So, while we’ve all been busy asking what the government plans to do about the imminent demise of the English hen harrier breeding population, the government has itself been busy putting together some funding, at the behest of the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation, to set up a trial to evaluate ‘management techniques’ to reduce the so-called ‘significant’ effect of buzzards on pheasant poults.
Yes, you read that correctly. DEFRA is interested in finding measures of controlling a native species (at the request of gamekeepers) that not only is recovering from past persecution (by gamekeepers), but still is undergoing illegal persecution (by gamekeepers) in the interests of protecting a non-native species that is reared and released (by gamekeepers) for people to kill for sport. Amazing.
It’s been estimated that over 40 million non-native pheasants are released in to the countryside each year, although it’s difficult to assess the accuracy of this number as there aren’t any limits on the number that can be released and there aren’t any reporting requirements for this to be monitored. What is clear is that the game shooting industry is undisputably linked to the continuing illegal persecution of birds of prey in this country and yet here is a government department basing a research decision solely on the opinion of some within that industry without a shred of scientific evidence to support their claims. [Interestingly, GWCT did a study a few years back on the fate of released pheasants; “Of 486 radio-tagged birds, we think three were killed by raptors” – see here. That’s 0.6%! Is that ‘significant’?].
So what does this trial entail? Basically, whoever is given the contract to conduct the research has to evaluate four different methods of buzzard management techniques:
1. Cut vegetative or artifical cover inside and outside pheasant-rearing pens. Provide shelters/refuges in the form of brash piles or wigwams. Possibly also wooden shelters/ refuges.
2. Diversionary feeding. Whole carcasses left on posts out of reach of ground predators. Type of carcass to be agreed with site owners. Provide for limited periods to reduce risk of increase in local buzzard population.
3. Translocation (permanent). Permanent removal off-site, for example, to a falconry centre. NE [Natural England] would be able to provide assistance for researchers in planning and licensing negotiations with potential recipients.
4. Nest destruction. Breeding birds displaced by destroying nests under construction, for example, using squirrel drey-poking pole or shotgun from below thereby forcing the pair to move on to find another nest site or not breed that year. Care would be needed to avoid injuring birds.
The study is anticipated to last for up to three years and £125k per annum will be available to fund it. The study sites have not yet been formally identified but DEFRA is encouraging bidders to use ‘a site that consists of 6 shoots spread over an area of 2000-2400 hectares in Northumberland’. It is not yet known who has won the bid to conduct this research (bidding closed at the end of April) but we’ll be keeping a close eye out on that.
DEFRA does emphasise its interest in ‘non-lethal’ management techniques, at the moment at least, but I think we can all probably see where this is heading. Part of the justification DEFRA uses for this study is the increase in buzzard numbers from 1995-2009 (duh – of course they’re increasing as they recolonise areas where previously they had been wiped out). Are we getting to the stage where raptor fieldworkers should start thinking about witholding their field survey results? If this is what the government is using those data for then there’s quite a strong argument for it!
Here’s the background info provided by DEFRA to research bidders: Buzzard control experiment overview
STOP PRESS (Tues 22 May) – Many thanks to everyone who has tweeted and posted on Facebook and on their own blogs about this story. Our visitor numbers have sky-rocketed in response, no doubt helped by a certain Chris Packham (thanks, Chris!). Please keep spreading the word; DEFRA cannot be allowed to get away with this. RSPB will be issuing a statement tomorrow.
STOP PRESS (Weds 23 May) – go here to read RSPB response and find out what you can do to stop this trial.