Culling a buzzard to protect a red squirrel?

A red squirrel on Cardney Estate, Butterstone, Dunkeld, Perthshire

A red squirrel on Cardney Estate, Butterstone, Dunkeld, Perthshire

I had a call from Mark Macaskill, a reporter for the Sunday Times, on Friday evening. He was preparing an article on buzzards taking red squirrels.  He quoted an incident, of which I was aware, of a Perthshire landowner, David Hendry at Cardney Estate, having applied unsuccessfully to Scottish Natural Heritage for a licence to ‘take out’, ‘kill,’ cull’ – all terms with the same outcome – a particular buzzard he had seen taking a red squirrel and trying to take others in the same area of the estate. Having experienced a buzzard trying to take a red squirrel in my garden I was sympathetic and was confident that had David had his licence application granted the only buzzard being shot would be the individual causing concern.

When the article appeared in print my alleged quote was as follows: “Hendry’s concerns have been backed by Alan Stewart, formerly Scotland’s leading wildlife crime police officer. Stewart, who witnessed a buzzard killing red squirrels on Cardney, said it merited a controlled cull of the bird of prey. If I had been responsible for issuing licences, I would have issued one to David because I know him and trust him. I understand his frustration but decades of persecution of birds of prey by a small number of estates had made the Scottish Government nervous”.

I wish journalists would get it right and not make up fantasy to fit a story. I did not witness a buzzard killing red squirrels on Cardney.  When I carried out a year-long wildlife survey on the estate in 2011/12 there were plenty of red squirrels and plenty of buzzards.  It is likely that red squirrel featured on at least one buzzard’s menu but I did not see it for myself.  For the avoidance of anyone jumping to the conclusion that I support a general cull of any bird of prey, that is not the case. However with regard to this particular incident, since the red squirrel is a native and still relatively uncommon species, I would have agreed with it since I knew the landowner concerned would not have abused any licensing privilege agreed.   

The last sentence of the quote is also taken out of context. In fact there have been decades of persecution of birds of prey by a large number of estates. The question was asked of me by Mark if bird of prey persecution now regularly centred on particular estates, with which I agreed and drew the journalist’s attention to the annual reports from Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture (SASA) which quite clearly shows bird of prey poisoning incidents in the same areas time and time again. The same is shown on the annual poisoning maps published by PAW Scotland, though I forgot to mention this.

I have dealt with Mark Macaskill over the years without a problem but this morning I was annoyed and disappointed when I read his article. A reporter, in essence, should be the same as a police officer noting a statement from a witness. It must be noted accurately and not altered or have extras or omissions simply to better suit the purposes of the note-taker.

Lastly, for those who have read my previous blogs, many relate to my wildlife survey on Cardney. It is a small estate with an absolute wealth of wildlife. During the year I noted 89 species of birds and have seen several since that would bring the total to nearer 95. Birds of prey successfully breeding on the estate have been buzzard, red kite, tawny owl and sparrowhawk. Others visiting the estate have been golden eagle, white-tailed eagle, goshawk, merlin, peregrine and hen harrier.

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11 Responses to Culling a buzzard to protect a red squirrel?

  1. Jan says:

    Hi Alan.
    I appreciate that the landowner was concerned for the population of the Red Squirrels, however, how does he know, that it is just one individual Buzzard? What would happen, should he get this licence, kill the said individual, but then another Buzzard comes along to hunt it’s prey? And then another? I cannot see how a licence can be granted in any case. This natural behaviour of native species should be left to take it’s course. Interference by way of culling such native species I feel could be detrimental to local populations of both species of wildlife. Conservation, education, disease control measures and humane control measures for the Grey Squirrel should be more of a priority for the future of our Reds surely?

    • Jan
      As I wrote, I had a buzzard trying to get my red squirrels. I subscribe to your point regarding natural behaviour (as I did in my previous blog about the otter taking my ducks), but just because I wouldn’t consider taking any measures I wouldn’t condemn someone else for doing so provided the various criteria for the grant of a licence had been accepted by Scottish Natural Heritage. I see this, of course, as different for culling to protect artificially-reared game birds (though I do have some sympathies for wild grey partridge). I was happy it was always the same buzzard trying for ‘my’ squirrels as I knew its technique – perching on a tree at the edge of the garden, watching until a squirrel appeared, then a fast low dive towards it. No doubt David Hendry identified a similar pattern. In any event my suspicion is that for a variety of reasons I suspect licences in Scotland to cull any bird of prey – if any are ever granted – are some way in the future and likely to be granted only to protect rare species or for public safety reasons.

  2. Logan Steele says:

    Alan, read and understood, journalists can be a fickle breed at times!



  3. Despair at your attitude given your involvement in ‘wildlife Crime’.

  4. Mark Macaskill says:

    Alan, I considered calling you in response to your blog about my article. Since you have publicly criticised my journalism, I will reply, publicly, here. Firstly, you were quoted entirely accurately. The reference in the article to you witnessing red squirrels being attacked by a buzzard was not a quote. It was background, based on Mr Hendry telling me that he asked you to visit the estate to see for yourself what has happening. If that is not the case, then it is borne out of misunderstanding, not “fantasy to fit a story”. It made no difference to the article whether you had witnessed the incident or not. The final sentence of your quote was not taken out of context. You didn’t specify “larger” estates and, frankly, if you had, I would have put it in. Again, it made no difference, Alan, because you were not the subject of the article, merely an element of it. Which brings me to my final point – I am absolutely confident that, had you made the comments you made to me to another journalist, you may very well have ended up becoming the story. However, I was perfectly clear that you were not endorsing a general cull of buzzards, but rather commenting on Mr Hendry’s particular experience. I don’t believe anyone who read the article would arrive at any other conclusion. And for the record, it’s Mark. Not Marc.

    • Mark, ‘seeing what is happening’ is not the same as ‘who witnessed a buzzard killing red squirrels’. I was therefore not quoted ‘entirely accurately’, though I’ll accept your view that this error was borne out of misunderstanding.
      I think you miss the point in the last sentence of my quote. There have been DECADES of persecution by a LARGE number of estates. Only in more recent times has that reduced, and this discussion was to agree with the question you posed on whether raptor persecution now could be linked to certain estates. My answer was that it could, and the SASA report clearly showed that raptor poisoning can be linked to certain areas, if not certain estates. This is also demonstrated in the PAW maps of raptor poisonings.
      On your point about (many) other journalists I agree entirely, and there are few I would have spoken to on this subject.
      Apologies for the mis-spelling of your name.

  5. Bill McIntosh says:

    No wonder the wildlife in our countryside is in such a state. I just wish people who shout the loudest and make such a song and dance about what goes on in the countryside, would listen to the people who work alongside wildlife on a daily basis. This blanket protection that exists is going to be the downfall of so many species.
    The speed at which our animals, and birds are now disappearing is frightening !.

  6. Amanda says:

    Alan what about goshawks they take red squirrels quite a lot,would you see one of these shot.

    • Amanda. Despite the threat to the red squirrels in my garden from a buzzard I had no wish to take any action against it, but my experience allowed me to have sympathy for someone else in the same circumstances who was trying to maintain a good population of red squirrels, a species under threat in most of Scotland. He did want to get rid of this buzzard and took the legal route by applying for a licence, which was refused. That was the end of the matter. Your point about a goshawk is different as it is, as a species in Scotland, on at least the same scale of threat as a red squirrel, albeit for different reasons. I would certainly not support any action to see a goshawk shot.
      In principle I am against artificial management of wildlife but I am happy that the safeguards in the UK are sound IF THEY ARE OBSERVED. Species that can be a pest, such as rats, rabbits and foxes can be controlled by approved means, game species can be killed at certain times of the year, and protected species can, if there is a valid reason, be controlled under licence. The otter that has taken nine of my domestic ducks over the past month is a protected species but I would have no wish whatsoever to kill it and am trying various measures to prevent it taking any more (the latest being to keep them inside unless I am there to supervise them. Hopefully this might break the pattern)

  7. Bill McIntosh says:

    This “Thorny Dilemma” get some coverage in todays (28/12/13) The Courier , page 25. by man with two dogs Angus Whitson.
    It is interesting, do we let one species remove another, as seems to be the way of the future, or do we step in and manage wildlife , as we have done for a number of years. We don’t always get it right, but the people that work in the countryside have long worked under King George V I famous quotation……… ” The wildlife of today is not ours to dispose of as we please. We have it in trust. We must account for it to those that come after”.
    I really would like my grandchildren to grow up with red squirrels, as I have.

    • Thanks Bill, I read that. I am really pleased to see a buzzard and a red squirrel in my garden (though preferably not at the same time). I don’t think anyone would like to see the more common species eating the rarer species, but both are protected. I have to echo Angus Whitson’s comment ‘I don’t pretend to know the answer. I just know it can be a bit sparky getting there’. I, of course, have already experienced some of the sparks.

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