The Squeamish Buzzard

A familiar shape

A familiar shape

Interesting to note the ongoing uproar around the buzzard licences granted to an English pheasant shoot which was suffering from what was deemed “unacceptably high” predation levels. It seems that licences to destroy nests were granted in April after non-lethal deterrents were shown to be ineffective, and having the good sense to keep it quiet and not release the details of the shoot, presumably the job was done and the problem was solved.

Sadly, there is no living creature in this country for whom the general public has less sympathy than a reared pheasant. It’s hard to cast the inexplicably popular buzzard as the villain of the piece when reared gamebirds are involved. Pheasants are indelibly linked to shooting, and applications for buzzard licences are easy to reinterpret as “toffs want to kill raptors so that they can satisfy their own bloodlust”. The fact that foolish incidences of raptor persecution turn up in the newspapers periodically makes it look as though shooting is smugly defiant in the face of popular opinion, so it’s no wonder that tempers seem frayed. In actual fact, the issue of buzzard licences is the tip of an iceberg that is far more significant and far-reaching than any argument between shooting and birds of prey.

Where keepers have problems with buzzards, there should be allowances to apply for licences to take action – after all, every other species that poses a financial irritation to mankind is disposed of. Reduced to its ethical basis, why is the loss of a pheasant to a buzzard intrinsically less actionable than a pheasant lost to a fox? True, buzzards are protected by law, but that same law also allows for them to be controlled under specific circumstances, so why should there be uproar when that legal mechanism is employed? It is just as “legal” to protect buzzards as it is “legal” to kill them under licence.

We kill foxes because they eat chickens, mice because they eat wheat and pigeons simply because they “poo” on us (the word “poo” says it all). Like it or not, our society has a well-established precedent for killing animals which get in our way; indeed, legislation allows us to annihilate rats in a variety of gruesome and wholly inhumane ways. We have a free hand to do away with birds, mammals and insects for the pettiest and most sickeningly fastidious reasons. It’s obviously not the act of killing which upsets us, because it runs as a constant thread throughout our society. It also can’t be the fact that killing buzzards is against the law, because in this case it wasn’t against the law and there was still an outcry.

The problem seems to arise when bad things happen to the random assortment of animals which have taken our fancy. Nobody cries when applications are granted for the destruction of cormorants which eat our fish – cormorants are just as well protected as buzzards are, but they are at a disadvantage because they are unattractive and feculent. While rats starve to death on glue traps or choke on their own poisoned vomit, the very thought of being granted a licence to legally destroy buzzard eggs which haven’t even hatched is enough to make some people foam at the mouth.

The animals we love are so sacrosanct that the very thought of touching them does not even bear thinking about. Britain loves buzzards just as it loves badgers, and it seems that we can’t think practically about them as a result.

We still feel that badgers and buzzards need to be wrapped in cotton wool and carefully protected, despite their abundance. The field sports community is held responsible (correctly in many ways) for having threatened these species, but now that they have recovered, their very proliferation is becoming a symbol of righteous revenge against their persecutors. Conservationists gloat that there are so many buzzards that some grouse moors are becoming unsustainable – species recovery has become an offensive weapon which transcends all ecological significance; it’s payback time, and don’t those gamekeepers just hate it.

It must be one of the only instances in the world where conservation is motivated (at least in part) by the concept of retribution.

We need to be very specific about the birds we’re talking about. It’s easy for an application to control buzzards to be pitched as “raptor culling”, which is usually twisted into discussions about hen harriers. I would argue that the protection of hen harriers is an important conservation issue. By comparison, the protection of a dramatically inflated population of buzzards has become a management issue.

Bird of prey enthusiasts are always reluctant to divide their cause into specific species, preferring to lump them all together as a single tribe which has the beauty of the goshawk, the symbolism of the peregrine and the tragic fragility of the harrier. This “monolithic raptor” becomes stunning, spotless and beyond reproach. Arguments about buzzards frequently end up with a recital of statistics which relate to hen harriers, or peregrines, or kites, or ospreys, or eagles. Each species is very different and deserves to be treated differently, surely?

If you do manage to pin down a discussion specifically about buzzards, they are described as “recovering from near extinction”, as if we owe them a free rein by way of absolution. I quite agree that it was bad when there were too few, but it is surely worse when there are too many. Besides, roe deer were nearly driven off this island altogether, but we don’t seem to be squeamish about managing them to protect our financial interests today.

Even the most determined raptor enthusiast will one day have to face the consequences of ever increasing buzzard numbers. A gloomy person might say that it is impossible that this tiny, distorted island can ever support a functioning foodchain again, particularly since thousands of acres of countryside continue to vanish under human “development” every year. There is no “nature’s way” in this country. Just because there are no streetlights in some areas does not mean that it’s a “timeless natural wilderness”, always longing to revert to the kind of loin-cloth wearing Eden espoused by the re-wilders. Even a thousand years of absent humanity would not restore a natural balance to Britain.

In this man-made countryside, generalised predators seldom regulate (and are rarely regulated by) prey species. Surely nobody believes that as lapwing numbers continue to decline, the badgers which prey upon their eggs and chicks will obligingly starve to death and stage a convenient collapse? More relevant to this blog, when the buzzard that keeps killing my greyhens finally has nothing more to ambush, will its breasts wither away and its chicks die on their nest?

The argument between shooting and raptor conservationists is far more dangerous than an idle slagging match. It entrenches opinions and blinds people to the true disaster which might befall the countryside. The recent State of Nature report documents lists of plants, mammals, birds, fish and reptiles which are in decline. There are so many reasons why our countryside is in melt-down, but our obsessive pre-occupation with predators surely doesn’t help. This  problem is so much more serious than losing a few pheasant poults to a buzzard or sparrowhawk. Regardless of shoot economics, predators cost meat, and they don’t care whether they’re eating a reared partridge or a redshank chick. The issue of buzzard management is so hugely important that unless we can shake off our aggressively protective affection for raptors, things will start to go very wrong indeed.

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