RSPB Vice President Chris Packham has been exciting newspaper columnists and the twittersphere by suggesting we need to do something about cats. It's one of those topics like pensions, free access to museums or marmite that sharply divide people.
Chris is 100% correct in saying domestic cats (an estimated 7 to 9 million of them in the UK) are responsible for killing some 100 million critters a year or a half-year*. The prey are mostly small mammals but a large chunk are birds, particularly garden birds. There is voiciferous anecdotal evidence supported by speculation that cats are responsible for decimating songbirds. There's a severe lack of scientific evidence to support those speculative assertions.
Of course any predator will reduce numbers of its favourite nibble. You should see the houmous shelves in my local shop after Friday snack-hunts. However, more houmous is produced than I can consume, and the same is true of garden birds. Predation will have an effect, but the shrinking populations of songbirds cannot be entirely blamed on cats, sparrowhawks, jays, rats and squirrels.
If you have a cat and have been inspired by Chris to step-up your efforts to reduce its playtime with nature, then there's lots you can do.
Studies have found that sonic collars emitting high-frequency sounds inaudible to us and cats work better than bells to warn mammals and birds of the cat's presence. There are other sonic devices that deter cats from gardens. Keeping cats indoors at dawn and dusk or ensuring you control their play-time during the breeding season - or mid-winter can all help.
There are design tricks you can employ in gardens or outdoors spaces. Keeping feeding stations away from vantage or leaping points helps reduce the number of feeding birds from becoming food. Having dense, preferable prickly, shrubs within a short fast flight of the feeder is good too.
Nature is amazing. It's beautiful and inventive. Conservation is all about caring for what we've got and working with nature to draw out the best it can offer. Nature can be brutal, chaotic and unforgiving too.
If you fancy exploring more of that beautiful, chaotic, seedy, brutality. Take part in our Cockney Sparrow Count and share your images or thoughts. It's also National Insect Week. There are more than a dozen different species of ladybird to find at our Rainham Marsh reserve, including a new arrival in the UK, the all orange and ever so slightly hairy Bryony ladybird.
Be warned when handling ladybirds. You may well become aware of a bitter smell. It's their defence mechanism, where they wee a type of toxic blood from their knees. How crazy, inventive and mad is a leaky poisonous knee?
* Figures quoted here come with a caveat - or should that be Cat-e-ate - in that there are only best guesses and estimates available and that the data that is available varies from organisation to organisation.
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