Pheasants, buzzards and Defra

Yesterday, I was supposed to be thinking about pheasants as I am writing a fantastically interesting article about them

English: Pheasants on sale at a butcher's, Toulon, France, Christmas 2005 Copyright © 2005 David Monniaux

for a well-known and excellent wildlife magazine.  And following the disclosure of Defra’s wrong-headed plans to pour £375k of taxpayers’ money into a study of how to allow more pheasants to be shot and fewer to be eaten by buzzards (even though very few are eaten by buzzards) I did think about pheasants a lot.

I was pleased to see Martin Harper’s blog on the subject, and glad to see that he is angry.  That’s good.  In the RSPB press release the RSPB described itself as ‘stunned’ which isn’t what I wanted  to hear.  This is the time to act like a piranha, not a mullet!

There was good coverage of the issue in the Telegraph, Independent and my old (young!) colleague Jeff Knott was doing the rounds of the broadcast media too.

Here are the views of the Wildlife Trusts, Countryside Alliance, Hawk and Owl Trust,and BASC.

Thinking back a little in time, on the approach to the last general election, the RSPB organised a petition on protection of birds of prey.  It produced 210,567 signatures and was still going strong when we called it a day – it clearly could have raised many more signatures (although at the time, I’m proud to say, it was the most successful RSPB petition ever).  See here  and here for links to those days.

The thinking behind that campaign was that there is always pressure from landowners to bump off a few more raptors and with the victory of a Conservative Party appearing imminent, it seemed wise to rally support around birds of prey before the election.  And I am sure that it was a wise move.

As rehearsed yesterday, Defra now has two Ministers with a shooting background and that will undoubtedly colour the way Defra civil servants, and those in ‘delivery bodies’ like NE, look at all issues.  The civil service is indeed a service, it is there to carry out government policy, whatever that policy is.  And that’s one reason (there are others) why I couldn’t easily be a civil servant – I’d want to choose which side to be on.

But whatever your views on shooting, this study of buzzard impacts on pheasants should not be funded by the taxpayer.   It is a subject of commercial interest to a few people – it is not about public goods such as nature conservation, it’s about private profit.  Defra should think again about this study.  Indeed, my guess would be that the minister, Richard Benyon, may not even have been aware of the study before this furore broke out.  He would do his fraying conservation credentials a lot of good if he were to intervene and knock this study on the head, right now.

To help the Minister make the right decision please sign this petition.

Common Buzzard Date 10 July 2011 Source Own work Author Juan Lacruz

The Shadow Secretary of State, Mary Creagh, tweeted (@marycreagh_mp) yesterday as follows: Defra will waste hundreds of thousands of taxpayer £s destroying native #buzzard nests to protect non-native pheasants. #outoftouch.  That was good to see.  I do wonder why the Shadow environment team has not thrown its weight behind the epetition on vicarious liability as this is a subject where the working class gamekeeper carries the whole can which should be shared by his employer.  I would hope the Labour Party might be able to get its act in gear on this subject, although, even as a Labour Party member, I have been in despair as often as I have been elated by Labour’s performance on wildlife matters (long term).

Please write to your MP on this subject – I have.  My view is that this isn’t a proper subject in which Defra should invest my money.  It is near-market research which should be funded by the industry which stands to gain, if it should be done at all.  At a time when we are sacking teachers, extending the pension age of public sector workers and slashing expenditure on nature conservation why is Defra spending £375k on buzzards and pheasants?  Why?

What with disappearing hen harriers, poisoned red kites, persecuted goshawks and now Defra wanting to take pheasants out of the mouths of buzzards this isn’t a good time for birds of prey – just as we feared when we raised those 210,567 signatures.  Now is not the time to be stunned; this is the time:

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage;




64 Replies to “Pheasants, buzzards and Defra”

  1. Maybe all this will be to the good, as it has woken everyone up to the fact that we now have forty million alien parasites eating their way through the countryside, consuming precious resources to the undoubted detriment of our farmland, and perhaps even our woodland birds. Grey Partridge springs immediately to mind. Yet it has been allowed to happen without let or hindrance. The money would be far better spent looking at the environmental impact of the pheasants. And however benign the proposed actions, it will give a green light to those gamekeepers who are probably continuing to pursue more lethal ones as we speak. And the illogic is devastating: you might as well cull Red Squirrels to make space for the Greys. But it’s all part of human control freakery, and since you’re waxing lyrical:

    Oh we want it all, and all our own way,
    in the fast lane, out on a roll,
    but we are the ones always crashing in replay,
    freaks of nature, out of control.

  2. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had a law like the Netherlands Flora and Fauna Act 2002 whereby the breeding and release of pheasants has been banned. They still allow pheasants to be hunted but these are truly wild birds, although not native. The Dutch recognised and were concerned about the damage large releases of pheasants could do to their agriculture and environment. Will any future UK government ever be so enlightened?

  3. I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
    Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot:
    Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
    Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’

    I am with you on this – the game is afoot.
    Defra and the Minister have shown their hand and made a grave error of judgement.

  4. I had been, unusually, dumbfounded and at a loss for words, when reading of this project by Defra. I seriously cannot remember a comparable situation which has so angered my sense of injustice, compounded by a total, complete waste of our tax revenue at a time when funding of any kind has become so difficult.
    Living for so many years in leafy Devon, I remember well the absolute carnage of road kills adjacent to release areas for Pheasants, which of course provided wonderful sources of fast and easy food for the local Buzzards! During all my years I had not questioned the morality of releasing and slaughtering millions of these chicken sized birds on the basis that so much woodland had been preserved to house this ‘so called’ sport. It had been a compromise of my beliefs, but I had convinced myself and others, that it was of benefit to so many other ‘natural’ species relying on mature woodland to roost, breed and feed. Sad, but I believed factual. Of course this belief was slightly flawed to some extent by the encouraging of under storey cover for Pheasants to skulk and hide, with obvious adverse affects, for example, to such species as Wood Warbler and Pied Flycatcher. So where now is the reciprocal compromise from the hunting fraternity whereby tolerance of some species of raptor can be demonstrated?
    Having had time to digest this latest in a line of follies from Defra, I am actually feeling positive about the negative! I have a sneaky feeling that at last we have a cause which will galvanise support against raptor persecution, a platform for uniting conservation bodies and public opinion against the senseless persecution of the hapless Buzzard. I believe this latest act of supporting a minority sport will be a massive own goal by Defra, Countryside Alliance and BASC.

  5. This is against the law for common people so it should be across the board persecutuon for ‘abit of sport’

  6. David Taylor of the CA, predictably plays the “songbird” card….

    “Since the early 1980s, successive governments have had the ability to issue licences for buzzard control, but have been reluctant to do so because of their fear of coming under pressure from groups who have a narrow interest in birds of prey, often to the detriment of other species in Britain.”

    Do these cretins think we’re all as ignorant as they are?

    1. Coop – no I don’t think they do. Many of the people who spout this nonsense know that it’s nonsense but say it anyway. It suits them to do so.

      1. Yes Mark, quite correct. However, although the CA are fully aware of the facts regarding population dynamics, the average layperson isn’t, and they’re the intended target of these “distortions”. Furthermore, note the man’s breathtaking hypocrisy in referring to conservationists as “groups who have a narrow interest in birds of prey”.

        Keep up the good work, sir. We can only hope that, despite support from a corrupt government, the CA and their ilk have over-reached on this one, and the majority will at last see their true colours. 🙂

    1. Val, Interestingly 2 of the options are straightforward management techniques and I would have expected gamekeepers to be doing these anyway.

  7. Oh, I think this cloud has the potential for a significant silver lining. By attracting the spotlight of national media to the ‘put and shoot’ pheasant business there’s the opportunity to ask out in the open and hopefully in the glare of publicity all those questions about environmental impacts which Wendy Mattingley identified yesterday, and possibly of greater interest to the Great British Public; the industrial scale and ‘battery’ operations of the hatching and rearing of poults before they get anywhere near a gun (or the radiator grill of a passing Audi!).

    Animal welfare issues are, I think, more likely to chime with town folk, and if the urban based population gain a better understanding of the reality rather than the propaganda of this ‘sport’ well, so much the better.

  8. So yea say pheasants are a problem..
    I know let’s also ban rainbow trout fishing & salmon farms and put everyone like myself out of a job !!!!
    Or maybe take us on instead of the collage graduating enviro bods and let us get conservation correct ?

    1. The expression “bringing it on yourself” comes to mind.

      Some “Traditional Country Folk” do themselves no favours with nonsense arguments like the one leading to this pretty pass or by ignoring evidence, or by creating divisions between town and country and then painting themselves as victims. There is no God given right to have a particular job, tradition or occupation perpetuated – ask lots of townies. I’m frequently staggered by the glib acceptance of figures stating that *** (insert country pursuit of your choice) creates X jobs and Y wealth as if the alternative was doing nothing. You could get a different job. Its quite widespread. Some shooting is on an industrial scale, with, as far as I can see, absolutely no control to prevent harm to public interests. (I don’t count the GWCT’s guidance as a control). It would do no harm to have a peer into the business, in fact its high time someone did.

  9. Quite clearly I’ll be in a small minority here. I just don’t feel that the link to pheasants and game shooting is at all helpful, in fact it’s clouds a serious issue with emotive diatribe.

    When back in the eighties I was invited to Exmoor it was on e promise that I would get to see the very ‘rare’ Buzzard, It was a real treat. Nowadays Buzzards are extremely common, a fact I was reminded of just after Christmas when I spotted thirty four in two fields totalling ten acres.

    Buzzards don’t take full grown pheasants, not that they are not capable of it as I’ve witnessed them taking full grown rabbits. They do however take poults and young birds because they are easy prey.

    It might be said that pheasant shoots add nothing to the countryside environment. That said I recall our local shoot, which stopped shooting during the extreme cold snap the winter before last, scattering feed for the other farm land birds, saving many hundreds of birds from starvation. This summer they have planted thirty acres of mixed game crops and regularly leave rough patches over the farm that attracts birds and other mammals. Clearly they add something extra to the countryside that would not be replaced by others if shooting was to stop.

    Conservation is about a balance. I have no doubts that most raptor species are on the increase, possibly artificially out of balance with their environment. There needs to be clear blue sky thinking here. Rebalancing the Buzzard population by destroying nest sites might not be popular but ultimately might be warranted. I wonder how the Song Bird Trust see it?

      1. No evidence exists to support claims that raptor populations are “possibly artificially out of balance with their environment”. This is just the kind of claptrap spewed forth by the CA.

        1. How the ‘Song Bird Trust’ sees it is irrelevant, because it is an irrelevant organisation. If there is a species out of ‘balance’ it is the Pheasant, a non-native species which has overpopulated the British countryside to the tune of 40 million birds a year.

  10. It’s easy for folk to say we can just loose our jobs but we are the folk that work the countryside not some collage kids with paper.

    1. Many people are losing jobs-have you visited the ghost town shopping centers of Britain recently? Yet many of these people are’nt persecuting raptors or wildlife. Give this tired old bunny hugger argument a rest a get in touch-its not 1980 anymore Andy

  11. I have to politely disagree, there is plenty of peer reviewed evidence to suggest that certain raptor species are out of kilter with their habitat. It’s interesting that the SBT suggestion that raptors, amongst others, are a major contributor to the decrease in native song birds and their report is rubbished. If the same report was published with the suggestion that the cause was pesticides, habitat reduction or dare I mention it, shooting, the report would have been lauded as a marvellous piece of research.

    It’s easy to see shooting as an easy target just because you can’t see the added value it brings to the countryside. It does create job, both full and part time and brings a genuine uplift to the local businesses in my neck of the woods come the season. I’ve often felt that if you guys suggested putting £63 million of your own money into the environment year of year, and in so doing added another 10,000 jobs into a depleted rural job market, we’d all find you more convincing. However, all we get is silence and barren diatribe.

    1. Connormead – what are they then? plenty you say… The last Songbird Survival-sponsored research showed no impact of sparrowhawks etc on songbirds.

    2. Erm…. I believe I used the word “evidence” not opinion. So come on, put up or shut up.

    3. I think the idea that there is “plenty of peer reviewed papers suggesting raptors are out of kilter with their environment” is complete and utter rubbish either give references to this work which shows that the rest of the entire study of predator prey relationships world wide is wrong or shut up. SBT and CA wouldn’t know a peer reviewed paper if it fell on them.
      What should be being studied is the effect on our native ecology of releasing 40 million chicken sized aliens into the countryside every year, they don’t live on fresh air.

      1. “the rest of the entire study of predator prey relationships world wide is wrong” – the impact of predators (especially apex predators ) is actually pretty hard to study in many cases and to say that there is a consensus is false. Even on such basic things as to whether prey populations are controlled top down or bottom up (or both) is contentious.

        As for the positive/negative effects of shooting any study would have to consider the likely impact of stopping shoots and this would not necessarily mean all the land currently shot on (i believe about 3 million acres) becoming a haven for nature. Shooting (and hunting) do involve the maintenance and creation of various types of habitat.

        1. Even on such basic things as to whether prey populations are controlled top down or bottom up (or both) is contentious. Really! I can only suggest you go a read some basic ecology, places sto start that a relevant are” Why big fierce animals are rare” by Colinvaux or less readily available but wonderful “Population ecology of raptors” by Newton. There is no doubt vertebrate predator numbers are controlled by prey density, even in manmade environments.

          I did not anticipate the results of any study of the effect of releasing 40million pheasants so am as yet not suggesting it is banned. On the other hand if I wished to add other species to the UK countryside there are a lotof hoops to jump through and the likely result would be a refusal, why is shooting different?

          1. Paul, basic ecology/ population dynamics is a bit like basic economics and basic climate change models, reliant on mathematical models that are too simplistic and lack sufficient real world information to make 100% useful predictions all the time. The real world of bird food choices is far too complex to accurately model and generalities do not pertain to all situations. If you want to understand something you have to study the real world situation of a bird and its personal food web, but the real world in my part of the country may be very different to your part of the country. In addition individual birds of the same species can have different food choices.

            People who live and work in the country have their own perspective and people who live in towns and get their knowledge from lectures/books/internet have a different perspective. I cannot understand why people always think their own perspective is the right one, I guess it derives from the egocentrism incipient in homo sapiens. Its better to try and respect other peoples viewpoint and try and understand where they are coming from and maybe even learn from it. Having said that when a narrow sectional interest within a slighter wider sectional interest can suborn a government agency to spend money on something which it has no business to be involved in, at a time when painful cuts are being made, then my conclusion is that there is something rotten at the core of our government.

          2. Paul if you read what I wrote I was talking about the study of predator – prey relations generally. I’d agree however that apex predators are controlled bottom up being apex predators how else could it be. However that suggests that all these juicy pheasant poults may be increasing Raptor numbers – so that could be one benefit of pheasant shooting surely?

          3. I’ve managed to find this study Mesopredator Release by an Emergent Superpredator: A Natural Experiment of Predation in a Three Level Guild

            This strongly suggests that buzzards are naturally a meso predator not an apex predator so in a pristine ecosystem their numbers would be controlled top down (as well as bottom up). I am not saying that this argues for or against buzzard control and personally I am against buzzard control at this time however it can be the case that when apex predators are removed meso predators do need to be managed to prevent ecological damage. This is imo definitely the case with deer (plant eaters are also predators just of plants) and maybe the case with foxes.

  12. Perhaps a little off topic, so feel free to edit it out if you wish, Mark, has there been any work done to examine the effect on farmland bird populations of all the plastic sheeting that swathes large parts of the countryside in the spring nowadays? It seems to have proliferated over the last few years. I watched a few Lapwings yesterday fluttering frustratedly round one such field (which was, moreover, a bit of soggy floodplain land until a couple of years ago – habitat loss exemplified), and it struck me that all the worms and bugs and grubs the soil contained were now inaccessible to them at a crucial time of the year.

  13. I wonder why the RSPB haven’t pushed back harder on this than it appears they have. They could easily publicise their support for a petition and help it get huge backing that would ensure people take notice of this issue and show DEFRA and the government that this project has no place in 2012. This project is supported by the few with only self interest at the heart of it. DEFRA should wake up a realise the world has changed and this is not a priority.

    1. I do wonder whether these petitions are actually worth the value we place on them. There is now a tendency to create a petition / several petitions against whatever and the overall effect is to water down and spread the impact. Petitions tend to have a long lead in time of months yet this project starts next week.

  14. If Cameron was a football Manager he would have been sacked long ago because his team selection is appalling especially thinking of all the square pegs he’s placed in round holes. Perhaps none more that Richard Benyon whose duty it is to protect natural species and biodiversity and yet semi domesticated pheasants gain priority protection over a native protected Buzzard. Appointing Benyon to this post is like selecting a Fox to look after a chicken coup………………….Disgusting!

  15. I have signed two petitions and emailed my MP with my dissapointment and informed him I will be voting labour-period. I have also emailed DEFRA that I will tell as many people as I can through social networks and word of mouth about this travesty. DEFRA are a disgrace to our country.

    They should be ashamed and perhaps consider other careers where they can’t hurt anything.

  16. I’m not a pheasant plucker – I’m a native of the state. You think I’m plucking pheasants off a gaming estate?

    Letters to Caroline Spelman, Richard Benyon and Richard Brand-Hardy of DEFRA now sent, as per my blog.

    Just remember that the DEFRA Invitation to Tender document itself stated there was no clear evidence of a buzzard-pheasant problem in the UK. So why they are keen to spend our taxes on solving a problem they don’t actually know exists?

  17. The problem with ‘evidence’ is that it appears only to be accepted by those who write it until it suits your argument. Personally I can’t recall anything that the RSPB has said that made much sense or supported a wider spectrum of species protection. I consider myself to be an avid supporter of birds but this outright protectionist insistence for raptors at the exclusion of all else is silly in the extreme. To the lay person it appears to be more connected to funding streams than good holistic habitat management. As I’ve said before, when Mark and his band of brothers actually stump up the man hours and funds to cover the loss of habitat management and jobs supported by shooting, I for one will happily sing their praises.

    1. Connormead – my band has sisters as well as brothers. You are welcome to your views, and to voice them on this site, although you fail again to cite any evidence to back them up.

    2. Con, it seems from your latest post, that you are, indeed, a “lay person”. Well, I’m not! That’s how I recognise your posts as nothing but baseless drivel.

    3. Connermead you stated: “there is plenty of peer reviewed evidence to suggest that certain raptor species are out of kilter with their habitat”.

      You later then start another comment with: “The problem with ‘evidence’ is that it appears only to be accepted by those who write it until it suits your argument”.

      I’m confused. Are you saying that the ‘evidence’ that you base your arguments is valid or not ? Either way, I would be grateful if you could direct me to the evidence that you initially alluded to so that I can make my own mind up on its validity. Mark did ask for it but it appears that you missed his request.

    4. Connor I suggest you look at what RSPB do rather than what you think they do or do not say. A fantastic network of nature reserves, many conservation success stories in terms of species protection and a million members and many people employed. The RSPB is in business to protect birds, the shooting lobby is in business to destroy as many birds as they can get away with. Its a free country, people can choose which side they support, most of the population support the protection of as many bird species as possible. Seeking to destroy a bird like the Buzzard, the most popular iconic large bird of prey seen and admired by most people over most of the UK is as big an own goal for the shooting lobby as one could imagine.

      1. trying to divide a debate on complex issues along simplistic tribal lines is not necessarily a very constructive approach

        1. They’re not “complex issues” at all. These “people” wish to legitimise their continuing abuse of already fragile ecosystems, in order to fulfill their own warped appetites. It’s that simple! Those who help to conserve OUR countryside, and it’s wildlife, (and have taken the time to educate themselves regarding its dynamics) have been forced into compromise after compromise. NO MORE! The line must, not only be drawn right here, but pushed a damn sight further into their territory!

  18. Hi, DEFRA are on twiiter-let them know how you feel. Bombard them. Also Chris Tarrant is, let him know how you feel about his support for Comorant control.

    Its easy and I reckon more effective than emails as its more public and harder for them to ignore.



  19. Bring it to the attention of “The Archers” team.

    “Oooh noooo, Dearvid, hev ye seen wha’ Defra are propoosin’ noo?”

    Middle England mobilised within 1.15 and 7.15, and again on Sunday

  20. Have posted the petition link on my local bird club website in the hope of generating more signatures. I am sure these preposterous DEFRA plans will outrage and anger our members like I am.

  21. Another point I’d like to make is that any other business in the UK, like retail is expected to ‘suck up’ the losses when say thieves pinch stock, things go out of date, etc, etc. Thousands of jobs have been lost in towns big/ small and rural.

    Game shoots/Scottish salmon farms and fisheries, etc should expect the losses and account for them and manage them in their profits. if you go out of business – well its a hard world, join the club like thousands of other people who don’t have a minster comrade in power.

    My other point is why do people go to work in the countryside and then moan about badgers, buzzards or wildlife in general. Thats like choosing to work in a city and moaning about the amount of people. Or working on a train and moaning it moves alot. Its borderline pathetic. Man Up!

    Surely you have a choice, no one made you work there, so quit moaning about wildlife and be grateful you probably won’t get mugged on the way home. Personally I’d take a buzzard over a gang of hoodies in a subway at ten pm.

    You do not own these buzzards, they are not yours to disturb. And can you please come and get your wild pheasants which are loose in the countryside by me-I see more of them than Swans on the river now.

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