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Tim Bonner: The uncomfortable truth about killer cats

Natural England Chair, Tony Juniper, did a brave thing last weekend and was honest about the fact that cats kill birds and mammals. He suggested that owners should fit a bell on their cats’ collars and cited research which found that bells reduce the number of birds cats kill by over 40%.

Mr Juniper’s intervention proves that it is possible both to be concerned about nature depletion and the impact of climate change, and also to be honest about the impact of predation both by domestic and wild animals. Too often this debate becomes a binary argument between those claiming that predator control is the answer to every problem and others who argue that creating suitable habitat is the only way to create sustainable populations.

In fact, both are at least partly right. Whilst, in many circumstances, removing predators will have a positive impact on prey species, it is not a panacea and nature recovery will only come with habitat creation. Where a loss of suitable habitat has reduced numbers of a species to a level where that species is threatened, however, predation control often becomes more urgent to sustain what is left of the population.

To protect the remaining populations of diverse threatened species like curlew, nightjar, cirl bunting, Dartford warbler and grey partridge on our islands we need to remove predators that can be controlled like foxes and corvids, as well as protecting them as best we can from those that cannot, like cats and badgers. Which is why Tony Juniper is right to raise the issue. However, some remain in denial with the RSPB hiding behind its line that “there is no scientific proof that predation by cats in gardens is having any impact on bird populations UK wide”. This is presumably out of concern that it might upset its cat-owning members.

Species decline is not the only impact of cats on wildlife as Philip Baker, from the University of Reading, has pointed out. “Cats are one of the biggest welfare issues – if not the biggest welfare issue – for wildlife in this country, in terms of the number of individual birds and animals affected, and the length of time many will suffer before they die”. He says that the numbers of animals involved in badger culls and foxes killed for sport “pale into insignificance” in comparison with those killed by cats.

With the impact on wildlife populations and welfare being increasingly discussed there is clearly a growing public understanding that something must be done to reduce the killing of wildlife by cats. Bells might improve the situation, but there are plenty of cats that adapt their hunting style to remove any warning from one or even two bells. In other parts of the world the debate is more fundamental and about whether cats should have the right to roam at all. In America, over 70% of cats are kept indoors at all times, a figure that has doubled since the 1990s as a result of an active debate about the impact of cats on wildlife. It is time for that debate to cross the Atlantic and those charities which were created to preserve and protect birds should be initiating it.

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