A VERY SHORT CHAPTER FROM WILDLIFE DETECTIVE
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 in 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 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 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 oystercatchers 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, corn bunting or 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.’
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