6 MAY 1972, Page 27


Sir: Clive Gammon's ' crotchety ' (his word) piece about the Wildfowl Trust (Spectator, April 8), contained, in a column and a half, no less than ten significant errors of fact. May I be allowed to correct some of his wider misapprehensions?

Mr Gammop begins by saying "Conservation, I suppose, can go no further than clipping the wings of ducks and geese and imprisoning them in pens." Contrary to his supposition, it can and does go much further. For example the captive Hawaiian Geese or Nenes have been breeding at Slimbridge since 1951 when only 32 birds were known to exist. In the 21 years 665 have been raised, and

200 have been sent to the Hawaiian island of Maui to repopulate the Haleakala crater on which the Nene had been exterminated. Comparable captivebreeding programmes for seven other threatened species are currently under way at Slimbridge. But it was, Mr Gammon says, the flamingoes at Slimbridge that put him into a crotchety frame of mind. He thinks that our flamingoes are "the pinkest in the world" and that those he saw in the Ngorongoro crater were less pink "because they are not allocated the special wonder diet additive, carotin, as the Gloucestershire birds are." May we explain that the wild flamingoes get their carotin ' allocated ' by nature in the bluegreen algae and the brine shrimps of the East African soda lakes. It is only because we have no brine shrimps and no blue-green algae at Slimbridge that we have to add carotin artificially to the diet. Those that appeared to him brighter than the Lesser Flamingoes he saw in Africa were simply a different species — Caribbean Flamingoes — and were he to see them wild on their Bahamian island of Inagua he would find that they are just the same colour as ours.

In fact we keep colonies of all six of the world's flamingo species, four of which have successfully reared young — in the case of the Andean Flamingo the first ever to be hatched in captivity. The hatching and rearing of this species has never been studied in the wild. Nevertheless in one trenchant paragraph Mr Gammon writes:

"What possible scientific justification can the Wildfowl Trust have for keeping these birds pent up in huts? There is no world shortage of flamingoes. There are probably millions of them on Lake Naivasha in Kenya alone. No, they are merely there as a spectacle, like the elephants in a circus." Let us just examine that little package. It is true that the birds are indoors between November and March to escape the British winter, but they are out-of-doors for the rest of the year to breed and raise their young. What of the scientific justification? The relationships of the flamingo family to other birds are of particular interest, some regarding them as long-legged geese, while others believe they are web-footed storks. Studies in captivity have already thrown some light on the subject though not yet conclusively. Little enough is known of flamingo breeding biology, incubation periods, moult sequences, language and behaviour. Apart from the example of the Andean Flamingo, the Wildfowl Trust has made a number of other discoveries. Two scientists from overseas have come specifically to study Flamingoes at Slimbridge.

No world. shortage of flamingoes? On the contrary three of the six species — James's, Andean. and Caribbean — are believed to be threatened with extinction. In Kenya there are often a million Lesser Flamingoes on Lake Nakuru (not Naivasha, which is a fresh water lake).

The flamingo colonies at Slimbridge are not "merely there as a spectacle" nor are they there merely for research or merely for education or merely for conservation. They are there for a combination of all these reasons, and the fact that they are an extremely beautiful spectacle in their nesting colonies is one additional benefit. Not every one has been fortunate enough to see flamingoes, as Mr Gammon has, from 11,000 feet over the Ngorongoro crater and quite a number of people, including in the last year members of more than 600 parties from schools, have learned at Slimbridge to distinguish between the six different flamingo species, and between many of the 160 different kinds of ducks, geese and swans.

Mr Gammon's concluding rhetorical question is: "Do creatures which have been manhandled and tagged thereafter behave in the same way as before the trauma?" and he doubts if anyone knows, "even the duck collectors of Slimbridge."

In the case of the 380 wild Bewick's Swans which have been ringed at Slimbridge, we are in a peculiarly strong position to say "Yes, they do behave in the same way," because we have been recording the movements and behaviour of all our swans daily throughout the last nine winters, and the birds have also been followed for the last three years on their spring migration across Holland. Denmark and West Germany. Those which have been caught and ringed behave in exactly the same way as those which have not, and bring back exactly the same percentage of young from Siberia when they return to England each autumn. We know this because we can distinguish and know by name, from their infinitely variable black and yellow bill patterns, all 1,500 of the swans that have visited our Swan Lake at Slimbridge since

1964. Peter Scott

The Wildfowl Trust, Slimbridge, Gloucester GL2 7EIT