Birds of prey – a bit of a rant

Female sparrowhawk eating a pigeon in a garden

Female sparrowhawk eating a pigeon in a garden

In a recent post I briefly discussed sparrowhawks in the garden and promised to post a chapter from my first book, Wildlife Detective, where I had a bit of a rant on birds of prey. I note also in the chapter that I had been slightly concerned about the cost of feeding the birds in my garden. I’m still concerned, as the amount of feeding they consume (and bury) has more than doubled since I wrote that book in 2007.


Birds of Prey

A radio chat show prompts a discussion about the emotive issue

of winged predators and why people should learn to live in peace

with them if not love them.

Birds of prey are an emotive issue. Many people love them. Many

people hate them. Very few people are ambivalent to their presence.

My job is to uphold the law in relation to all wildlife crime, including

birds of prey. Though I have an interest in the conservation of species,

which includes that of birds of prey, I must remain objective, fair and

balanced in my dealings with those on one or other side of the fence.

As I write this chapter, I have just finished listening to an early

morning BBC Scotland radio programme, part of which related to

birds of prey. A farm worker spoke at length and with an abundance

of anthropomorphic sentiment about seeing buzzards killing and

eating young lapwings and leverets. He said it was terrible that when

a buzzard catches a young leveret it screams out just like a baby. A rat

or mouse or vole, much more common prey of a buzzard than a leveret,

probably screams out just the same, but is this not so important? I’m

sure it’s just as important to the rat or mouse or vole. The buzzard is

not being deliberately cruel to the prey that it catches; it is simply coexisting

with prey species in almost the same manner as it has done

for thousands of years. I say almost the same manner as any change in

predator/prey relationships has in almost all cases been induced by

humans. Prior to the Victorian era, the buzzard did not have a countryside

supermarket stacked to the brim with pheasants, so it is only

natural that now in many areas of the UK its lunch menu is likely to

be predisposed towards one of the easier prey items to catch – semi-domestic

pheasant poults.

On the radio programme, the farm worker stated with authority

that buzzards should be culled and reduced by eighty per cent, which

would make a big difference to the number of young wader chicks

and other ground-nesting birds taken by them. I’m sure it would make

a difference but then could a much more substantial difference not be

made by a change in farming practices? Every time the farm worker

voicing his views sprays a young cereal crop with an insecticide spray,

consider how many millions of insects he is killing that could provide

protein-rich feeding for young partridges, lapwings, skylarks and the

like. To a ground nesting, insect-eating bird, a field of young wheat or

barley must be the equivalent of a desert.

Every time you pass a field of young grass with the dark and light

stripes of the roller reminiscent of a well-manicured lawn, consider

the date. If the field has been rolled late in the Spring, imagine how

many eggs or young birds may have been flattened in the process.

Look also at ploughed fields in late Spring where the land is being

left for a later crop, such as turnips or peas. The ploughed land is a

magnet to lapwings and oyster catchers and a scan of the field with

binoculars is likely to reveal the many shiny black backs of the birds

as they incubate their eggs. A week later you pass and there are tractors

with a variety of implements going up and down the field and every

bit of bird life has been lost. No-one is suggesting that farmers should

leave their fields until the middle of summer before they begin their

crop cycle but was the farm worker on the programme blind to the

damage he has been doing to birds for years and blinkered only against

a bird of prey in what remains of its natural habitat?

In my lifetime I have seen a huge change in farmland birds. When

I was young I remember arable fields where it was common to have

twenty pairs of nesting lapwings and from early March they delighted

us as they laid claim to their chunk of the field by rising and falling

and tumbling in the sky in their display flight, not unlike that of the

male hen harrier. All the while they were making their onomatopoeic

peeeee-weep, weep-weep, peeeee-weep call that gave them their much

more interesting country name of peewit or peeweep. Tractors were

much smaller and didn’t have cabs, therefore we could more readily

spot the nests – a simple hollow in the ground lined with half a dozen

bits of straw – and avoid running them over. We then either worked

around them or moved the eggs to the side, placing the four conical

eggs in a similar hollow made with our heel and marking the nest

with a stick so that it could be avoided when we came round with the

next implement. This was in times long before the multi-tasking

implements of today when a field can be harrowed, sown and the grain

covered over all in one go.

Grass fields intended for hay would hold an abundance of curlews,

skylarks, grey partridge, wild pheasants and sometimes meadow pipit

and redshank. I can’t ever remember rolling a grass field yet we still

had substantial hay crops. The nearest most of these birds come now

to agricultural land is marginal land and their decline was absolutely

nothing to do with the buzzard or any other bird of prey.

The next speaker on the programme was an official from RSPB

who explained predator/prey relationships and the fact that prey

species normally have large and sometimes multi-broods of chicks to

compensate for natural loss. He also made the point of changes in

agriculture being responsible for the decline of certain species.

The final speaker I could only describe as a clot, who moaned

that when he went for a walk in the country, he never saw young

lapwings in a nest nowadays (which is little wonder as they leave the

nest as soon as their feathers have dried out after hatching). He also

lamented that ‘you never hear nightingales singing now’ (and he was

talking about Scotland!) and that all of this, and much more, was

down to birds of prey. I have never heard such claptrap.

No doubt, in certain circumstances, birds of prey have a deleterious

effect on other birds, and some of the complaints from gamekeepers

are justified. For a person who depends on producing high numbers

of game birds for his livelihood it must be frustrating to see a buzzard

taking pheasant poults or a hen harrier taking young grouse. Nevertheless,

these raptors are protected by law and it is my job and that of

all police officers to ensure compliance with the law. The police have

absolutely no objection to the stance that the Scottish Gamekeepers’

Association take on some birds of prey by lobbying for a change in

the law to allow some degree of licensed control. This is the democratic

route to take, though I have doubts about its success.

It’s also interesting, if sometimes slightly confusing, to compare

the views of different keepers. Some, like the farm worker on the BBC

Scotland programme, would like a drastic reduction in buzzard

numbers. Others are of the view that birds of prey don’t cause them

any significant problem. One grouse keeper took an especially pragmatic

approach and said that as long as he can legally continue to

control the numbers of foxes, crows and stoats he will be happy, as

foxes in particular take far more of his grouse than all the birds of

prey on the estate put together.

An issue that almost always arises when I’m giving a talk is the

issue of sparrowhawks taking garden birds. I’m often asked for my

thoughts on this and can speak from experience as I have a pair of

sparrowhawks come into my rural garden on a regular basis and take

small birds. Their favourites seem to be greenfinches and siskins with

the occasional collared dove taken by the larger female sparrowhawk.

There are a couple of plucking posts littered with green and brown

feathers yet I can still have thirty birds at a time on the feeders and go

through a 25 kilo bag of black sunflower seeds in two weeks or a bag

of niger seed in two days. Apart from some disruption to the feeding

of the birds, the predation has no long-term effect.

I was once asked by a journalist for a local paper if birds of prey

would take pigeons. She had been visiting a pigeon fancier who was

bemoaning the fact that his stock of pigeons was being decimated by

birds of prey. I explained that peregrines would readily take pigeons

that were on a race and that sparrowhawks would take them closer to

home, even in some cases entering the pigeon loft to do so. The journalist

could see that she now had verification of the pigeon fancier’s

complaint, but asked, obviously as the next stage in her article, if anything

could be done to ameliorate this. I probably surprised her by

answering ‘Yes’. She seemed delighted that she was going to be able

to publish the solution to the problem and asked what could be done.

I replied, ‘All peregrines and sparrowhawks would need to be

caught up and conditioned to eat grass and turnips.’

‘Great,’ she said, ‘can I print that?’

‘Of course you can Maureen,’ I relied. ‘It’s the only solution

however impractical it may be.’

Her response was in the next edition of the Perthshire Advertiser,

an article entitled Birds of Prey Fancy Pigeons. . . ‘a police spokesman


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