River Tweed bird study is not a cull, commission insists

Fishing chiefs in charge of the welfare of the River Tweed have refuted claims it is killing off wildlife in a bid to increase salmon fishing.

Friday, 8th March 2019, 2:17 pm
Updated Friday, 8th March 2019, 2:17 pm
The River Tweed at Bemersyde.

The River Tweed Commission has defended its plans to kill dozens of birds on the river in a bid to study their diet.

It comes after claims were made that the commission was planning a cull on cormorants and goosanders to help increase salmon numbers along the 97-mile river.

“It’s not a cull,” Fay Hieatt, commission clark, said: “What we are actually doing is undertaking a study in conjunction with three other rivers and it’s being coordinated by the Scottish Natural Heritage and Marine Scotland. It’s going to enable us to take a few birds our of the system for a diet analysis study. These are fish-eating birds, so cormorants and goosadners.”

The commission will shoot 36 of both types of birds over the course of the next 12 months as part of a study licensed by Scottish Natural Heritage, to help establish if they are responsible for the continued decline in fish stocks all along the iconic river.

The river and its tributaries is worth around £24 million a year to the local economy, as well as supporting more than 500 jobs.

But figures presented to the River Tweed Commissioners show the total salmon catch last year at 6,129, a drop on the previous year of 7,003 - and more than 15,000 catches down on five years ago.

The sea-trout catch had dropped from 2,594 in 2017 to 1,158 last year.

The commission’s chairman Douglas Dobie, said in his annual report, released last week: “Goosanders are prevalent throughout the catchment and the number of semi-resident cormorants have increased significantly in the past few years.

“Whilst a decline in fish stocks, particularly migratory, is unlikely to be attributable to a single cause, it is distressing for anyone closely involved in the well-being of the river regularly to watch large numbers of piscivorous birds hunting in flocks of up to 50 to 100.

“A few samples had been collected by the RTC during 2017 and sent for analysis, but a larger, coordinated, study was required.”

Mrs Hieatt said the River Tweed has “a fairly stable number of goosander and an increasing population of cormorants” which the commission believes is “taking its toll on the survival of young fish”.

She added: “It’s not designed to be a cull. Everything has perfect right to be there. But if one species is predating on another to an unsatisfactory extent then we need to do something about that.

“Angling is worth a lot of money to the Borders economy.”

It was worth £24 according to the last study done three years ago.

“With the decline in salmon over the last four years we are seeing a decline in anglers coming to our region.

“The drop in salmon numbers is outwith our control but what we can do is made sure that the salmon inour river can migrate.

“We know that nothing is wrong with the river. It is in brilliant condition as far as the habitat is concerned.

In the 1990s a similar study on the river found eel made up a large proportion of the birds’ diets.

After this study, which will also gather results from the Nith in Dumfries and Galloway, and rivers Spey and Dee in the north of Scotland, the commission will take action dependend on the findings.

“That will be entirely up to the government,” Mrs Hieatt added. “The information they get from this and their work elsewhere will enable them to make better management decisions.

“It is trying to strike a better balance between two protected species.”