What is it about politicians? I try hard to take a reasonable and fair-minded view of them and their antics – understanding, as I do, the failings of human nature – but I’m inevitably drawn into a rant about the duplicity, the breathtaking ineptitude and perhaps worst of all in an occupation that purportedly exists only to serve the nation – the complete lack of nous. It’s not that I don’t understand political expediency; I do. It’s just that time after time politicians present us with glaring examples of exactly how not to deal with things and then, when they are called to account all that’s heard is the clamour of back-peddling and evasion. When did politics become a second-class profession and cease being a calling?
Perhaps the Leveson enquiry will punch the tickets of a few of these smug, self-serving characters but while that particular drama plays itself out another little sideshow has grabbed my attention and it typifies the arrogant and casual manner in which we, the voters (when we can be bothered to vote, that is), are held.
In April our Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the UK (Defra) invited bids (worth £375000 over three years) for undertaking research into concerns of a specialist interest group and what measures it, Defra, could take to – put simply – make those concerns go away. The specialist group was the pheasant shooting fraternity and the concerns surrounded the predation of reared pheasants by an increasing buzzard population. The evidence for predation, by the way, was entirely anecdotal and based on complaints from gamekeepers but nonetheless people who rear pheasants for sport shooting say they are losing income as their profits are being, er, eaten away. Something approaching 40m pheasants are reared each season for shooting and the sport is reported by PACEC as being worth about £1.6b annually so the first thing that springs to mind – and a point not lost on the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and other commentators like Mark Avery, who is a past conservation director there – is that Defra has no business involving itself and spending our taxes in the interests of a commercial sporting enterprise that could easily fund its own research. Bowing under the pressure, Defra yesterday dropped the proposals ‘in light of public concern’ but Tim Bonner, campaign director for the Countryside Alliance, was unrepentant and labelled the protests ‘mock outrage’ and a ‘trial by Twitter’.
Defra hasn’t explained why it took the view that this particular issue needed its attention in the first place (as opposed to spending resources, say, that might help the Hen Harrier from disappearing as a breeding species here) but it set about undertaking a desk study and arrived at some startling conclusions, the first and most obvious of which was that breeders should try placing cover around the pens so that the young birds could hide from the buzzards. In Barrowboy’s world that should have been that – you fill the woodland floor with fat, baby pheasants and birds of prey with hungry babies of their own will see an easy supply of food. Whilst most people with even the slightest knowledge of buzzards would have seen that to be obvious Defra went on to demonstrate further idiocy by calling for ‘research’ that also considered ‘permanent removal off-site, for example, to a falconry centre’ of the birds together with ‘nest destruction’. Aside from being astoundingly naïve these conclusions were witless in the extreme. To my mind Defra’s guidance to bidders that the ‘overall aim of the study is to develop mitigation techniques that significantly reduce predation levels of pheasant poults where serious damage is being caused by buzzards’ indicated a clear presumption of guilt as well as a clear example of government being partial in responding to lobbyists.
When the press picked-up the story last week after it received publicity on BBC Radio 4 there was a flurry of comment on the internet so Defra – remember I mentioned ‘back-peddling’ at the beginning of this post? – started back-peddling. They are well-used to this and have an interesting section on their website called ‘Mythbust’, which clearly aims to rebuff criticism in the guise of clarification. Look at what was posted on 24 May;
The Myth: There have been recent reports that Defra is proposing to cull buzzards or is about to implement a new policy to control their numbers.
The Truth: 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.
Setting aside the myths, the truths and the spurious nature of this clarification, here are some facts. Defra is not specifically proposing a cull of buzzards but it is proposing research that will have exactly the same effect; capturing, removing or confining birds or driving them away by destroying nests (with a shotgun if necessary) is culling, despite Defra’s semantics. Defra also states that it works on ‘the basis of sound evidence’ but clearly it doesn’t; if it did it would need factual proof that predation was a significant issue and not ‘anecdotal evidence’ that buzzards are wreaking havoc on planet Gamekeeper. It concludes by paying lip service to the RSPB, who led the outcry, yet that organisation was excluded from Defra’s own Project Advisory Group that would have assessed the study. The British Trust for Ornithology has also withdrawn, further reducing credibility and leaving the balance of the remaining members firmly weighted in favour of landowners. Leaving aside the questionable basis of the issue in the first place it seems unlikely to me that any valid results could have been achieved by such a half-cocked exercise.
So buzzards can enjoy a relatively uninterrupted breeding season and I will be able to enjoy them soaring over my garden for the time being. One might say that Defra has been stupid and demonstrated a worrying lack judgement but that would be charitable. I perceive the implications as being far more sinister and don’t think this issue has gone away as I trust neither Defra nor its friends at the Countryside Alliance, who are little more than a lobby group for landowners. These issues arise through a lack of strong leadership and once again this has allowed a Government agency to act partially in the interests of a favoured lobby group. Yes, it’s good for the birds in this case but the bigger picture is of far more concern.
The British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) reports that pheasant predation by all birds of prey averages less than 5% and in respect of buzzards a paper published in the Journal of Applied Ecology is more specific. It reported on a study covering forty buzzard nests between 1994 and 1995, during which 20725 pheasants were released. Based on responses from ten gamekeepers within the study area it was estimated that buzzard predation amounted to 4.3%; a long way from the 25-30% referred to as ‘anecdotal’ in Defra’s invitation to tender.
Two relevant conclusions reported were;
‘Predation by buzzards was recorded most often at release pens with little shrub cover, canopy that was deciduous and many released pheasants. Predation was worst in large pens with much ground cover and low pheasant density’
‘Radio-tagged buzzards were located most often at pens with open, deciduous canopy. Pens were most likely to be visited by buzzards that fledged nearby, but proximity of buzzard nests had relatively little influence on the level of predation’.
Journal of Applied Ecology, 38(4): 813-822 2001
Factors affecting predation by buzzards Buteo buteo on released pheasants Phasianus colchicus
Kenward, R. E., Hall, D. G., Walls, S. S., Hodder, K. H. 2001.