Buzzards…

To paraphrase a former Labour Party spin doctor, 2016 has been a good year to bury bad news. At least, it might have been if people were still worried about the need for dilution.

What we have learned this year is that its okay to basically say whatever you want about whomever you want. For as long as there is enough mud in the air then no-one worries about who threw what or where it was aimed. And the problem with mud is that unlike dust, it doesn’t settle – instead it just clags together in an ever more unpleasant mess.

In any other year, the granting of licences for the control of buzzards would have created more of a stir, and it isn’t until now that I have had a chance to consider the issue. Natural England issued four licences this year, from six applications, allowing the killing of 26 birds.  In each instance, the application was made in order to prevent the predation of pheasants and red-legged partridges by the common buzzard (Buteo buteo) .

On a purely personal level, this news upsets me. I am fond of buzzards – in fact, they are probably my favourite bird of all – so I will inevitably regard the issue with some subjectivity. Yet on a moral basis, I will always struggle to accept that a native species should be controlled in favour of a non-native species. Especially when the environmental impact of the mass release of those non-native species is so unexplored.

I grew up among prime Hampshire shooting estates, and while I have never been a fan of game shooting, I know plenty of people who enjoy it and many others whose living depends upon it. I can see the appeal of rough shooting, though not enough to ever try it for myself, but contradictory as it sounds (and indeed is!) I enjoy the fact that when I fish I can put them back afterwards.

What I do appreciate however, is the importance of shooting to our rural landscape. Without the land management; without the cover crops and undergrowth; and without the supplementary feeding; many of our lowlands would disappear beneath arable desert. All the while that landowners and farmers can sustain profit through shooting then the vital pockets of habitat remain for our wildlife.

The worry is, that with increasing economic upheaval, pressure will increase on our rural output. As import costs soar due to a weak pound, our farmers will be pressured to produce greater yield for export or to support our ever expanding population. With less corporate money floating about, shooting days might not be as profitable as they once were, and in times of uncertainty public opinion counts for plenty.

Yet too often the pro-shooting lobby seem to treat the general public with contempt – happy to float in a bubble of Victorian nostalgia while dismissing the whims of townies, bunny-huggers and ‘psuedo-conservationists’. Blissfully ignorant of the fact that they are increasingly marginalising themselves at a time when they might just need that extra sway of public support. The thing is, people are questioning rural practices like never before, and sometimes the answers simply don’t add up.

The buzzard issue is certainly complex. Though their numbers have stuttered slightly since 2011 (due to wet summer weather affecting breeding), they are a bird that has flourished over the past fifty years. They are adaptable, most happy scavenging road kill or earthworms but quite capable of hunting prey as large as rabbits or pheasants. As with any predator, the buzzard might become dependent upon a specific food source, and will in turn pass that knowledge onto their offspring. This means that there could rise a situation where young game birds are targeted to a level that is unsustainable, and if all non-lethal methods have been tried and have failed then control is the only logical step.

Natural England have therefore, introduced a licence for the lethal control of the buzzard, on the basis that the pheasants and partridges affected are livestock. This in itself is a can of worms waiting to be opened, because at what point, if ever, does a creature reared for release and naturalisation cease to become ‘livestock’? And, if a pheasant or partridge should cause damage to a motor vehicle on a public highway, spread disease or impact upon other native wildlife (such as reptiles) then as ‘livestock’ are they not owned and therefore assets of liability?

Aside from the potential legal ramifications is the actual process of licence application. To reassure myself that lethal control really is the only solution in certain situations I read the successful licence applications.

On one, where the applicant was invited to provide a summary and evidence that the species applied for is causing the issue, the response was as follows;

‘The need to apply because the number of buzzards in my area have increased and are causing serious damage to brown hare leveret, skylarks, lapwings and game birds. There has been a sharp decline in all the above species especially the brown hare.’

And that is it. Enough to warrant a site visit and subsequent licence. Of course hares, skylarks and lapwings are not ‘livestock’ and so their mention is irrelevant (this aside from the complete lack of evidence that their decline is due to the buzzard) and should have been immediately disregarded.

So all that is left is a mention of ‘game birds’ and that has proved sufficient ‘evidence’ for further action. The four licences that were granted this year may not have made much of a dent on the buzzard population nationwide, but surely this is a dangerous precedent to set? It certainly makes me angry, and I understand the value of game shooting.

So what are Natural England trying to achieve? We know that DEFRA funding is being cut year on year, and we also know that NE’s strategy for 21st Century Conservation is heavy on deregulation. It seems, rather worryingly, that they are simply trying to keep Peter happy and hoping Paul doesn’t notice – another short-term fix that in the long term, could cost Peter more than he bargained for and do more damage to the habitat of the buzzard than a gamekeeper’s gun ever will.

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