Tim Boxall points at a shape in the field bordering the seven-acre wooded pen where he keeps 1,500 pheasants. “Here you are,” he says. “Look! There’s one over here.” He bends down and prises the remains of a pheasant from the long grass. “That’s a buzzard kill, you can tell by the way it’s been eaten.”
Boxall is a gamekeeper, raising 10,000 pheasants a year to be killed in commercial shoots on the land he rents in Gloucestershire. This year, however, the pheasants have something other than Boxall’s clients to fear: the buzzard.
“There’s an old saying: where there’s livestock, there’s going to be deadstock,” Boxall says. “You accept the buzzards are always going to have some, but this year was horrendous. I lost 500 pheasants at £3.75 each. It cost me £75 a day to pay someone to sit there all day to watch over them, basically sunbathing for two weeks, but it did keep them away.”
“If you take a buzzard out, others will move in,” said the broadcaster and naturalist Chris Packham, describing Natural England’s decision as a “catastrophe”. “All you are doing is making a vacuum. In practical terms it’s doomed to fail. In ethical terms it’s abhorrent. These are native birds being killed to protect a non-native species, it’s Lewis Carroll, it’s insane. Now the floodgates will open and everyone will apply for these licences. Will it be peregrines next? Kites?”
Martin Harper, conservation director for the RSPB, asked: “Why are we allowing this still-recovering magnificent bird to be legally killed? In order to protect a private business concern. To protect a few of the tens of millions of non-native game birds that are released into the countryside each year.”
Gamekeepers, however, are having none of it. “The RSPB line is nonsense,” said a spokesman for the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation. “In law it’s quite clear: Natural England cannot grant a licence for any purpose that would adversely affect the sustainable status of the species concerned. There has to be a genuine need and no other satisfactory solution. Natural England cannot refuse a licence if those tests are met.”
While campaigners question the morality of the decision, they cannot question its legality. The gamekeepers’ organisation backed a successful judicial review launched by a gamekeeper last year to challenge Natural England’s decision to refuse him a licence to control buzzards. Under the terms of the high court ruling, Natural England must “balance the protection of wild birds against the requirement to prevent serious damage to livestock”. The court further ruled that, “where birds are either in pens or are significantly dependent on people, they are classed as livestock”.
The buzzard, a protected bird of prey, has recovered from near extinction in the Victorian age to become one of the conservation movement’s success stories. With between 57,000 and 79,000 breeding pairs in the UK, according to the British Trust for Ornithology, it is one of the fastest growing bird populations in the country. In support of its decision, Natural England noted that in July the trust declared that buzzards “are not considered to be of current conservation concern”.
An estimated 40 million non-native pheasants are released into the British countryside each year. A report for the British Association for Shooting and Conservation estimated that on average between 1% and 2% of pheasant poults were killed by birds of prey.
“There’s a huge amount of hyperbole and panic about this,” said the gamekeepers’ organisation spokesman. “All birds are protected by law. Buzzards are no different. The only difference is one of perception, that for years it’s been believed that in some ways buzzards are different, that they have a separate protection. You can’t go on saying that there was once a time when this [species] was scarce and using it as a reason to prevent licences.”
However, campaigners say that the legal shooting of buzzards will make it more difficult to police the illegal shooting of birds of prey. Calling the move shameful, Eduardo Gonçalves, chief executive of the League Against Cruel Sports, said: “Authorising this protected raptor to be killed purely to boost the profits of private shooting interests sets a very dangerous precedent. It’s difficult to see how the police can effectively tackle the illegal persecution of these birds of prey now the floodgate of government-approved exceptions to the law has opened.”
Boxall remembers when buzzards were rare. “When I came here in 1990 you never saw buzzards,” he says. “When you did you thought, bloody hell, what’s that? They used to feed on carcasses, but they can’t do that now because farmers aren’t allowed to leave carcasses, so they turn to the next easiest thing. The next thing we’ll get is red kites. They’re lovely birds, but they have to eat.”
The gamekeeper pauses and cocks an ear. “That’s a buzzard calling now. He’s up in a tree there somewhere. It must be teatime.”
Wing and a Prayer
■ MPs are to debate banning driven-grouse shooting, after a petition launched by Mark Avery, a former RSPB conservation director, gained more than 120,000 signatures.
■ The Hen Harrier Action Plan, a government-led initiative involving conservation groups, landowners and shooting organisations, collapsed in July following incidents of shooting and poisoning. There are thought to be only three pairs of hen harriers in England, about 600 pairs in Scotland and 50 pairs in Wales.
■ The RSPB has launched a campaign to license shooting estates, giving authorities the power to withdraw licences where birds of prey are illegally killed.
This article was first published by The Guardian on 18 Sep 2016.
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