Black death

Keeper of the chalk: Tony safeguards an East Yorkshire trout stream with the rifle

River keeper Tony Megson has to constantly stem the tide of various predators intent on taking his trout, but none is worse than the cormorant

Wild animals survive because nature has gifted them with extraordinary senses and an acute awareness of what is natural within their surroundings. This means they are rarely at ease, drop their guard only occasionally and are constantly on the lookout for anything that appears unusual within their world. This fight or flight phenomena is further heightened when they are away from their normal environment or have to break cover from their natural habitat.

Predators of all descriptions seem to be able to use these senses better than most, and their capture or culling can become something of a challenge. It was my responsibility to care for the upkeep, stocking and predator control on a small chalk stream, involving the removal of mink, pike and perch. This is an ongoing battle, as we all know remove one and another fills its place. But something new was happening – something I had not experienced before. It needed stopping immediately.

Fish were disappearing at an alarming rate. I was on top of the mink, and we had one or two smaller pike but nothing that would decimate the fish stocks to this level. My next thought turned to two-legged predators, and the only way to find out what was going on was to watch and wait.

The sun had not long risen when the first one appeared. Not walking down the bank with rod or net as anticipated, but gliding down to land on the water, shake itself off and then dive. Cormorants – of course. I should have known, but never having been troubled by them to any extent previously, I hadn’t thought of them. This was a new phenomenon, and it was one that would need addressing quickly.

I knew I wasn’t allowed to shoot them without a licence, so I implemented a process of attempting to deter them. This involved such ingenious methods as sticks with pieces of plastic bags on them, crow bangers, a gas gun and, and as a last resort, simply trying to have a human presence at the waterside. All these flashy, bangy things were effective for a couple of days or so – until the birds became accustomed to them. When the sticks with pieces of plastic on them seemingly started to act as runway lights, I thought I had better try something else. Even walking the bank merely caused the birds to take off, perch somewhere nearby, and return as soon as I had left the bankside.

Rapid flight: The second bird took off in haste

So it was to Natural England I turned. We agreed a rendezvous to meet and walk the stream while I explained the issues and enquired what was needed to attain a licence. It was soon apparent that I was not alone: neighbouring waters were suffering from an even greater influx of the black divers than we were.

With Natural England satisfied that we had done everything reasonably possible to deter the cormorants, we were granted a licence to shoot four. It was a relief to be granted the licence, and I thought that I would soon have the problem resolved. Why is it that nothing is ever as easy as you think it’s going to be?

My first outing was with the shotgun. I thought it would be easy: a quick walk down the back of the bank, pop up where I thought I had last seen the black marauder, and Bob’s your uncle. How naïve can you be? I had marked where I had first spotted the cormorant well enough, but when I appeared above the bank opposite my mark, the bird had submerged and resurfaced about 70 yards away. After a couple more failed tries at this, it became apparent that I would need to give some serious thought to my strategy.

The .22 rimfire was a possibility as there was a substantial backdrop on the far bank, but .22 rounds can ricochet off water. I needed something that would give me that little bit of extra distance and a flatter trajectory, and which would be less likely to ricochet – so I decided that my nifty CZ 455 .17 HMR rimfire was the tool for the job.

I chose an overhanging willow as my spot, and built a hide facing downstream with a safe, clear shot for at least 140 yards. Coupled with my leaf suit the set up was perfect – now it was just a matter of waiting. The wind picked up and it started to drizzle. The drizzle turned to rain, which, naturally, was blown straight into my face.

Past tense: The .17 HMR proved to be deadly effective

Two hours passed. Of course I hadn’t brought a flask, as the birds had been coming at first light. Sun rises, bird arrives, shoot your cormorant and you go off home a happy man, right? Not this time.
When I first began my wildfowling career, I once asked an old, experienced fowler when I should pack up. He sucked on his pipe, thought for a minute and said: “Wait until you think nowt’s going to come, then give it another 20 minutes.” Sage words, or a brain addled by too many icy morning flights? Well, I was going to give it another 10 minutes and that was it.

Just then, in the distance, two barely discernible specks appeared – the black death. Would these choose my neighbour’s water, or would they favour the water where I was hidden? Which would be the more attractive? My question was quickly answered as they banked over and began to lose altitude. They were coming in. I chambered a round and tried to control my movements and breathing. Wings spread as air brakes, and the birds dropped down onto the water.

I quickly put the crosshairs of the Weaver scope onto the first bird, but before I could do anything else it had submerged. I scanned for the second, but it too had disappeared below the surface. Knowing how fast these things could swim underwater, I began frantically scanning all the water in my field of view.

My concern was unwarranted as one of the birds surfaced 80 or so yards away. The suppressed crack of the .17 HMR caused the second bird to beat the water frantically with its wings as it took off in haste. It took off alone.

The .17 had done its job admirably well, the spaniel collected the fallen bird, and we headed back to the warmth and dryness of the car. Funny how quickly you forget how cold and wet you’ve been when your quarry is in the bag, isn’t it?

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