Every year, thousands of pheasants are slaughtered by cars. What would we say if the government’s conservation watchdog issued a licence to allow a gamekeeper to shoot 10 careless motorists?
Natural England has instead issued a licence to allow a gamekeeper to kill something like us: a legally protected predator, a clever, adaptable native species which kills a far, far tinier proportion of the 45 million factory-farmed pheasants that are dumped in our countryside each year for people to shoot for fun.
For the first time since birds of prey were protected in 1954, it is once again legal – for one lucky landowner, at least – to kill buzzards. After years of pressure from the shooting industry and several U-turns by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Natural England has issued a licence allowing a landowner to “control” 10 buzzards to stop pheasants being killed.
This may sound like a trivial event. It is not. It is a precedent-setting, tone-setting action which reveals Britain’s disastrously dysfunctional relationship with predators. It is the first shot in a war against wildlife, a war that is coming to this country and that anyone who loves anything alive beyond themselves will have to fight.
Natural England is staffed by dedicated scientists and people who are passionate about wildlife. It didn’t have a choice over issuing this licence because one man said so. This man is Mr Justice Duncan Ouseley, an eminent high court judge who also decided that the badger cull was legal.
A gamekeeper who pleaded poverty because he claimed that buzzards were killing pheasants he was rearing for shoots lavished thousands (thanks to support from the National Gamekeepers’ Association) on a legal challenge to Natural England’s refusal to allow him to kill buzzards. The High Court last year judged that Natural England’s refusal was unlawful.
Mr Justice Ouseley may be the human being from whom British wildlife has most to fear. He claims that Defra has protected fishing interests by allowing 2,000 cormorants to be killed under Natural England licence each year, about 11% of the English overwintering population. So, he argues, why not allow a few from 300,000 buzzards?
In this way, the government decides it’s OK to kill something and the judiciary then deduces that it must be OK to kill something else. This precedent is deadly. Every year, Natural England is besieged by people seeking licences to kill legally protected wildlife. Each year, it issues 10,000. Birds of prey are now fair game. Wait for a deluge of other applications to slaughter buzzards.
What’s unforgivable is Natural England’s refusal to issue any details about the licence it has issued. We have absolute power over other species and, as someone once said, absolute power corrupts absolutely. Without transparency, there is abuse. We, the taxpayer, are funding these licences. We have a right to know. We have a right to see that all other non-lethal measures – to divert buzzards from preying upon young pheasants – really are being taken.
More damagingly, this secrecy means that anyone seen illegally killing a buzzard can claim they have a licence. And they will. As we’ve seen with the Defra-led badger cull, which the Badger Trust says has led to a surge in the illegal killing of badgers, the government sets the tone. If it offers an alibi to kill a wild animal, plenty of people will take it up.
The recovery of buzzards, which had been wiped out from large swaths of England in the 20th century, has been a rare conservation success – the shooting industry argues that buzzards are now common. What this fails to acknowledge is that buzzards and other similar diurnal predators – red kites (also thriving) and hen harriers (virtually extinct in England) – are still suffering horrific illegal persecution; 10 red kites have been found illegally killed in North Yorkshire over two months this year. There are dozens of cases of horrific buzzard persecution.
These buzzard-killing licences show our pathological inability to live peacefully alongside other wild animals, particularly our fellow predators. Whenever economic interests are compromised in the tiniest way – and I refuse to believe that any hugely subsidised landowner is going bankrupt over a few buzzards – we seek to kill. We have to learn to work with wildlife.
Instead, we are going backwards in our relations with nature. It’s going to get worse, with Brexit forcing us to redesign environmental protections and farm subsidies, led by the neoliberal anti-regulators now in the cabinet.
We have to get angry. We have to get active. It starts this weekend, with Hen Harrier day, a celebration of England’s most persecuted bird of prey. There’s a petition to ban driven grouse shooting that needs 100,000 signatures too. This isn’t about stopping shooting but forcing Britain’s big landowners – and all of us – to rethink our antagonistic relationship with the natural world.
This article was first published by The Guardian on 04 Aug 2016.
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