Charities in dispute over culling magpies

From The Times
Valerie Elliott, Countryside Editor

Wildlife charities are in dispute over the role of magpies in the disappearance of songbirds from gardens across the country.

The birds are considered vicious nest marauders by many supporters of Songbird Survival and the Countryside Alliance, who claim magpies snatch chicks and eggs.

But the RSPB and the RSPCA are rushing to defend the species (Pica pica) to prevent thousands being killed. They claim the decline of songbirds has more to do with intensive farming practices than with the long-tailed members of the corvid family. They also claim that, despite a huge increase in the magpie population from 1970 to the mid-1990s, it has remained stable in the past decade.

The campaign to save magpies coincides with the bird breeding season, when many people believe it is their right to trap and kill these scavengers. Anyone harming magpies is also warned that they face a fine of up to £5,000 or six months in prison.

David Hoccom, a spokesman for the RSPB, said: “We do not think that trapping and killing of magpies is justified in most situations. In certain circumstances on reserves to protect ground-nesting birds such as lapwings it may be necessary to reduce magpie numbers. But we do not think there is any case for people to do it in their own gardens and it will make absolutely no difference to arrest the decline of songbirds throughout the country.”

A spokesman for the RSPCA said it was also prepared to bring prosecutions against anyone being cruel to magpies. “Magpies are not responsible for the decline of songbirds. We urge everyone to leave them alone not least because there is a risk if the public attempt to catch and kill magpies they will cause suffering to the birds.”

However, many supporters of Songbird Survival, a charity set up to save the dawn chorus, believe that it is their lawful duty to keep magpie numbers down to save species such as song thrushes, starlings and house sparrows. The law allows them to do so for purposes of bird conservation.

Penelope Elliott, 56, a retired nurse from Devon, has been culling magpies for the past five years — usually about twenty-five a year. She said: “It’s definitely had a positive impact and we now have more wrens, finches and blackbirds.”

Songbird Survival insists it has not organised a campaign to kill magpies. However, Nick Forde, a trustee of the charity, said: “There is a wealth of anecdotal evidence that a magpie can go down a whole hedgerow taking out every songbird nest. The Government is not going to do anything about it so there is a case for people following the evidence of their eyes and doing something about it. I don’t like harming animals, but if they are destroying our biodiversity then we have to take action. But trapping and killing must be done humanely and properly.”

The Countryside Alliance also supports the control of magpies to protect pheasant and partridge chicks. Tim Bonner, a spokesman for the group, said: “We would encourage people to help manage the magpie population. Gamekeepers have long known that magpies have a detrimental effect on wild bird breeding success but it is important that people understand the legal framework and adhere to the terms of open licences.”

He also questioned the opposition of wildlife groups: “The RSPB carries out corvid control on its own reserves and should be encouraging, not discouraging, the trapping of magpies for the sake of songbirds.”


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