Defra wants to spend close to £400,000 of taxpayers’ money (that’s our money) on a trial in England to reduce buzzard predation of pheasant poults by, amongst other things, shooting out buzzard nests and permanently imprisoning adults. You can read the Defra tender document here.
I want to tell you why I think that this approach is fundamentally flawed, why I am angry and why we need help to call on Ministers to think again.
Buzzards are one of the nation's best loved birds of prey. I remember as a boy walking on the Long Mynd being inspired by seeing a buzzard soar over head and I've always had a soft spot for these fabulous animals.
In the early 19th century, buzzards were a common sight throughout the UK, but persecution resulted in widespread declines and by 1875, they remained only in western Britain. Subsequent recovery was undermined in the late 1950s, when rabbit populations were decimated by myxomatosis and it was not until the 1990s that the rate of spread accelerated, with birds recolonising much of their former range.
Happily for me and for anyone else who loves these birds, buzzards now breed in every UK county. It is a sad fact in some areas the rate of expansion has been restricted illegally. Buzzards are still the most persecuted bird of prey, with 291 having been confirmed as poisoned in the last 10 years. And as always with wildlife crime, this figure is only the tip of the iceberg.
But not everyone loves buzzards.
Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
Buzzards will take pheasant poults, given the opportunity. Although generally scanvengers, buzzards can be lazy and will take the easiest meal available – no different to you or I nipping down to the fish and chip shop to save cooking. Current estimates suggest that pheasant shooting leads to 40 million non-native gamebirds being released into the countryside, often at very high densities. The result is a meat feast that any self-respecting buzzard is unlikely to ignore. So how many pheasants do buzzards eat? An independent report for the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) found that on average only 1-2% of pheasant poults were taken by birds of prey. This is tiny compared to the numbers which die from other causes, like disease or being run over on the road (which accounts for about 3 million pheasants a year). Even if predation levels are higher in a few instances, there are plenty of legal, non-contentious techniques for reducing predation, which don’t involve destroying nests or confining wild birds to a life spent in captivity. Scaring devices, visual deterrents, more vegetation and diversionary feeding of buzzards could all make a difference, if done well. A few years ago we endorsed a BASC produced guidance note advising gamekeepers on how to reduce bird of prey predation using some of these techniques.
And is capturing buzzards likely to work? If you swat a wasp, but leave a pot of sticky honey open to the air, it won't be long before another wasp takes its place. The same is true of buzzards. Two gamekeepers previously employed on the Kempton estate in Shropshire were convicted of, amongst other things, illegally killing buzzards in 2007. They had killed over 100 buzzards in less than six months in one small part of Shropshire. As soon as one buzzard was removed, another (ill-fated) buzzard took its place. We think that the research project is the wrong answer to address what we see as a minor problem.
We think Defra is taking the proverbial sledgehammer to a walnut in reacting to calls from a small part of the pheasant shooting community to do something about buzzards.
And I am angry at what I see as bad use of public money.
At a time when there is so little to go around, when we know that there is a massive shortfall in funding required to meet the coalition government's ambition "to protect wildlife... and restore biodiversity", it seems ludicrous to be spending a large slug of public money to protect private interest.
I can think of loads of ways to spend £400,000 on nature conservation. Helping save hen harrier from extinction in England would seem a better use of cash.
I should point out that ours isn’t a knee jerk reaction. We’ve been working with Defra for a while to try to identify possible solutions for the small number of pheasant shoots that – we are told – are experiencing losses to buzzards. I genuinely hoped that we would find common ground and that I wouldn’t have to write this blog. That has not been possible.
Buzzards are a conservation success story, due in no small part to effective legal protection and a general warming of attitudes towards buzzards and other birds of prey on the part of many lowland land managers. While some will simply see this as a pilot project and will tell us not to get over-excited. I think that misses the point. If we have a perceived conflict in the countryside, let's first look at whether the conflict is real and serious and then look at the underlying causes of the conflict - in this case the release every year of c40 millions pheasants into the countryside. What are the environmental consequences of those releases? Addressing the symptom will do nothing to address underlying problems in the long term.
I would like to publicly call on Richard Benyon MP, the Minister responsible, to think again and pull the plug on this project.
If you are as angry as I am by this misguided use of public money and attack on buzzards, please step up and write to your MP and ask them to pass on your concerns to Mr Benyon. I will come back to this subject soon, and may seek your further action and support in the coming weeks.
If you do write to your MP, you may like to highlight;- Predation by buzzards is a relatively small cause of loss of pheasants- Buzzards are a native and recovering species, while pheasants are a non-native gamebird- The good that £400,000 could do for species of highest conservation concern, such as the hen harrier
I consider it a huge privilege to see buzzards nearly daily on my way to work. Let's not do anything to undermine the protection which led to their spectacular comeback.
Do you think Defra should spend c£400,000 on a trial to reduce buzzard predation of pheasant poults in England by, amongst other things, shooting out buzzard nests and permanently imprisoning adults? If not, what would you prefer them to spend the money on?
It would be great to hear your views.
The buzzard proposal is based on bad science and should be shelved. Money would be better spent on Hen Harrier protection as widely viewed, and on good science such as the effect of release of millions of young pheasants on tick numbers, which has been implicated in the increase tick-borne diseases such as Lyme disease in people (see Hoodless, A. N. Kurtenbach, K. Nuttall, P. A. & Randolph, S. E. The impact of ticks on pheasant territoriality. Oikos 96, 245 - 250 (2002).
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