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 wrote last year that Biodiversity Minister, Richard Benyon, might lose sleep over known threatened species which might be committed to extinction on his watch. The parlous state of Hen Harrier as a breeding species in England ought to force the Minister to jump out of bed and take action immediately.
It is clear that Hen Harrier is on the verge of extinction as a breeding bird in England. This season there has been just one known breeding attempt. This compares to four successful attempts in 2011. While it is early in the season to draw conclusions, the signs are not good.
If we lose Hen Harrier, the Government will have failed in its England Biodiversity Strategy commitment to avoid human-induced extinctions of threatened species in England.
Government-commissioned research has shown that the English uplands could support more than 300 pairs of hen harriers. The authors conclude that persecution, associated with the practice of managing moors for driven grouse shooting, is to blame for the harrier’s plight. What's more, Natural England has previously stated that there is compelling evidence that persecution, both during and following the breeding season, continues to limit hen harrier recovery in England.
The Government has identified raptor persecution as one of six UK wildlife crime priorities, focussing on golden eagle, white-tailed eagle, hen harrier, red kite, peregrine and goshawk.
The RSPB is doing its best to protect hen harriers in England, with the support of HLF, United Utilities, Northern England Raptor Forum and other partners, including many volunteers. We have initiated our Skydancers programme and you can read more about it here.
We have now written to Defra and Natural England to urge them to lead and fund a comprehensive conservation plan for hen harriers, endorsed by stakeholders including landowning and shooting organisations.
We think that years of talking must now translate into action.
Adult hen harrier in flight with twig (Andy Hay rspb-images.com)
I accept that this is challenging for the shooting/landowning community. It is, of course, the case that hen harriers can be a problem for game managers by eating grouse. However, long-term declines in grouse bags are related to land use practice and habitat condition.
Our point is simple - grouse moor owners and managers should comply with wildlife law, protect hen harriers and adopt legal approaches to minimising predation of grouse, such as diversionary feeding which has been shown to effective in places such as Langholm.
There has been much talk about an approach termed 'a brood management scheme' which would involve translocation of eggs away from moors and establishment elsewhere to remove the conflict with grouse. We have said to Defra that this could be included in a recovery plan and may merit experimental investigation in England in the future, but only once hen harrier numbers have recovered to an acceptable level and diversionary feeding has been widely trialled.
Finally, we are pleased that the Law Commission is seriously considering the introduction of vicarious liability for birds of prey persecution. We think that this is an appropriate measure to help take to tackle the problem. It has been introduced in Scotland and we think that it is timely for it to be adopted in England and Wales.
If you agree, please do sign the petition here and then please tell your friends and family to do the same.
One last point, I want the UK Government to lead the world in tackling climate change and halting biodiversity loss. I want Mr Clegg and Mrs Spelman to play strong leadership roles at the Rio +20 Summit in June this year and make the case for urgent global action to decouple economic growth from unsustainable exploitation of the natural world. Losing Hen Harriers as a breeding species in England would seriously blot their copybook.
How do you think the Government should respond?
This afternoon in the House of Commons, Caroline Spelman announced that the UK Government is to proceed with a badger cull. This is a contentious decision and I’m sure one that she will have thought long and hard about. It cannot have been easy, the coalition was committed to pursuing a cull but there are also strong arguments against. The Secretary of State is in a difficult place.
I will try to set out my thoughts on why ultimately I think we all lost today. First, let’s make it clear bovine TB is a serious disease that is having a huge impact on cattle farming throughout the south and west. It must be devastating for farmers to lose their herds to this disease. Almost 25,000 cattle were slaughtered last year at a huge emotional cost to farmers and financial cost to the taxpayer. So, it is serious and we need to find effective, sustainable solutions. Yes, that is solutions in the plural as there is no one silver bullet.
I also think it is beyond doubt that badgers play a part in the transmission of this disease. Not the only part and probably not the main part, but they are involved. Mrs Spelman was keen to stress to the Commons that no other country had eradicated bTB without addressing the so called ‘wildlife residue’. That may be true, but culling is not the only option and there are significant questions over whether culling is practicable and effective.
One of the key aspects of this issue relates to how badgers respond to culling. These stripey-headed creatures normally live in social groups. When their population is disrupted by culling, animals move around more, often fleeing from the culled area, with badgers from outside entering the area to fill the void. This stirring up of the population is called perturbation and it is important because detailed research on culling shows that it increases disease transmission. So the incidence of bTB in badgers may actually be increased by culling. Culling in the initial stages can increase the level of bTB in cattle, particularly in the immediate vicinity. The detailed science that has been carried out suggests that badger culling will bring about reductions in bTB if carried out across a big enough area (at least 150 km2) for four years and in a co-ordinated and highly synchronised way.
The science is not that rosy in terms of making a real difference though. After 9.5 years (culling over a four year period and 5.5 post culling) bTB in cattle was reduced by around 12.4% across the 150km2 and a 2km perimeter around this area. This means that even after the effort of this culling, not to mention the killing of many badgers, more than 85% of the problem is left unaddressed.
But the problems do not stop there. The scientific research used a carefully controlled method of cage trapping and humane dispatch carried out by trained staff in a highly synchronised way. Most of the culls were carried out over 8-11 days. Those that were carried out over longer periods were less effective - no doubt due to perturbation. The scientists who carried out the work were keen to point out that using different methods in an unco-ordinated way could make matters worse rather than better. It is therefore of great concern that the Government is proposing to allow farmers to use the untested method of shooting free ranging badgers over a period of up to 6 weeks. We believe this is a high risk strategy that could backfire.
The Government is proposing a trial cull in two areas to test assumptions on whether large enough numbers of badgers can be shot safely and humanely. We have doubts that a one-year trial under carefully controlled conditions will reflect what will be achieved over any wider cull that is proposed next.
Why has the Government diverted from the science? In a word - cost. It is cheaper to shoot in the open than to trap. It is cheaper or easier to do it over a longer period than in a controlled, synchronised way. It is a high risk strategy that could be a recipe for perturbation.
But there is an alternative. Rather than stirring the badger population, we should be jabbing it. An injectable badger vaccine has been developed and is being deployed on a small scale. Detailed field trials have shown that vaccination is effective in reducing the number of badgers testing positive to bTB by 74%.
It is cheaper than cage trapping and culling badgers, though more expensive than the untested shooting of free ranging badgers. It also has several very important advantages over culling. It doesn’t lead to perturbation, it doesn’t risk making TB worse, it doesn’t need to be administered in a highly synchronised way and it is an approach that has widespread public support.
It won’t be a solution on its own, it would need to be carried out alongside cattle testing, movement controls and improved biosecurity measures. When available, an oral badger vaccine and cattle vaccination should replace it.
The Government has announced that £250,000 will be made available to support vaccination in each of the next three years but this, whilst welcome, is too little. It is half the anticipated policing costs of the trial cull. How bizarre is that?
The Government’s costings suggest that a badger cull will cost farmers more than it will save them in bTB outbreaks. I believe that, rather than passing the buck and most of the cost to farmers, the Government should have taken the lead by accelerating a programme of vaccination. This would be a publicly acceptable, sustainable alternative to a high risk and divisive badger cull.
But what about you? What do you think? Do you think today's decision helps farmers or badgers or neither?
As regular readers of this blog will know, I am not an aficianado of Twitter. But I hear that #buzzardgate was trending yesterday.
Why? The public is outraged by Defra's plans to spend close to £400,000 of taxpayers’ 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. The message to Mr Benyon was clear - pull the plug on this project and think again.
Am not sure many were convinced by a Defra explanation in a tweet yesterday "There are no plans to cull buzzards. We're looking at researching how to protect young pheasants". It slightly missed the point.
Later this posting appeard on the Defra website under the section called 'mythbusting'.
"Defra is absolutely not proposing to cull buzzards or any other raptors.
We work on the basis of sound evidence. This is why we want to find out the true extent of buzzards preying on young pheasants and how best to discourage birds that may cause damage to legitimate businesses. This would be only in areas where there is a clear problem, using non-lethal methods including increasing protective cover for young pheasants with vegetation, diversionary feeding of buzzards, moving the birds elsewhere or destroying empty nests. The results of this scientific research will help guide our policy on this issue in the future.
As the RSPB have said, the buzzard population has recovered wonderfully over the last few years, and we want to see this continue."
Judging by responses on Mr Benyon's facebook page, the public did not feel reassured by this. You can views some comments here.
What about the other political parties? Am not sure that the coalition partners were that impressed. Here is what Baroness Kate Parminter (Co-Chair of the Liberal Democrat Backbench Committee on Defra/Decc) said:
"My colleagues on the Lib Dem Defra backbench Committee and I have been very clear that we oppose measures that would harm a protected bird of prey that’s only now recovering after decades of decline, and we’ve been making this case to Defra ministers. We believe the focus should be on tackling the problem identified by shooting estates only where it’s proven that buzzards are the cause, without resorting to capturing buzzards or destroying their nests. In those cases, we’re supportive of the non-lethal methods Defra has identified.
However, thousands of pheasants are killed by traffic every year and our view is that focussing only on the issue of buzzards eating young pheasants which, after all is nature taking its course, is far too narrow. If gamekeepers are suffering financially as pheasant poults are not making it into adulthood, we should take an holistic view of the problem rather than reacting on the basis of anecdotal evidence.
I know that many of you will feel that spending money on a buzzard management programme is not the best use of public money when many other conservation initiatives aren’t being taken forward."
And here is the comment from Mary Creagh MP (Shadow Secretary of State for the Environment):
"The restoration of the buzzard population has been a real success in recent years. It is astounding that Defra are wasting hundreds of thousands of pounds of tax-payers money disrupting this protected species.
This out-of-touch Government’s priority is protecting the interests of large commercial shooting estates and non-native pheasant, rather than protecting our country’s native species. The Government should drop this plan now. This has all the hallmarks of another Defra shambles"
I don't want this to turn in to a full scale political row, I want Defra to see sense and start to focus their efforts on the real challenges facing our natural world.
And finally, if you want two very different persepctives, read George Monbiot's view here and Countryside Alliance here.
What do you think of Defra's response? Have you contacted your MP yet to let them know your views?
It would be great to hear from you.
The countdown to the Rio+20 conference continues and I hope that you (like me!) have been enjoying reading Mark’s short essays reflecting on the state of the planet and the challenges facing nature. Today, I am delighted to welcome a contribution from the Deputy Prime Minister, Rt Hon Nick Clegg MP. He will be leading the UK Government’s delegation to Rio next week and his ambitions are outlined below. At the end of his blog I have outlined how you can ask the DPM a question and I have also shared with you the ambitions that the RSPB has for the conference.
From the Deputy Prime Minister, Rt Hon Nick Clegg MP
Next week I’m leading the UK delegation to the Rio+20 Summit, two decades after the original Earth Summit. Back then world leaders agreed – for the first time ever – that development must not come at any cost. They recognised the dangers of making a dash for growth by hoovering up or destroying precious resources: you’ll only find yourself poorer in the end.
But the legacy of that momentous meeting is seriously under threat. Despite the progress that has been made, the vision set out in 1992 remains a long way off. And, now, as turmoil continues in the Eurozone, there is a real risk that in many major economies we’ll see sustainability sacrificed in the name of growth.
That would be a huge mistake. Our economic and environmental agendas go hand in hand (a point the RSPB has been making for years). We will only deliver lasting prosperity by conserving resources and learning to live within our means. And it’s more important than ever that we respect the natural environment on which future wealth depends.
So Rio must – once again – deliver a show of solidarity from the international community: there can be no more living only for today if we are to deliver a better tomorrow. I want to pay tribute to the work Birdlife International has been doing to encourage governments around the world to be bold when we meet next week. I’ll be pushing – with the help of Caroline Spelman – for three big things:
First, national governments must move beyond a narrow understanding of wealth. Right now we judge how well a country is doing by looking almost exclusively at the money it makes. But to fully judge success we need a kind of ‘GDP+’, which takes into account the state of assets like forests or coastal areas – vital natural capital. We’re reforming the UK’s national accounts so that, by 2020, they also reflect our natural wealth. In Brazil I’ll be pressing our international partners to follow suit.
Second, Rio must set out a plan for the future. That’s why I want us to kickstart a package of Sustainable Development Goals to help meet the fundamental challenges we now face. Like feeding growing populations; ensuring everyone has clean water; giving people access to green energy too. Agreeing these goals will be no mean feat – it will take an enormous diplomatic effort. But now is the moment to get them off the ground.
Finally, Rio must get business on board. Many firms still have no idea how they impact on our environment. That isn’t just bad for the planet. It makes companies inefficient and depletes the resources they themselves depend on. Plus their customers and investors have a right to this information too. So it’s time for governments to give ‘sustainability reporting’ a much-needed global push, getting more companies to green their books.
1992 was a triumph and next week governments from across the globe must revive the spirit and ambition of our predecessors. It’s time to set the agenda for the next twenty years.
What would you like to ask the Deputy Prime Minister about Rio+20?
You can ask your question by commenting on this blog (if you are not already registered on RSPB Communities you will need to do so - see here for find out how) – alternatively we will be taking questions via Twitter and Facebook. We’ll pick the best 20 questions for the Deputy Prime Minister to answer on his return from Rio+20.
Finally, today two of my colleagues (Tim Stowe and Sacha Cleminson) will be flying out to the conference to join our BirfdLife International Partners in Rio. You will be able to recieve updates on their experiences by reading their blogs which will apear here. In preparation for this conference, we have worked with Green Alliance to produce a series of essays entitled ‘Rio+20 Where It Should Lead’ from business, political and NGO leaders to stimulate fresh debate about how we rise to the sustainable development challenge set twenty years ago. You can read a copy of this report here. As BirdLife International, we shall at Rio be making the case for the following:
1. A green economy in the context of sustainable development: We want governments to demonstrate global leadership to re-direct the global economy towards a sustainable pathway. The resilience of the global economy is intimately linked to the state of the environment . Will want governments to mainstream consideration of nature across policy formulation and decision-making processes, and reflect it clearly in indicators of socio-economic development and growth. We want governments to recognise that healthy ecosystems underpin our lives and that the poorest and most vulnerable are frequently the most dependent on them. Governments must provide the investment needed to maintain and restore healthy ecosystems. We also want governments to phase out and redirect harmful and perverse incentives that act to undermine sustainable development.
2. Securing our oceans: We strongly support efforts to protect and restore marine ecosystems and in particular we a) support the call for negotiation of an implementing agreement to the United Nations Law of the Sea that would address the sustainable use of marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction, including effective safeguard for ecologically and biologically significant areas and b) calls on states to reduce fish harvest to levels that allow stocks to rebuild, in order to restore, by 2015, and maintain depleted fish stocks above levels which can produce the maximum sustainable yield. For stocks which, despite targeted measures, fail to achieve this target, science-based management plans should be implemented in order to restore and maintain populations to these levels within the shortest timeframe biologically possible
3. Biodiversity and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): we support the development of a set of universally agreed Sustainable Development Goals that will accelerate and help measure progress towards sustainable development. However, it is essential that Governments ensure that a) the underpinning role of nature and biodiversity is clearly reflected in the SDGs b) the SDGs and their indicators link explicitly to the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 (agreed in Nagoya in 2010) and its associated indicators c) a process is established to follow from Rio+20 that will agree the themes of the SDGs.and d) Any indicative list of themes to be decided upon at Rio+20 should not restrict the choice of SDGs by this future process.
4. Framework for action: To ensure coherent progress towards sustainable development, priority cross-cutting issues (e.g. forests and biodiversity, oceans, food security and agriculture, energy and water) identified in the Rio+20 outcomes require urgent action. They must link and refer to the delivery of the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 and the Aichi Biodiversity Targets.
Good luck to all those (politicians, business leaders and NGOs) that are going to Rio. Please do come back with concrete commitments. Mark’s final essays will appear over the next few days after which I shall reflect on the successes (we hope) of the Rio conference.