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Something’s gone badly wrong at the Greenest Government Ever. To say I’ve been profoundly disappointed at the environmental performance of the Coalition – in comparison to its glowing promises – is only the start of it. But at least, up until now, it has only been the traditional environmentalist’s bogeyman the Chancellor of the Exchequer who has been the boo-hiss villain happy to deride current protection of wildlife and landscapes as a “ridiculous cost” on business.
Now the foes of our native biodiversity are expanding their reach. They are optimistic enough to be openly at work through DEFRA – traditionally the department that is responsible for nature reserves, protected landscapes, biodiversity, and protected species as well as farming, food and fishing. A modest DEFRA proposal for a research project on birds of prey has caused an extraordinary backlash of criticism from a wide range of respected voices throughout the conservation field. Having read it, I can understand why. The project is not large, but the implications are. And as far as I can see there are two possible explanations, neither of which give me any comfort. Either those who proposed this idea have an alarmingly poor understanding of the role and relative importance of native species versus introduced ones; or they don’t, but are confident enough to believe that any resistance to the proposal can be safely disregarded.
So what’s all this about? DEFRA propose to undertake research to look into how native buzzards are preying on young pheasant chicks which are commercially reared and released on shooting estates. In support of this DEFRA assert:
It has been claimed that raptors, particularly buzzards, have been causing serious damage to game interests resulting in financial loss because of predation on pheasant poults. A 2011 survey by the National Gamekeepers Organisation found that 76% of gamekeepers believe that buzzards have a harmful effect on gamebirds… Although research has yet to identify the extent of impact of buzzards at a national or local scale, there does appear to be a number of sites where buzzards could be contributing to a significant damage problem. There is therefore an urgent need to identify management techniques that could significantly reduce or eliminate losses of pheasant poults to buzzards within, and in the immediate vicinity of, release pens.
Now if this was a project to investigate the actual extent of physical and economic damage caused by buzzards on shooting estates, that might be fair. But it isn’t. DEFRA has skipped the task of quantifying this damage and makes the awkward leap from hearing that lots of gamekeepers believe ‘buzzards have a harmful effect upon gamebirds’ right across to deciding there is ‘an urgent need to identify management techniques’. What’s missing is firstly, any weighing up of the evidence that these perceived losses are genuine or have any significant impact; and secondly, any consideration of the merits – if any – of buzzards as a native species.
It’s a modest compensation that the project also includes some analysis of the problem, with a requirement to “establish a baseline of predation of pheasant poults both inside and close to release pens differentiating, where possible, between different predators.” But this is the work that should have been done first, before the rest of the study was designed – as it could quite possibly demonstrate that there is no need for it.
It is simply not good enough that the opinion of 76% of gamekeepers is sufficient to sway DEFRA’s opinion in this way – or that it appears to. If ‘Family Fortunes‘ policy making by survey results is the methodology of the day, the least one could hope for is another survey of people who were not gamekeepers asking their opinion, too. Maybe, shoe-shop assistants. Or fortune tellers. Or birdwatchers.
And to make it worse, the work is going to cost us £375,000 over three years. I won’t even begin to set out what else could be achieved with £375,000 – if you are anything like me you have already worked it out. It would provide a ranger for about 15 years, for a start. In 2006, the government welcomed a report by BASC and GCT which explained that “Shooters spend £2 billion each year on goods and services“. That’s probably true. And if it is, they could probably afford 0.006% of it to pay for this work themselves.
So, why? Why is this happening? Some clues are in the proposal document. The list of trial control methods has already been agreed, following an internal study and discussions with stakeholders. If there are other methods out there, DEFRA isn’t interested at the moment. “Discussions with stakeholders have refined the list to the following techniques to be assessed in this project“:
DEFRAs proposed trial buzzard control methods:
- Cut vegetative or artificial cover: Low cover inside and outside pens. Provide shelters/refuges in the form of brash piles or wigwams. Possibly also wooden shelters/refuges.
- 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 riskof increase in local buzzard population.
- Translocation (permanent): Permanent removal off-site, for example, to a falconry centre. NE would be able to provide assistance for researchers in planning and licensing negotiations with potential recipients.
- Nest destruction: Breeding birds displaced by destroying nests during 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 proposed location of the study is connected to this, too. The proposal says that “bidders are strongly encouraged to use a site that consists of 6 shoots… in Northumberland. It is claimed that the shoots have suffered significant losses from buzzard predation and the owners have agreed in principle to allow them to be used in this research project.”
Which leads us to this possible scenario. A group of specific landowners believes that buzzards are affecting their business and they want to control them but know it’s illegal to do so. They have some control methods in mind and they tell DEFRA what they want to do. By creating a research project, DEFRA not only makes it legal for them, it pays for the work and ensures that it happens on their estates, in the way they’ve agreed. All very tidy. Until some long-beards come along yelling some stuff about buzzards.
This is not only bad science, it is also clumsy politics. The reason for the rumpus over this proposal is not really the money. Frankly, DEFRA can afford it, and should if anything do some more of it – spending money wisely on ways to prevent shoots and raptors coming into conflict would be a very good idea. The problem is the way the project has been drawn up and presented. This is not the careful, evidence-based and independent research that characterised government ecologists and economists in the past. This is the acrid smoke rising from the Bonfire of the Quangos. It is the Big Society at its ensurient worst. The government has created a situation where, as its own few remaining officials are neither able nor willing to take the lead in such matters, it is for those with the loudest voices and deepest pockets to fill the void.
UPDATE: Less than 24 hours after this was published, the proposal was abandoned.