Ruddy Ducks – sentenced to death

The government announced in March 2003 that all remaining ruddy ducks in the UK will be eliminated. It is not too late to help the ducks! Please read on for the background to this issue, and then visit the ruddy duck campaign index to find out what you can do to help.


If you see one of these…don’t tell a soul

Consider yourself very lucky if you have ever seen a ruddy duck as there are only around 3000-6000 of them in the UK. To most birdwatchers, ruddy ducks are very popular, with the males sporting highly colourful plumage and in summer an almost shockingly bright blue bill.

Where do they come from?

The ruddy duck is a North American ‘stifftail’ who was originally imported into the UK in the late 1940’s by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust at Slimbridge (founded by Sir Peter Scott). Following an accidental release in 1952, the ducks established themselves successfully in the wild, and can now be found in 20 countries throughout Europe. In some countries they are freely traded without the need for a licence.

Why is a cull of ruddy ducks taking place?

Ruddy ducks are being targeted because some have reportedly spread from the UK to Spain where they are mating with the endangered white-headed duck. The result of this mating is an ‘impure’ hybrid, which some conservation groups don’t like. Their answer is to kill the ruddys.

The white-headed duck is a native European bird. A small population exists in Spain with the remainder in Turkey and further east. The numbers of white-headed ducks in the Central Asian populations has declined markedly since the 1930’s from around 100,000 to perhaps 5,000 birds. This includes a crash in numbers at the white-headed duck’s main wintering site in Turkey. The east Asian population in Pakistan has also fallen, from around 1,000 birds to in the late 1960’s to only 50 in 1995. Destruction of habitat and excessive hunting are the main reasons for their decline in numbers and only the western Mediterranean population has benefited from protection measures.

The story so far

First trial shootings take place

Trial shootings of the ruddy duck took place in 1993 and 1994, backed by the Ruddy Duck Working Group (RDWG). The RDWG consisted chiefly of representatives from the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and the Department of the Environment. These trials were to discover the best control method for ruddy ducks. The shootings resulted in some birds dying in protracted agony. According to a Department of the Environment report, one bird was shot 13 times and was still alive when picked up from the water. Another took two hours to die.

Cull is cancelled

The Department of the Environment cancelled plans for a mass slaughter of ruddy ducks in the UK in April 1997, following Animal Aid-organised protests across the country. We staged a highly-publicised demonstration outside the RSPB’s AGM in October 1996, followed by protests outside each of the eight Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust centres over Easter weekend 1997. At this stage, English Nature – which had been advising the government on the issue – told Animal Aid, ‘It’s off indefinitely as far as we’re concerned. We are very pleased that the government has taken our advice… the government does not wish it to take place so it will not take place’.

Bern Convention orders cull to proceed

In December 1997, 35 countries belonging to Europe’s Bern Convention told the UK government to proceed with a cull of 4,000 North American ruddy ducks ‘without further delay’. The Convention’s stated objective is to conserve European wildlife and habitats. At this time, Michael Meacher, Environment Minister, wrote to Animal Aid and said, ‘I understand the concerns you have raised about the control of ruddy ducks in this country. If a cull is really needed, the reasons for the cull need to be defended more robustly, and it is accepted that it should be carried out without unnecessary cruelty’.

New ‘White Headed Duck Task Force’ is formed

In July 1998, the Department of the Environment announced a new ‘White-Headed Duck Task Force’ to ‘plan and coordinate the implementation of a control trial [of ruddy ducks]’ and also, ‘develop a public relations strategy to inform the public of the need for control’. The Task Force comprised 12 bodies, including the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions; the Scottish Office, Scottish Natural Heritage, English Nature, the British Trust for Ornithology, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, the Wildlife Trusts and the RSPB. No welfare organisations were represented on or consulted by the Task Force.

Government announces the go ahead for ruddy duck cull

In February 1999, the Environment Minister, Michael Meacher announced the go-ahead for regional trials to assess the feasibility of eradicating the Ruddy Duck from Britain. This work would be carried out by the Central Science Laboratory, which is an agency of MAFF who have experience of carrying out control of ‘problem species’.

Animal Aid accused Michael Meacher of ‘kow-towing to the lunatic element of bird-watchers’ and our comments were quoted widely in the media.

Ultimately, following the three year trial period, permission could be given for a full scale eradication programme of all ruddy ducks in the UK over the next ten years. This would cost the taxpayer millions of pounds.

Permission from landowners

In the UK, many private landowners have said that they won’t allow shooting of ruddy ducks to take place on their property. A survey by the UK government showed that permission for shooting was likely to be granted on only 40 – 60% of ruddy duck breeding sites in the summer, and only 30% during the winter.

However, the government was considering introducing legislation which would enable compulsory access to private and public land for the purpose of shooting ruddy ducks.

Trial shootings get underway

In April 1999, trial shootings of the ruddy duck began in Anglesey.

By June 1999, the cull was underway in the Midlands. This was after massive public opposition and several hundred members of the RSPB cancelling their membership. The cull began, in September 1999, on Kilconquhar Loch in Fife.

Trial cull ends

The three-year trial cull ended in May 2002. In July 2002, the Central Science Laboratory in York submitted a report to DEFRA detailing the findings of the cull. It revealed that 2,651 ruddys were slaughtered, leaving a surviving population, it was said at the time, of over 3,000 ducks. Within months this figure was increased to 6,000. No mention was made of the inevitable suffering to which the birds were subjected. The original objective of the cull was total eradication – however, the government was now claiming that the goal is to achieve 95% eradication.

Cull given the go-ahead

In March 2003, DEFRA announced that they are going to go ahead with their attempt to eradicate the ruddy duck population. It was suggested that the destruction would begin as soon as the necessary legislation is in place to gain compulsory access to land. A surge of media interest followed this announcement, and Animal Aid featured in most of the national papers, as well as on prime-time TV and radio. The government’s decision caused uproar amongst the public, with many people announcing that they have withdrawn their RSPB membership. One individual informed Animal Aid that she had even cancelled a £250,000 legacy that had been pledged to the Society! In response, the government indicated to favoured journalists that it was now considering ‘non-lethal’ methods of control, such as waxing of the birds’ eggs. This suggests that it is still not too late to make your voice heard and help stop an insane and brutal massacre.

Arguments against the cull

  • Animal Aid believes that the cull plans are cruel and senseless, and will be impossible to carry out. Obsessively targeting one species of duck whose only crime has been to mate with another – a liaison that will result in the survival of both types – amounts to species racism.
  • Introducing species outside their natural range has caused problems for conservationists throughout the world. Animal Aid believes that we should learn from our mistakes – to try and reverse them is futile as well as a waste of public resources. An attempt to eradicate ruddy ducks from the UK would cost several million pounds, with no guarantee of success. This money would be better spent on more genuine biodiversity projects which rely on the preservation of wildlife habitat.
  • The endangered status of the white-headed duck is entirely the result of human activity, a combination of hunting and habitat destruction. Since being protected from these threats in Spain, numbers there have increased from a low of 22 in 1977 to more than 1,000. It is clear that the real, proven method of conserving bird life is the creation and protection of habitats, the reduction of pollution and the prohibition of hunting. Meanwhile, in Central and Eastern Asia, white-headed ducks continue to be hunted and their habitat destroyed.
  • The ruddy duck cull is tied up with international politics and the British government’s keenness to be seen to be ‘doing something’ for the environment. To quote British Birds, (May 1999), writing in relation to the ruddy duck cull, ‘when faced with a long list of biodiversity actions, many of which are difficult, intangible, expensive and not necessarily in the short term interests of the economy, politicians and environmental agencies will always tend to jump on easy targets’. The ruddy duck could definitely be described as an easy target.
  • During the Department of the Environment-funded trials in 1993 and 1994, shooting with shotguns and rifles, trapping and egg destruction were all tried. The detailed report ultimately recommended shooting the ducks on the basis of cost rather than effectiveness. The report revealed that shooting was less effective than other methods and certainly inhumane. It also noted that shooting caused more disturbance to other birds than did visiting nests to trap ducks or oil eggs (meaning dip them into paraffin), this latter method being 100% effective.
  • Animal Aid believes that ruddy ducks do not need to be ‘controlled’ and are opposed to the cull on moral and rational grounds. However, it would seem reasonable to expect the bird ‘protection’ groups, who were advising the government in the initial trial period, to insist on the most humane method of control. Oiling eggs, although a more expensive option, would obviously have been the most humane and the most effective method. The report stated clearly that locating the nests proved straightforward with 92% of them being found.
  • It will not only be ruddy ducks who will suffer because of this programme. Ruddy ducks are found in mixed flocks of wildfowl and it is impossible to imagine how they could be shot without also killing or injuring other species.