Why Defra is wrong about buzzards and why I am angry

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I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t

Why Defra is wrong about buzzards and why I am angry

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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.

  • I’m sorry to hear, Woowa,  that “this scaremongering article that has left me looking very silly in front of my MP, family and friends”.    I am another RSPB member that is not impressed.

    I, however, looked to see what DEFRA was realy doing.  They were responding to requests to tackle a problem of buzzard predation on pheasants managed for game shooting.  They responded in a resposible way, they proposed a Buzzard Control Study.  

    The project specification is given at: raptorpersecutionscotland.files.wordpress.com/.../buzzard-control-experiment-overview.pdf    which is the link that MartinHarper gave.

    The rest, in Martin’s blog and comments, is a missquided denunciation of those who made the request as well as DEFRA. This just detracts from the real issue.

    We all need to be circumspect in our dealings with the rest of nature – we have considerable problems with nature since we were nor circumspect in the past.

  • Lets face it, the land owners and gamekeepers just want to become 'legal' in their destruction of buzzards. We know damn well that they kill birds of prey illegally. I can't believe I am lucky enough to see these fab birds over my Northamptonshire home - I only used to get to see them in Wales or the West Country - so to have them persecuted by people who claim to be for the countryside and it's way of life, disgusts me. As Agricola says, manage the problem with food left out. Most birds of prey are pretty lazy and would be pleased of an easy meal.

  • I just got a call from the RSPB about this and it about took my breath away. I know landowners are struggling to keep the wolf from the door, and there are perhaps ever fewer people willing to pay through the nose at the moment for the chance to shoot for a few days on an estate, but the interests of the sport - which leaves the countryside flooded with non-native birds all competing for sparring space underneath the next passing Volvo - should never outweigh the recovery and protection of the native bird population. I'd like to do more to help in the campaign about this and would welcome contact from the RSPB on how to do so - for example, along the lines of 38Degrees, which is very good and fast campaign responses on issues. I recently participated in the poster campaign about the NHS, and something like that would certainly have me putting my hand in my pocket...I'd also welcome (like they have) a form letter that connects up to your MP/MSP's email address if you give it your postcode. Good luck guys.

  • 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).

  • I can't believe this!!!!!!!!!! Absolutely disgraceful!!!!!!!!!

  • To the many of you that have posted a comment on this blog for the first time - thank you.  It has been great to read your views.  You should be pleased to hear that we have received countless other enquiries/wishes of support at the end of last week.  So, you are not alone, and we intend to continue to make the case until the decision is overturned.

  • After all the work involved in helping to protect the buzzard we are now being told we need to spend money to get rid of this beautiful bird so some geezers can go and shoot a bird or two.

  • I cannot believe the crass attitude of DEFRA. Pheasants are introduced for people to shoot. How can these birds be protected yet the buzzard, which is an indegenous species be persecuted? Heavens above, the almighty pound is flexing it's muscles again. I should imagine that this has been suggested, discussed and put together during long dinners on a private estate. How often are our spineless MPs going to kowtow to the small minority of people in this country who own the vast amount of our land? This suggestion just beggars belief that the quarry of tax dodging, money grabbing hooray Henries should be considered important enough to protect! Unvelievable. The Hen Harrier saga is testament to the actions of these people and their gamekeepers (I Live in Lancashire.... I have spoken to gamekeepers.. I know what goes on). Is owning the land not enough any longer? Do they now have to own every bird on the land and in the skies above it? All this to protect a species which, in the area I live in is a pest. It has been artificially bred and released in such numbers that they attack crops and wildflowers on such a scale it affects the local eco-system. But, I guess the shooting days out for city 'gents' with more money than sense (and unfortunately the ears of the powers that be) are more important than the natural eco-system of the countryside and the continuing bio-diversity of our country. This 'trial' will get passed as the palms will aready have been greased and the sham of publishing the suggestion by DEFRA and asking for people's views has been duly done. Musn't break the law now by not publishing. I will write to my MP as I do for all these worthy causes and hope that it does some good, but I doubt it.

  • I love to see Buzzards flying in the sky, and that's where they should be, not locked up in who knows where.  I would imagine that more Phesants are killed by motorists rather than birds of prey. Will the government start a cull on car drivers too? What next, other birds of prey, Magpies, Crows the list goes on!!

  • Woowa - hello.  Good to meet you.  Two things to say: a) In the Defra mythbusting piece online and in the tender for the tender document for the research, Defra states that it will explore the following and I quote:

    "Translocation (permanent): Permanent removal off-site, for example, to a falconry centre. NE would be able to provide assistance for researchers in planning and licensing negotiations with potential recipients.

    Nest destruction: Breeding birds displaced by destroying nests during construction, for example, using squirrel drey-poking pole or shotgun from below thereby forcing the pair to move on to find another nest site or not breed that year. Care would be needed to avoid injuring birds."

    This is what we are objecting to and indeed what we raised with the Minister and officials on a number of occasions.   We fail to convince them privately which is why we decided to raise our concerns publicly.  These options are still part of the research contract unless or until Defra changes its mind.

    b) We were not the only people to object to this and at no point have we said that Defra is planning a cull.  I understand how others may have drawn this conclusion.

    I hope that helps clarify the situation.

  • I fail to see why the shooting lobby, after all a private, commercial interest, should demand that govt. agencies destroy our native wildlife for the benefit of their bank balances.

    One of your other news stories concerns the illegal killing of hen harriers - by the shooting industry. Sorry, but the main threat to captive reared pheasants (an invasive, foreign species anyway), is road traffic. So how about the C.A., Assoc for Shooting & Conservation etc. campaigning for a blanket 20mph speed limit outside towns then?

  • Surely the fact that you, Woowa, RSPB and others, have already raised concerns with MPs has prompted the 'myth-buster' (panic?) response from DEFRA. Obviously alarmed by the possibility of mass protest, the Government wanted to quell any fears about Buzzard culling - just another U turn/denial which seems to be a characteristic of current government? How better to appease people by making them and organisations appear silly.

    So you shouldn't feel your efforts have been wasted.

    Look at the Countryside Alliance Website


    The CA has not altered its website in view of the DEFRA denial, and look at the statement by David Taylor.

    Clearly he is talking about killing buzzards.

    …..to undertake licensed lethal control of buzzards……

    and if you substitute the word pheasants for raptors in his statement:

    “While we welcome the study, it is a shame the Government have had to commission this expensive exercise simply to appease a group of people who believe that (raptors) pheasants have a greater significance than any other bird. Such a mentality is dangerous for conservation and scarcely justifies the large cost to the taxpayer.”

    I think I would agree!!

    However the fact still remains that this study is being carried at public expense for the pheasant shooting community.

  • After getting very angry about this and having followed your advice and emailed my MP, I then find that DEFRA have issued a 'myth buster' that they are not culling or imprisoning Buzzards and are in fact looking at implementing the exact schemes of vegetation cover and diversionary feeding you put forward in this piece:


    The severity of this piece and others I think has overstated the fact that the worst they can do is move a Buzzard, not destroy its nest, imprison it permanently or kill it. Whilst this would be an expensive waste of time, agreed, it is nowhere near as severe as this scaremongering article that has left me looking very silly in front of my MP, family and friends. For once, RSPB, this is one member that is not impressed!

  • PS. Richard Benyon is also on Twitter, I have already tagged him into posts and urge others to do the same

  • Well, in my naive and idealistic mind, it would seem sensible if DEFRA put money into researching the damage caused to our native ecosystem by the enormous annual introductions of this flying foreign pollutant.