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26/09/2016, 17:00

Row over harm done by domestic cats sends fur flying

Authors of US book Cat Wars at loggerheads with UK campaigners over call to ‘remove all free-ranging cats from the landscape’

A book about the destructive impact of domestic cats on wildlife has sent fur flying, setting its authors at loggerheads with British conservationists over whether the country’s moggies should be kept under house arrest. 

The book, Cat Wars, calls for the activity of cats to be controlled in a bid to conserve global wildlife and prevent the spread of infections and diseases such as toxoplasmosis. “From a conservation ecology perspective, the most desirable solution seems clear - remove all free-ranging cats from the landscape by any means necessary,” the authors write.

They admit such a goal is “hardly practical”, but they propose a range of measures to reduce the environmental impact of Felis catus. They include keeping cats indoors, neutering, re-homing feral and stray cats and euthanising those for which there is no other option. 

“Cats are a domesticated species that don’t belong outside. They shouldn’t have access to native species,” said Peter Marra, the head of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Centre, who co-authored Cat Wars with Chris Santella. 

British experts have hit back, saying that there is no need for such measures in the UK. “In terms of the UK experience, I think it is very unfortunate advice coming through from the Americans on what we should do when there isn’t a problem in the first place,” said John Bradshaw, the director of the anthrozoology institute at the University of Bristol. 

Habitat loss rather than cats is the key cause of concern when it comes to wildlife, he added.

The 7.4 million pet cats in the UK are not a scourge, Bradshaw said, echoing the view put forward by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which advises that while pet cats are thought to kill around 55m birds a year, they tend to prey on the sick or weak.

Marra argues that there is no evidence for such claims. “There is no data on that. Show me the paper on that. It is not there,” he said.

Bradshaw says that unlike countries such as Australia or New Zealand, where cats arrived only a few hundred years ago, they have been a feature of British life for millennia. “We have had domestic cats in this country since before Roman times,” he said. “There has probably been time for quite a lot of co-evolution.”

Marra disagrees. “The idea that cats co-evolve with native species is just not true. Where is the data on that? That is just not true,” he said.

“Given what we know about cats influence globally, both on island and on continents, on mainlands, how can we, especially a group dedicated to the preservation of birds, how can we just turn our head to that? I really don’t understand that,” he said of the RSPB’s position. 

In areas with endangered or threatened species a zero-tolerance stance is necessary, Marra says, with household cats kept indoors and stray and feral cats neutered and adopted, housed in shelters or, if absolutely necessary, put down. 

“I am not saying we [should be] killing all cats,” he said. “I am not proposing that. I would never propose that.” 

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The debate comes in the same week that researchers from Australia and New Zealandrevealed that feral cats are one of the worst offenders when it comes to threatening wildlife around the world. They claim they are responsible for the extinction of 63 species and threaten 430. 

“Around the rest of the world we are not arguing about the impacts, we are arguing about the solutions,” said Marra. “I am a little befuddled, I am a little confused by the push back in the UK.”

The view of cats as murdering menaces is shared by many, including the broadcasters Chris Packham and David Attenborough, who have previously called for owners to keep their pets indoors or kit them out with bell-collars to help prevent them hunting garden birds. 

Mark Avery, a writer, environmental campaigner and former director of conservation at the RSPB, said that while moggies kill millions of birds in the UK, they are rarely threatened or endangered species. 

“If we killed all the cats in the country or kept them indoors, there would be a few more birds out there, but not that many more,” he said. Many natural predators of birds are no longer present in the countryside, he added. “The British countryside ought to be full of polecats and goshawks and all sorts of things that would eat these birds.”

Marra disagrees. “Right now the density that cats are at, especially in the UK, far exceeds any density of any native predator that was once there,” he said.

Avery is adamant that the calling for cats be controlled is far from a top priority. “If you look at all the conservation issues in the country, this comes quite low down the list,” he said. “Once you have sorted out climate change, agriculture, overfishing , water pollution, over-abstraction and illegal killing of birds of prey, then maybe we will come on to the cats.”

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