ruffled a few feathers in her reply to Michael. She appears to suggest that the loss of a million or so small birds is nothing to get excited about as the mother birds could go off and lay a few more eggs.

How stupid we are in the countryside. Did we not know that all that is required when foxes take a few dozen lambs is for the ewes to go off and produce a few more lambs?

Michael wrote: “Amy, I always enjoy reading your piece in the News Letter as I am an ardent conservationist and field sports fanatic and I believe that shooting, fishing and conservation go hand in hand as both apply the principle of countryside management.

“I have the greatest respect for the RSPB and any organisation which protects wildlife habitat, but one thing that does irk me at this time of year is the inability of any organisation to lobby for the compulsory wearing of bells on domestic cats, especially in springtime when, literally, millions of birds are slaughtered by these predators.

“While much publicity is made of illegal poisoning and shooting of birds there is no mention of the mass annual cat slaughter of vulnerable juvenile birds.

“Could it be that the RSPB is afraid of upsetting too many paying members who may also be cat lovers? In any case there should be a campaign for a legal obligation for cats to wear bells in the UK and Ireland in order to stop the destruction of many thousands of vulnerable nesting and fledgling birds.

“Unlike raptors, whose numbers are to a certain extent controlled by availability of prey, cats aren’t dependant on wild prey and their numbers continue to grow with every year that passes. I hope this letter may help to get the ball rolling. Keep up the excellent work.”

Amy replied: “Hi Michael, many thanks for getting in touch. I understand your concerns about the impact of domestic cats on garden bird populations - it’s an emotive issue which the RSPB has done quite a lot of research into.

“It’s clear that cats kill millions of birds and small mammals each year but there is no scientific evidence that this is the main cause of decline in any bird species in the UK.

“Predation rates on some species by cats can be very high, particularly of open nesting species such as blackbirds. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean this is a conservation concern, as many garden species can re-nest many times in a year and are well adapted to deal with high predation rates.

“Research indicates that declines in ‘common’ birds are largely caused by reductions in habitat and food, most probably resulting from changes in habitat management practices.

“We already provide guidance to the general public, cat-owners and our members on ways to reduce the vulnerability of garden birds to predation by cats.

“We encourage cat owners to take simple measures to help reduce predation; including using properly fitted bells on cat safety collars. We also provide advice to garden owners on ways to reduce predation, for example through careful placement of feeders and nest boxes, and if desired, ways to reduce the presence of cats (eg ultrasonic deterrents).

“As a charity, we would have to think very carefully about the resource required to make cat bells compulsory - a rule that’s not enforceable and is unlikely to have any significant positive impact on garden bird populations.”

For his part, Michael didn’t miss the target and hit the wall.

He wrote: “Thanks for your reply, Amy. I wasn’t suggesting that the RSPB enforce rules on members but with its strong financial base it would be well placed to lobby government for a change in the law.

“I’d be surprised if it wasn’t already involved in this in other areas.
I don’t for one moment believe that cats don’t have a serious impact on nesting and fledgling birds. My own cats brought everything from leverets and squirrels to magpies home and I think a feral cat getting into an RSPB site with a tern colony or hen harrier nest would quickly be dealt with.

“I’m afraid I’m more inclined to suspect that the RSPB is afraid to offend the thousands of cat lovers among its ranks. But this nettle should be grasped no matter the politics of the situation. I suppose those at the top make the call and money talks while the rest of us watch the slaughter in our fields and gardens.

“You are right about the habitat though and we should make it our business to conserve and protect what is left of our countryside but that would also include predator control, a subject which, unfortunately, the RSPB tiptoes around. It really should be educating the public so they are aware of the issues. I hope this attitude can change in the future and we can be realistic about conservation policies.”

Two springers were caught last Friday on the Blackwater Lodge sector of the Cork Blackwater. I am assured by proprietor Ian Powellthat Lodge waters should be in excellent shape for fly fishing this weekend.

The same applies to the River Drowes but by Wednesday no salmon had been caught to add to the one caught there a fortnight ago. Shane Gallagher was at a loss to know why more fish have not been caught this year on the Drowes. But he says those fishing there this weekend could strike it rich.

At Craigmore fishing was difficult with the lake iced over on Thursday and Friday and flat calm with bright sunshine on Sunday. Saturday fished best with a good ripple and the skies overcast.

Jim Magill had 12 trout to 7lb on damsels and bloodworm. Martin Foster had 11 to 4lb and Colin Foster, 11 to 8lb. David Walker had 16 to 7lb and James Nicholl, 14 to 5lb

Other catches were: Samuel Fullerton, eight; Tommy Wharry, 11 to 5lb; Frank Meehan and Harry Diven, eight to 5lb 10oz; G Thomas, Billy Hazlett, Adrian Tweed and Robert Paul, seven to 6lb; John Carson and John Hughes, six; Ernest Nellis, 4lb; Joe Millar, two at 3lb and one at10lb; Jason McQuaid,5lb 10 oz; James McClean,4lb; Ivan Thompson,5lb; Paul O’Boyle,3lb; Martin Duggan, 3l 60z

At Cashel big trout have come to the surface. Using hare’s ears, zonkers and the new shoelace, anglers were bagging big fish.

Scottish anglers, Paul Hearty and Alexander Weir used a dawl bach and a green nomad to catch and release rainbows nearing 14lb and 10lb. Keith Glenn and Andrew Duncan, Antrim, used small black lures like an ace of spades to bank trout nearing the double figures.

Martin Bradley, Dungiven, released four which took hare’s ear and the zonker. John Hasson, Dungiven, had seven to the bank two of which were caught simultaneously – all on hare’s ear. Andrew Logan. Dungiven, teased a few to the surface while Declan Bradley, Swatragh, and Daniel Reilly, Maghera, caught trout to 5lb 2oz.

The Six Mile Water Trust says club members are still exercised by the severe pollution which occurred in the upper reaches of the Six Mile Water in October.

Trust volunteers in conjunction with Antrim and District Angling Association and Ballynure Angling club have been pursuing every lead and method to improve water quality to try and prevent these devastating pollution incidents.

So far, some success has been made with results from the Trust’s Angling Monitoring Initiative’s (AMI) invertebrate scoring system identifying localised pollution hot spots along with a higher public reporting of pollution incidents allowing the NIEA investigating teams to focus in on those areas.

A major problem in dealing with pollution is being able to monitor the quality of water in the catchment on a 24 hour/seven days a week system in a cost effective manner. A possible solution to tackling the problem has been brought to the table by QUB researchers who use modern technologies to build a picture of how water quality varies in the Six Mile Water at different locations and at different times.  

Water quality

Trust Volunteers invited Environmental Engineer, Dr Raymond Flynn of Queen’s University to report on current approaches to dealing with poor water quality and its effect on life in rivers. Dr. Flynn highlighted how different factors can affect river water quality and explained that reasons of pollution can be very complex involving many influences from field drainage, heavy rainfall, road salts, erosion and chemical spills.

Dr Flynn said: “While pollution remains a serious problem for the Six Mile Water, momentum and public awareness is building to tackle this issue. In times of financial cut backs it is imperative all parties take a combined approach working with government agencies, to bring about change for the better.

“It was clear to me that those present at our meeting possessed a tremendous amount of local knowledge that needs to be considered in taking issues forward.”

Paul Bourke of Angling Ireland reports that in spite of Arctic weather conditions, a group of anglers managed to fish with charter skipper Hamish Currie out from Red Bay. They captured some fantastic big skate along with conger and other species.