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Fur and feathers fly in row over our cuddly feline killers

Not since a betrayed wife delivered her errant husband's best claret to surrounding doorsteps has there been such a stooshie in a small English town.

Dr Clive Mowforth, research scientist and bird lover, is in trouble with his neighbours. Someone has even threatened arson following some leaflets he delivered locally. The situation is as unlikely as it is unwelcome to the research chemist.

The final straw for Dr Mowforth came when he was enjoying dinner in the garden he'd spent 10 years turning into 'a paradise for birds'. He had noticed, with some sadness, that the numbers of feathered visitors was in decline. Then he saw why.

A pretty little goldfinch was enjoying its own supper on a bird table when - pounce - a neighbour's cat leapt up and killed it.

Dr Mowforth has a webcam to capture images of badgers coming into the garden. What it also captured were murderous felines. He identified 10 "killer" cats - two of which were particularly villainous.

So he printed their images on a leaflet warning of "drastic action" if the cats continued their killing spree. He posted them through the doors of people in surrounding streets in the Gloucestershire market town of Dursley.

The cat owners are not pleased. One said: "What are we supposed to do? Dogs have masters, cats have slaves."

Another complained: "There is nothing you can do to stop your cats going in other people's gardens." And a third said: "I think the whole thing is a bit like Crimewatch for cats."

But there is a serious side to it. Dr Mowforth complains at the prospect of having to spend hundreds of pounds to protect the birds in his garden because cat owners won't control their pets. He says changes in agriculture and habitat loss have already had a detrimental effect on bird populations. There are therefore fewer birds visiting his garden and those that do run the gauntlet of domestic cats.

The same is true across the country. There are 8.5million cats in Britain. One-fifth of households have at least one. And there appears to be a general consensus that they kill between 50 million and 60 million songbirds a year. All told, they are responsible for 210 million animal and bird deaths annually.

It is interesting to consider these figures today of all days. For this is the so-called "Glorious Twelfth" - the opening of the grouse shooting season. It was preceded by a protest against the illegal culling of hen harriers by gamekeepers.

Such is the strength of the lobbying that Marks and Spencer, working in conjunction with the RSPB and the Game Wildlife and Conservation Trust on a code of practice for game suppliers, has decided not to stock grouse this year. I bet it sells cat food.

And I wonder how many of the protesters who are sincere in their belief that killing birds is just plain wrong, went home to stroke Tibbles?

Chris Packham of Springwatch is clear about where he stands on the cat issue. He loves them. He finds them beautiful animals. But he believes there are too many of them in the UK. He says the animal is not the problem. It's irresponsible owners who are at fault. Too many keep a cat out of habit and do little or nothing to prevent it marauding - with significant detrimental effects on our wildlife.

There is clearly a case to answer. And yet it is a subject that rarely arises. What to do about the killer who leaves through the cat flap is a debate we never have.

Dog owners are always urged to be responsible. Dogs have collars and they are walked on a lead in built-up areas. Some have compulsory muzzles. As well as this their owners remove offending poo from pavements or grassy parks. They carry it home in little poly bags.

Cats come and go like delinquent teenagers. One minute they are stretched asleep all over the furniture or picking at their food. The next they are missing overnight.

I speak from experience. We had a most engaging black-and-white kitten of skittish temperament with innocent blue eyes. Then spring came and the garden was momentarily alive with the tweets of baby birds. Only momentarily. With downy feathers still on the lawn we clamped a collar and bell round its neck.

Even animal lover David Attenborough thinks this is the right thing to do. He cites cats along with harsh winters as the principal threats to birds such as the robin.

Everybody knows the domestic cat is one of the greatest predators of song birds, so why don't we talk it through? Why do we care so much about the hen harrier, about any raptor (yes, I do) and so little about the finch, the thrush and the starling?

Even the RSPB seems cowed when it comes to cats and their indiscriminate killing. This national defender of all birdlife speaks with two voices.

Yesterday Graham Mange, from the RSPB, was reported to have said of grouse shooting "…what we have issue with is the fact that there is an incredible amount of birds of prey persecution that is carried out alongside the industry".

He was talking about an industry that brings money and much needed work to remote rural areas.

By comparison, the RSPB sounds almost relaxed about the annual carnage affected by the nation's second favourite pet.

RSPB Scotland said yesterday: 'There is no evidence to suggest domestic cat predation is driving the decline of any bird species in the UK. Each adult bird needs to raise only one chick to breeding condition in its lifetime to sustain the population and small birds have several broods annually precisely because few will make it to their first breeding season. However the RSPB does….. encourage cat owners to take simple measures to help reduce predation, such as using properly fitting bells on cat collars.'

A statement on its UK website says: "Of the birds most frequently caught by cats in gardens, only two (house sparrow and starling) have shown declines in breeding population across a range of habitats during the last six years."

Only two? Is that not two too many?

Am I alone in wondering if the cat lobby makes them as nervous as the cat does nesting birds?

The issue is worth serious debate precisely because of Dr Mowforth's experience. Because of changing agricultural practices, there are fewer songbirds. Those that we do retain are more reliant on gardens.

But the density of garden predators is unnaturally large thanks to the popularity of the cat as a domestic pet.

Chris Packham has two more suggestions for cat owners. Like Attenborough, he agrees about the collar and bell. His other recommendations are to keep cats in at night and to neuter them.

And I have a recommendation for the RSPB. They need to tighten up on domestic cats or loosen up on game keepers. Otherwise their passion for protecting birds will appear to be political.

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