Duck secret revealed – Spanish white-heads ‘impure’

Posted on the 19th July 2003

A major report has shot holes in the government's supposed justification for its planned extermination of Britain's 6,000 ruddy ducks. The following article from The Times, 19 July 2003, by Spanish correspondent David Sharrock, reveals that the bird expert who triggered the campaign to save the white-headed duck regards what he calls the 'massacre' of ruddys as wrong and pointless.

An Englishman in La Mancha wishes to reveal one of conservation’s most closely guarded secrets. This is where the War of the Ruddy Duck began and Tom Gullick, the world’s greatest living birdwatcher, has decided to reveal his undercover role in a tale of two birds.

Neither the Spanish nor our Government will wish to hear it. Both countries are committed to spending millions to eradicate the ruddy duck – whose only crime is to be American, over-sexed and over here – to protect its close cousin, Spain’s white-headed duck.

So angered is he by what he calls “this massacre” that Mr Gullick, revered in the birding world for having spotted 8,250 species out of the world total of 9,600 – has told The Times that the Spanish white-headed duck is in fact Pakistani.

And he should know, because it was he who introduced it into Spain when the indigenous white-headed population was just one more winter’s hunting season away from extinction.

“I’m quite certain that if we hadn’t taken that action there wouldn’t be any left today,” he said at his country cottage, set amid hunting land that has changed little since the days of Don Quixote.

Mr Gullick, 72, is careful when telling his extraordinary story to protect the identities of his accomplices and the precise details and locations of how and from where the duck eggs were smuggled into Spain. He will admit only that the origin of the eggs was Pakistan. But his purpose, he makes clear, is to put an end to what he sees as the official obsession with “hybridisation” – the mating of two distinct species. “Genetic purity, it’s a sort of bug that some biologists have in their head,” he said. “They would rather have no white-headed ducks at all than some ‘impure’ ones coming from abroad.”

It is now more than 20 years too late to be worrying about impurity since, by his own calculations, the more than 3,000 white-headed ducks thriving in Spain are the descendants of just 19 pairs, nearly half of which came from Asia.

Mr Gullick’s involvement began in the late 1970s, when he counted just 23 whiteheaded ducks – a quarter of the official Spanish estimate – at a lake south of Córdoba. “Hunters were shooting the ducks and I reckoned that with one more winter that would have been the end of the Western European population of the white-headed.”

He tried to enlist official support, but eventually took matters into his own hands. “I decided to rent the right to shoot the land and put in a guard as a keeper to look after it. Then, through some locally agreed deals, there was no more shooting there.”

Given the dangerously low numbers, Mr Gullick and his collaborators decided “to have an insurance policy. We talked it over and decided the thing to do was to get some eggs and hatch them out in case it all went wrong. So we did that quite near here.”

Eventually the 16 ducklings were introduced into the Doñana National Park. Curiously, white-headed ducks are now regularly seen in La Mancha, an area where they never lived and bred before.

Mr Gullick believes that, if anything, competition from the arrival of the ruddy duck encouraged the white-headed to breed.

“The decline of the white-headed duck was caused by the drainage of wetlands and shooting what was left. The ruddy duck came later, it has nothing to do with the decline of the white-headed – if anything it’s quite the opposite.

“To go ahead with a cull originally might have been a gamble, but to do it now is pointless. The white-headed is doing extremely well. There has been an explosion of the population like never before in its history.

“Nobody has explained why, but it’s just possible that the introduction of competition has spurred them on. The bigger the population, the less hybridisation occurs.”

Several hundred miles south of Mr Gullick’s home is the office of José Antonio Torres Esquivia, the champion of the white-headed duck. At any moment of the day his phone might ring with news of a sighting of a ruddy duck in Spain. At once, a well-rehearsed operation swings into action. Señor Torres contacts the nearest of four teams that he has across the country.

“When someone detects a strange duck, they call me. I alert the nearest team and they go and kill it. In case of doubt they are under instructions to shoot. Since there are now 3,000 white-headed ducks, it wouldn’t make much difference if one was shot by mistake, but in any case it hasn’t happened so far.”

Since 1984, some 122 ruddy ducks have been shot, as well as another 58 hybrids in an operation that costs £160,000 a year to run.

That works out at nearly £1,000 a bird. A similar average bounty has been expended for the 2,651 ruddy ducks shot dead in Britain during the Government’s three-year trial. Opponents have observed that it would be cheaper to fly each duck in Virgin business class to New York.


Señor Torres is passionate about the white-headed, calling it “the good one” and the ruddy “the bad one – it’s much uglier” – when he compares photographs of the two birds.

“A Herculean effort was made to save it and just when we thought we had succeeded we started getting the invading species, which, when it mates with our duck, produces a strange creature, a mixed race. Even though some people in Britain think so, we are not savages. We employ elite riflemen. Last month I saw for the first time one being shot and it was very disagreeable. But there is no other way.

“Until all the ruddy ducks have been culled, the white-headed will not be safe. It’s like when the doctor says that you have to lose an arm to save your life. And I think that the English scientists and authorities understand this very well.”

Andrew Tyler, of the pressure group Animal Aid, counters that:

“the whole thing is stomach-churning. This is the first attempt at an avian extermination programme. Talk about genetic impurity is racist. This is simply what happens in nature; it’s a natural survival mechanism. The scheme is hugely unpopular and when wildlife preservation groups and landowners refuse to co-operate you are going to see government killing gangs forcing themselves on to land.”

Back in La Mancha, Mr Gullick, who runs birdwatching tours, pleads for a rethink on the decision to kill off the ruddy duck.

“There is absolutely no need for it and, in any case, they will never succeed in its total eradication. It’s a scandalous misuse of rare conservation money.

“But I think too many people have stuck their necks too far up above the parapet to admit that they are wrong.”

Take action

  • Please write to the Minister for Nature Conservation and Fisheries, making the points raised in the article and calling for a reprieve for the ruddy duck. Write to:Ben Bradshaw MP
    Minister for Nature Conservation and Fisheries
    Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
    Nobel House
    17 Smith Square
    London SW1P 3JR
  • Sign the petition against the cull online today and ask your friends, relatives and colleagues to sign it too.
  • See the Ruddy Duck Campaign for more ways to help.
  • Become an Animal Aid member – join online now.

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