A move to shoot ring-necked parakeets to cut their numbers has been branded ‘racist’ by wildlife experts.
Natural England yesterday announced that from January it will relax rules protecting the exotic birds.
The birds have been blamed for destroying crops and bullying smaller native species in the hunt for food and nesting space.
But London Wildlife Trust said there is ‘little evidence’ that a cull of parakeets–with their bright green plumage, red beaks and ear-piercing screech–is justified.
It added that parakeets, which originate from the Himalayas, are ‘as British as curry’ and represent the London’s cultural and historical diversity.
The trust said a cull was ‘misguided’ and feared the move put similar-looking indigenous birds, like the green woodpecker, at risk of being shot in error.
It added: ‘Descriptions of them as bullies and pests reflects more on attitudes towards ‘foreign species’ than any evidence to support these views.’
Mathew Frith, deputy chief executive of London Wildlife Trust: ‘The evidence is scant, and our view is that there are already existing licence arrangements that can be used if parakeets are damaging cherry trees, for example, in a farmer’s orchard. I think this is just jumping the gun.
‘We also know that green woodpeckers look like parakeets. They’re very bright green when they fly. This could be yet another reason for people to cull other birds.’
But he added: ‘I quite like ring-neck parakeets but I’m lucky I don’t have to live near a flock. When they fly they look like Spitfires.’
With up to 40,000 of the wild parrots thought to be in London and the South-East, in areas such as Richmond Park, it feared that they could soon outnumber native species in the way that the red squirrel population has been dominated by grey squirrels.
Matthew Heydon, Natural England’s licensing expert, said: “It’s true that at the present time the scale of this problem is relatively minor.
‘That is because the birds are relatively limited in their distribution, but as they spread out of London you can expect the problem to get more severe.
‘The closest example is the grey squirrel. Now there isn’t a hope in hell of removing the grey squirrel from Britain, and the red squirrel is hanging on by a thread.’
Mr Heydon warned it was not “open season” on parakeets and said the rules would be tightened if too many were killed. But he said one farmer in Cobham had lost enough grapes in a day to make 3,000 bottles of wine after they were eaten by parakeets.
‘If you left a flock of several hundred parakeets in a vineyard for a day, you would probably have no crop left,’ he said.
Because of their size, the parakeets bully smaller birds and damage trees.
Natural England has announced a new exemption from the Wildlife And Countryside Act 1981 allowing ‘owners or occupiers of land’ or their agents to kill or take the birds, provided it is done in a ‘quick and humane manner’.
About 40,000 parakeets are thought to be in London and the South-East alone. Legend has it the birds escaped from Shepperton Studios in Surrey, during filming of the 1951 movie The African Queen starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn.
The rocker Jimi Hendrix is also said to have released two parakeets as an alternative symbol of peace in the 1960s.
Other species also added to the ‘general licence’ hit-list include the monk parakeet from South America, which can occasionally be found in the northern Home Counties, the Canada goose and the Egyptian goose.
All three are considered to pose a threat to native wildlife, public health or public safety.
They join gulls, crows and magpies on the list of birds that can be legally shot without special permission, if damage is being done.
Natural England chief executive Helen Phillips said there was a ‘vital’ need to control exotic and non-native species.
‘Non-native species are a major threat to global biodiversity and it is important that licences can operate as an effective tool in helping to tackle the problem,’ she said.
However, Matthew Heydon, a licensing expert at Natural England, warned homeowners could not shoot parakeets without special reason.
He said: ‘We don’t want people or kids going out with air rifles taking pot-shots at these birds. It has to be done humanely and for a proper purpose.’
DID YOU KNOW?
* No one knows where the UK’s wild parrots come from. One theory is that a pair escaped from a container in Heathrow airport.
* Since they started breeding in the wild in 1969, the ring necked parakeet has become London’s 15th most common bird.
* They nest so early in the year–often in January–that they use up the good holes and nest boxes, driving away native species such as woodpeckers.
* In Esher, Surrey, one roost has an estimated 7,000 noisy birds.
* Also known as rose necked parakeets, they were kept as pets by the Ancient Greeks and Romans.
* The birds originate from the foothills of the Himalayas–so can cope with the chilly British weather.