To date this blog has been more oh-look-there's-some-pretty-wildlife than stand-up-for-wild-birds but it's time we stood up. All of us. DEFRA has announced a plan to develop management techniques to reduce predation of pheasant poults by buzzards. Details of the plan, which includes removing buzzards to captivity and destroying new nests, may be found here. It is couched, naturally, in anodyne terms but it is based on a number of factual inaccuracies and philosophical sleights of hand, which we are supposed not to notice. Numerous more informed, better qualified and more eloquent voices have today expressed opinions on this subject, including the RSPB, the RSPB's conservation director Martin Harper and the RSPB's former conservation director Mark Avery (all of which you should read). Nonetheless, here, for what they are worth, are my thoughts.
Before I launch into them, however, a clarification. It is sometimes the case that a minority of the traditional land-management community accuses those who take a different stance of being ignorant townies or treehuggers. I've hugged a tree or two in my time but it is certainly not the case that I am a townie. I grew up in rural North Norfolk. Both of my grandfathers shot enthusiastically, both of my godfathers shoot avidly, one of my brothers used to shoot. I have two local friends who are gamekeepers, both of them also committed conservationists, as are countless of their colleagues. Both of these keepers I find to be thoughtful, decent, kind, witty men with a deep love of nature and an extraordinary knowledge of wild creatures. Furthermore, I recognise and honour the great contribution to conservation of many responsible shooting estates. Shooting is not to my taste but I am no ignorant townie; nor am I so small as to dismiss others because the views they hold are different to mine. Moderation in all things.
But I have my views and on DEFRA's proposed research into controlling buzzards to limit their minor depredations on pheasants they are as follows:
1) I read yesterday an article from the BASC in which a massive rise in the British buzzard population was quoted. What was not mentioned was that this massive rise was a recovery from a terrifyingly reduced population in the early half of the twentieth century, reduced - let's not mince our words - by persecution. Yes, there are many more buzzards than there were fifty years ago but this is because in many parts of the country they had been persecuted out of existence.
2) The buzzard is a native predator. The pheasant is a non-native (Asian) prey species. Any argument that it has become part of the British landscape is fallacious. Millions of pheasants are released in the UK every year, with the sole purpose of their being shot. They in no way form part of the British fauna. An argument I have not seen raised elsewhere is that these are not only non-native birds; they are domestic strains of non-native birds, specifically bred to have particular qualities. A quick search online for suppliers of chicks and poults will reveal this to be true.
3) I freely admit to hugging trees, but am I alone in thinking that releasing millions of domesticated non-native birds into the countryside every year (with the sole purpose of killing them later), and then wishing to remove native predators because of their minor predation of them, is an extraordinary twisting of logic?
4) The words predator and predation, very often qualified as voracious, are commonly used as if they bestowed moral judgement on wildlife (frequently otters, cormorants, sparrowhawks, buzzards and especially foxes). Predator = bad. This is deceitful. Human beings are predators and the predations of other species are no more or less cruel than ours. It is simply a fact that human beings and other predators kill animals, for food and in some cases for pleasure. The thought that lies behind most accusations that wild animals are predators, as in the case of this buzzard fiasco, is: you can't kill that, because I want to.
I clearly remember my first Norfolk buzzard. I was in my early teens when, walking between one school building and another, I looked up and there above me was a chunky brown and white raptor. I was thrilled and I ran to the biology block to tell my teachers. I didn't see another buzzard in Norfolk until I was in my twenties, when two friends and I would regularly visit the edge of a wood in North Norfolk where buzzards were breeding. This was top secret; top secret because through my whole life until then there had been almost no buzzards in Norfolk. Human beings had killed them all.
This is why the conservation and wildlife-watching community is incensed by DEFRA's plan. This morning I saw a tweet from a gamekeeping organisation asking, since conservationists opposed DEFRA's spurious research, what we had to lose. Simple: we stand to lose the buzzard. We lost it once through persecution and we refuse to allow even the smallest step towards losing it again.
Write to your MP today, asking her or him to urge DEFRA to desist from this shameful initiative.