Emily Potts 4th December 2018
The number of households that own a cat is now at its highest in five years, according to the Pet Food Manufacturer’s Association, and it has been estimated that there are between 8-10 million domestic cats in the UK. As any cat owner will tell you, “domestic” is a relative term. Cats are natural hunters and will pounce on soft toys, red dots and naked feet.
Furthermore, according to recent figures from the Mammal Society, domestic cats catch up to 275 million creatures a year, of which 55 million are birds.
Cats are not the only reason why wildlife is decreasing. Keith Cowieson, the director of SongBird Survival, an independent, UK-wide bird charity, stresses that our wildlife is diminishing, due to urbanisation, intensive farming and fragmentation of natural habitats, but there is now also an “overabundance of generalist predators”, meaning that cats have become a major concern regarding wildlife population.
“Cats were of great use for pest control for hunting rats and mice throughout the years,” explains Cowieson, “but now there has been a great rise in people keeping them solely as pets, which means that they are not employed as pest controllers, so they are not exercising their evolutionary urge to go and hunt.”
This means that when they are let out at night, cats are driven to exercise this predatory instinct. But the impact that outdoor cats have on wildlife is dependent on various factors.
Dr Sarah Crowley, who is researching this issue for Songbird Survival at the University of Exeter’s Environment and Sustainability Institute, explains that it “depends on how many cats there are, how much each cat successfully hunts, which species they are catching and how abundant a species is in the area”.
She says, “With current evidence, we know that cats kill wildlife, and, in some cases, this may affect vulnerable wildlife populations.”
But the sheer number of cats in Britain has Cowieson and SongBird Survival increasingly concerned that our birds are in trouble. However, he understands that banning cats isn’t the solution — “They make a great companions, which is good for mental health and wellbeing,” — but a balance needs to be found by monitoring cat behaviour to minimise the amount of wildlife that is killed.
The really vulnerable times are around dawn and dusk, when birds are roosting or bedding down for the night
One preventable measure, according to Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), which could reduce the amount of wildlife caught by cats, by putting a bell on the cat’s collar so it gives warning to any small mammals and birds. Recent research conducted by RSPB found that 41 % fewer birds were caught by cats with bells on their collars.
They also recommend taking unwanted cats to a shelter for re-homing to prevent the feral cat population from increasing, and consider having cats neutered to prevent them from producing unwanted kittens.
Cowieson adds, “Cat owners could also restrict their cat’s freedom of movement, which could have a significant impact on wildlife. The really vulnerable times are around dawn and dusk, when birds are roosting or bedding down for the night; delay letting the cat out during those periods.”
However, some people think that keeping a cat indoors goes against their natural behaviour of roaming.
South Essex Wildlife Hospital received a mixed reaction after posting a picture on Facebook of the wildlife their volunteers had found which had died. The post included the suggestion to keep cats inside, to which many people responded with comments along the lines of, “It isn’t fair to force a cat to stay indoors.” Still, others agreed with the Wildlife Hospital, saying that people don’t realise or want to accept just how much damage cats have on wildlife.
Other research being conducted by Dr Crowley and colleagues, sponsored by SongBird Survival, aims at working with cat owners to explore ways of mitigating potentially devastating cat hunting behaviour.
She explains, “Many of the cat owners we are working with feel strongly about whether or not cats should have outdoor access. Indoor cats are safe from road accidents, loss, theft and cat fights, and they won’t kill wildlife, but they are at greater risk of obesity and stress if they are not provided with enough exercise and stimulation. Outdoor cats get plenty of exercise and stimulation but are at risk from environmental factors and many will also kill wildlife.”
It is a complex problem that won’t be solved quickly. Although wildlife-oriented organisations are concerned about the potential impacts of free-ranging outdoors cats on vulnerable wildlife populations, cat owners and cat-oriented organisations are concerned about the potential impacts that cat management measures could have on cat health and welfare.
To get over this hurdle, Cowieson says, “The research will run lots of focus groups with cat owners to trial it out, and see what preventable measures they would accept and if these do significantly lower the rate of cat predation on native wildlife.” This should provide cat owners with a recommended code of conduct, added to those from RSPB, which they can follow to help minimise the impact on wildlife while not having to worry about their cat’s health and welfare.
Cowieson is positive about the research outcome. “It is a shared problem because not only are cat owners’ lovers of cats, but they are also generally lovers of wildlife too.”
Emily Potts 4th December 2018