Buzzards – where next?

Yesterday Defra did a U-turn on their proposals to investigate buzzard control for the benefit of pheasants.  It’s not easy for governments to do U-turns, although this one is getting the hang of it, and we should thank Defra Minister, Richard Benyon for his re-think.  Thank you!

The RSPB did a good job, after being a bit of a mullet, in being a proper piranha, and I enjoyed listening to Martin Harper wipe the floor with the Countryside Alliance’s Tim Bonner on the World at One yesterday. The Wildlife Trusts also played a part in this reversal of government policy, as did several other NGOs.

Various journalists put the pressure on Defra, notably: George Monbiot, Stuart Winter, Damian Carrington, Michael McCarthy, Michael McCarthy again, an anonymous Independent leader and Charlie Cooper.  Thank you to all of them.  All will have made a difference but some of us rather thought that Stuart Winter had a bit of a crush on Defra’s Caroline Spelman and it took a clear and present danger to buzzards to get him angry with her department.

This blog has banged on about buzzards as regular readers will know but some others have too, and Alan Tilmouth (an excellent writer in my opinion), raptorpersecutionscotland, A birding odyssey and raptorpolitics have played their parts.  I’m sure there are others too.

But, corny as it may sound, it will have been the obviously sincere outpouring of rage, based on real knowledge of the fact that buzzards eat a few pheasants (but only a few) from thousands of ‘ordinary’ people that will have made the real difference.

Those comments on blogs like this, on newspaper websites, on the Defra twitter account, on Richard Benyon’s facebook page and emails flooding in to Defra will have made the difference.  It was clear that Defra thought that if they kept their heads down for long enough we would all go away – but we didn’t and that’s what kept the newspapers interested and continuing to post stories about it.

And I would like to say a big thank you to Andrew Winser, who I don’t know, have never met (as far as I know) and have never heard of (as far as I can remember) who posted this petition which attracted 3400 signatures in just a few days – well done whoever you are!

I wonder whether Defra made their minds up themselves or whether there was a phone call from No10 asking what on earth Defra was doing.  I would put my money on that phone call having arrived at about 10am on Tuesday morning if it happened – after the Indie went in hard on the subject.

This was, as has been said already, a misjudgement by Defra ministers.  It looks so much as though they chatted to their mates in the Countryside Alliance, the CLA and the people with whom they go shooting and lost any perspective of the tiny significance of buzzards eating pheasants in the big scheme of things.  And also, it looked to many of us, and you don’t have to be too cynical to see things this way, that the proposed ‘study’ was a present to the Defra team’s mates in the shooting community – a present of our taxpayers’ money.

All Ministers have their own enthusiasms – indeed every manager does – but if you are in a position of power you have to be careful how you exercise that power.  If your enthusiasm is to end poverty be careful that you don’t give the money to your relatives or friends.  If your enthusiasm is for sporting prowess, don’t give government money to your favourite football team.  If you are a keen pheasant and grouse shooter, don’t drop your standards and let our money go to your interests.

The Defra statement is a bit mealy mouthed, but then no-one likes saying ‘we got it wrong’.  Defra’s statement is reported in various places (Martin Harper’s blog, Guardian, BBC) so he must have said it but I can’t find it on the Defra website.  It can’t be a dream can it….?

Defra will not be pleased to have been forced into this U-turn.  If they are sensible they will fume privately for a day or too, announce some more good news about fines for bin abuse, and then get on with life and try to do better in future.  They might even learn that there are a lot of ordinary people out there, who are members of wildlife conservation organisations, who might like to cheer things that Defra did under the right circumstances.  Defra might think of new ways to please this enormous audience by doing the right thing rather than stopping doing the wrong thing.  Let’s hope so.

But there is also the risk that Mr Benyon will be very annoyed by having to turn his policy around because of public opinion.  He will be put under pressure by the Countryside Alliance and others, I would guess, to have another go or to exact retribution in another way.  Will it be a return to buzzards?  Maybe  cormorants next? A word of advice Minister – there aren’t many Lib Dem or Tory MPs in marginal constituencies who will thank you for making the same mistake again and stirring up these voters again.  Remember their rage and anger, and don’t imagine that they are all communist townies – a large number of the outraged will be the typical RSPB member who reads the Daily Mail or the Daily Telegraph.  Woo them back, don’t lose them for ever.

And there is a lesson for nature conservationists too.  People killing our wildlife is, rightly, an emotional issue.  It gets people going like nothing else does.  Climate change is much more important than a few dead buzzards but it might not be as engaging.  Just make sure that you continue to cover the birdy and emotional elements as well as the higher reaches of sustainability policy.

And so I would suggest that the RSPB and/or others should build on this position.  Buzzards were a small but telling stage on a journey to reducing the incidence of wildlife crime directed to many species but particularly to birds of prey – and particularly by the nastier elements of the shooting community. How about a big NGO push on vicarious liability for a start?  No, it’s not the most important thing in the world but it needs doing. And what is the strategy for getting hen harriers back on English moors? Build on this moment – don’t let it slip through your fingers.



33 Replies to “Buzzards – where next?”

    1. Brilliant Mark. I enjoyed every word of that. Especially the part where you said, “All Ministers have their own enthusiasms – indeed every manager does – but if you are in a position of power you have to be careful how you exercise that power. If your enthusiasm is to end poverty be careful that you don’t give the money to your relatives or friends. If your enthusiasm is for sporting prowess, don’t give government money to your favourite football team. If you are a keen pheasant and grouse shooter, don’t drop your standards and let our money go to your interests.”

      We could apply this logic to the Hunting Act repeal vote next year. To my mind this smacks of a conflict of interest, and those MPs who wish to repeal a legal and lawful Act of a British Parliament should not be allowed to vote. After all, the Act is in law and it is working, and three quarters of us are happy with that. It is a tiny minority of people who are using their power and influence to get what they want for themselves.

      1. “those MPs who wish to repeal a legal and lawful Act of a British Parliament should not be allowed to vote”

        That’s quite a remarkable concept!

  1. I suspect Mark maybe right and quite a lot of people will be hurting at the moment. That even includes some ordinary people who were arguing for buzzard controls as witnessed by a thread I am involved in on Bird Forum. There was a lot in the DEFRA proposal that may not have been readily apparent, including that it was aimed at giving gamekeepers the job of controlling buzzards and deciding when those controls should be implemented. As I pointed out on Bird Forum, this significantly differs from the cormorant situation because it is essentially like putting buzzards on the General license list rather than it being a Special License situation. There were no proposed safeguards either; with the cormorants this involves demonstrating that all deterrents and/or guarding of stock measures have been tried unsuccessfully.

    There is significant doubt about the figures quoted about pheasant losses when this story broke given they contradict previously released figures from the shooting industry. All this smacks of a bit of toe-dipping to me and I heavily suspect it is a subject that will not die easily. It is also the thin end of the wedge that some people will be hoping will lead to the right to control all birds of prey.

    This means there is so much that could be watered down and re-presented in a different form so it would be wise to stay vigilant.

  2. Mark, excellent blog as usual. Good for the greenest government ever to see public opinion is not in line with some of their ministers personal interests. The CA and NGO’s response over this is laughable and shows just what a blinkered ignorant set of fools they really are. I live and work in the countryside and am personally insulted by the guff they come out with, they certainly do not represent me or my fellow country friends. Their lines about government giving in to a large and vocal special interest groups shows spectacular arrogance to democracy in this country, a trap Mr Benyon maybe falling into. I don’t think this is over, I wonder how they will re-invent a more palatable way to assess (insignificant) buzzard impacts on a minority sport? We need to hit DEFRA hard over their other recent gaffs while they are currently in a weak position.

  3. A very well done to you Mark, you brought this to the attention of many folk, who like me, were able to fan the flames and spread the word. Congratulations! Agree with Ian though, we must stay vigilant and watch for what comes next…

  4. Brilliant analysis, Mark. It’s good to celebrate a little victory like this but important not to forget that it’s more because a threat has been seen off than because a real advance has been made. On the other hand….maybe there have indeed been more imperceptible advances thanks to these last few days: in public opinion about nature, about the pottier elements of the shooting and sporting estates community, and about the unsightlier relationships that exist between Ministers and their constituents (not their constituency voters, but the people they are closest to, the people they came from). In that sense perhaps something has shifted slightly, things have moved forward another little notch and people have been reminded about the need (I would say obligation) to be continuously vigilant, to watch their elected representatives like hawks (excuse the pun) and that participating in this way actually feels good, especially when the momentum builds. I agree with you and with others that it’s very important to grab the opportunity and press hard on broader questions like moorland management and the need for a better relationship with nature – and I’m sure that the RSPB and others will be right on their game (ahem..another unintended pun) in the coming days and weeks. Here in Spain we could do with a similar public reaction to the numerous Ministerial blunders of this sort, but the economic situation dominates the news and people´s thoughts so much that news of philistines in government making silly decisions about nature just drives people further into apathy and depression… so we almost have to create good news to try to prevent or slow the downward spiral of Mediterranean fatalism. Still, can’t complain…lol

  5. Damn you Avery, this is an outrage!

    You and your RSPB cronies have not heard the last of this !

  6. Glad that someone in government has still got their antennae switched on. Clearly the public wants our Buzzards protecting and thats that. If the lunatic fringe of the shooting lobby are going to come back for more perhaps we should be starting to think about answers to a couple of the more interesting questions this furore has raised.
    Question number 1 on the agenda now is: what damage does pheasant release do to wildlife and farming in general.

    Question 2 for me is how much good do Buzzards do for farming by preying on rabbits which we are told are damaging to crops. The NFU seems to have stayed quiet in this debate. No doubt they were conflicted because I suspect the good Buzzards do for their members far outweighs any economic damage caused by a few pheasant poults being taken. Don’t know what research there is to back this up, perhaps the NFU should fund some? Buzzards could be a major component in assisting with their export drive.

    1. Question number 3 – what benefits does the shooting industry bring to farming and the countryside in general?

    2. “… how much good do Buzzards do for farming by preying on rabbits …?”
      Not enough. In my experience buzzards are a bit lazy and prefer wheeling around in thermals doing cat impersonations rather than getting on with their proper job of killing and eating things. Even more irritating is that they insist on doing this in the daytime when the rabbits are mostly at home napping.

      “… which we are told are damaging to crops.”
      This need for endless new peer-reviewed evidence is getting out of hand. What do you think they eat – carrots, while wearing a little blue jacket?

      1. Oh come on Filbert I bet if you could do such a good Meow AND fly at the same time you’d take full advantage of the ability too

  7. Great blog celebrating a relatively small but significant victory. Throughout the brief outcry and campaign, it was great to see so much ‘people power’ on Twitter and Facebook. Would word have spread as quickly without the social networks, or would the petition have gained so many signatures in such a short period of time? It goes to show how much influence we can have just by using phones or computers. I agree, though, that there will be many more times our collective voice will be needed, but hopefully we will once again rise to the occasion and Tweet, Post and email to bring about change.

  8. Excellent work Mark. Congratulations to all involved! Somehow, this seems apt:

    “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

  9. What concerns me is how polarised this debate seems to be becoming . I suspect it will go or has gone the same way as the Hunting Debate with people pushed into opposing camps and voices of moderation ignored. I’m not sure that ultimately this is very productive although it can serve to get people excited and feel they are doing something.

    1. Giles – fair point. But I disagree. I relish seeing nature conservationists getting agitated and angry about things. They don’t show their passion enough. I would like to see more people getting more agitated (politely of course) about more issues. Views differ about many things – you can call that polarised but sometimes people are poles apart.

      1. I’ll give you an example Mark. When I started campaigning over the Hunting Act a certain very prominent organisation began to circulate a photograph they had taken of me with the cross hairs of a telescopic sight super imposed. This was very threatening to both me and my family. The irony was that I was campaigning against a section requiring animals to be killed. The only reaction the ‘other side’ seemed to be capable of was threatening me or labelling me a ‘pro hunt extremist’ or a ‘troll’. IMO ideas and principles had taken a back seat to name calling and tribalism more suited to the football terraces.

        Personally I do not think buzzards should be controlled at the moment and doubt they will ever need to be. I can see that their might be a need to deter them in some circumstances. However it also seems clear to me that if one accepts the need to sometimes control wild animal populations then it is a nonsense to hold any species as sacrosanct. I think this is the point being made by some in the shooting lobby and it seems to me to be a fair one.

        IMO we need is a sensible debate on when where why and how lethal and non lethal wildlife management are or are not justified. I think that is a and important complex issue. Some people take the view that it never is and they are entitled to that view.

      2. In this instance Giles I think voices of moderation have been recognised. The speed of this Uturn ensuring damage is minimized. It was a contentious piece of nonsense to begin with.

  10. Congratulations to everyone who made an effort to get this ridiculous proposal stopped – well at least for now. It is nice to have a victory however small.

    I did not hear Martin Harper talking to Tim Bonner of CLA but reading the latter’s comments I would love to have had the chance. How much longer are CLA going to trot out these tired comments about the people who support wildlife charities e all being urban dwellers who do not understand that all wildlife has to be managed (or in their case killed). Do they really think that millions of supporters of RSPB, WT’s, WWT etc are all townies?

    I was born and bred in the countryside and I rejected the killing of wildlife for sport in favour of studying and conserving them. It is also true that conservationists sometimes have to remove a predatory species in favour of protecting something much rarer but we do it quickly and humanely without a song and dance. It is also an exception rather than the rule.

    Is it not worth the conservation bodies now getting on the front foot? Could we not raise enough funds to carry out research on what effects on our native wildlife releasing 40 million pheasants has ? It might show the shooting fraternity just who they are dealing with.

    We must not be complacent because while we have success with enhancing our populations of top predators this minority will keep up the pressure.

    I am not against shooting in general but I do think it is time there was some focus on how it is done. This should also include the dismal record of Governments in enforcing the law against powerful people.

        1. Mark – thank you, I am enjoying and learning from from this blog a great deal and the comments. The interview did work last night and was well worth listening to – especially the point at the end about needing to investigate the effects of releasing c.40 million pheasants. As the comment above says, “LOL”!

  11. Good news indeed, and well done to all those who did their bit. However, as you and others have rightly mentioned, vigilance is required, as no doubt Dick Benyon and his ‘advisors’ will be seething with indignation at having been forced by No.10 to make such an abrupt policy u-turn.
    I’m interested to know whether you think the public reaction to the flawed proposals was based primarily on concern for the well-being of buzzards or was it the fact that tax-payers money was being bunged to the affluent ‘shooting industry’ in these austere times ? Would the public reaction have been different if the Defra had given approval for the trials to go ahead with private sector funding ?
    I’d like to think not but I don’t know. I am sure that these are the questions that the CA, NGO and others will be asking and I suppose it is not beyond the realms of possibility that some slightly watered down, privately funded, buzzard bothering trials may well re-emerge in the not too distant future.

    One final thing, although I’ve always loved Buzzards, I always felt that their name has never done justice to their majesty. I remember the naturalist Mike Tomkies writing that they should be called the ‘Woodland Eagle’, which I agree is a more fitting title, although perhaps an even better name would be the ‘Benyons U-turn Eagle’ ? Any takers ? Apologies for any typo’s as my clumsy fingers can’t quite get to grips with a blackberry key-pad!

  12. Well done Mark another great blog and thanking all the right people,even upsetting GSW,how did you manage that well just by having a decent point of view.How we need your blog to orchestrate what lots of us think.
    What nonsense it is from Countryside alliance to try and pigeon hole all those of us in the countryside as on the side of hunting,shooting fraternity,well most of those I know have more interest in live and let live,they simply want to try and speak for all of us when we are capable of making our own minds up.

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