Animal cruelty hit the headlines again in the UK recently as human greed clashed with a conservation success story. A gamekeeper was found guilty of poisoning 10 buzzards and a sparrowhawk with a banned pesticide in order to protect pheasants he was rearing for an estate in Norfolk. This is not an isolated case. The incidence of raptor poisoning in Scotland has doubled in the last few years as estates’ keepers battle against increasing numbers of buzzards and other raptors in an effort to protect their ‘cash crop’ of game birds.
Should buzzards now be classified as vermin?
The ‘Yes’ camp argument
During the 1950s DDT and myxomatosis all but wiped out common buzzards in the UK. Since then, buzzards have enjoyed something of a renaissance and are now the most common raptor species in the UK. At the top of the food chain, with a sustainable food supply and abundant suitable habitat, buzzards are doing well. Buzzards are by nature hunters with a varied diet; rabbits, hares, mice, squirrels, snakes, birds and even worms at a pinch and they not averse to scavenging on carrion too.
Unfortunately, the buzzards’ breeding season and feeding of their youngsters coincides with the release of millions of young game birds and they overwinter happily on game bird carcasses abandoned during the shooting season. Ironically, it’s the exodus of the city dweller to the countryside and the consequent recent boom in the shooting industry that is fuelling the buzzard population explosion.
There are also concerns among some genuine country folk that the blooming buzzard population is impacting on all wildlife, not just profitable game bird crops. Vulnerable species such as red squirrels, dormice and the chicks of rare birds whose populations cannot withstand yet another predator’s attentions are becoming seriously at risk as the environmental balance tips.
The buzzard is undoubtedly a success story, but in order for other native species to be protected, its numbers must be controlled to avoid a potentially catastrophic imbalance.
And in the ‘No’ corner
The buzzards’ recovery should be seen as a conservation success story, according to the RSPB. As little as two decades ago, the sight of a buzzard on the wing would have been something of real note; today they’re seen everywhere.
At a time when 60 per cent of all UK wildlife species are in decline, the rise of the buzzard should be a cause for celebration. Buzzards are tremendously flexible feeders and that is one of the main reasons for their success. Yes, they do take game bird chicks and predate on native species but there’s no real hard evidence to suggest that they are contributing to any dramatic decline in vulnerable species. It’s far more likely that changes in farming practice, loss of hedgerows and open countryside to development for housing and roads is to blame for that.
The main complainants are those who perceive the buzzards to be a threat to their investment in poults and consequently a shortage of pheasants (which are not a native bird) for their clients to shoot which in turn means a drop in income for the big country estates. It’s estimated that of the millions of game birds released each season, only 1 per cent are taken by birds of prey which is hardly going to make a real dent in profit margins; foxes, weasels, stoats, magpies, crows and road kills account for a far greater proportion of losses.
Killing buzzards to protect pheasants is wrong. Removing a protected native bird of prey in order to increase a surplus of non-native game birds bred solely for recreational shooting is just plain unacceptable. Using increased cover, visual deterrents and diversionary feeding are much better ways of protecting pheasants.
Our wildlife is in crisis. Other birds of prey, hen harriers for example, are in grave danger of disappearing altogether because of illegal killing to protect grouse chicks. It was the legal protection of buzzards that has contributed to their recovery and we should not allow those with their eyes on their bank balances to undermine it.
We should seek to live in harmony with nature; not merely remove elements of it which cause us inconvenience or threaten to spoil the fun of a misguided minority.
What do you think?
Image source: Flickr