The Scottish Gamekeepers Association (SGA) has welcomed Defra’s decision to commission a study aimed at halting the predation of game birds by buzzards.
Buzzards, a protected species, are the most common bird of prey in the UK and their numbers have exploded by an estimated 146 per cent between 1995 and 2009, according to the latest BTO statistics.
In Scotland, there has been an estimated 36 per cent rise in buzzard numbers between 1994 and 2007.
For years, gamekeepers and land managers on both sides of the border have been pleading to government to examine the impacts of buzzard predation, with numbers of the raptors soaring.
Now, after preliminary investigations found some estates in England lose as much as 30 per cent of their young pheasant stock annually to buzzards, with no compensation, Defra has agreed to a scientific study.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is to spend up to £375 000 researching non-lethal measures to keep buzzards from targeting pheasant poults at release pens.
The study, backed by Natural England, will begin in Northumberland this year and will explore non-lethal management techniques Defra hope could produce a solution to protect both game birds and buzzards.
Although labeled as scavengers, buzzards will eat rabbit and bird carcasses but also take poults and are known to eat the chicks of birds such as Plovers, Dotterels and Lapwings.
Although the research has been criticised by conservation groups, The Scottish Gamekeepers Association is heartened that government is finally agreeing to bring science to bear.
“Even although this study will be conducted in England, we welcome it because, since buzzard numbers have continued to soar, there has been no substantive research done as to the impacts of buzzard predation of game birds, or indeed other countryside birds such as conservation- listed waders,” SGA Chairman, Alex Hogg.
“People working on the ground have known for years that there is a real issue here, so this represents progress and the willingness to listen on behalf of government.
“There is no threat whatsoever to the UK buzzard population, which is currently estimated to stand at around half a million, so having a study into non-lethal control methods is non-emotive, even if conservation groups disagree.
“The RSPB has already claimed this is wasting public money but the game industry in Britain props up the rural economy to the tune of millions, employs thousands of people, sustains families and provides quality food with no subsidy or financial input from anywhere else.
“In the current economic climate, surely it merits the same kind of attention as any other industry and having proper science available will surely be of benefit to everyone with an interest in the management of wildlife.”
When polled by the National Gamekeepers Organisation last year, almost three quarters of all keepers in England stated they felt buzzards were causing harm to wildlife including game birds.
Although legal licenses can be applied for to control numbers, none have been granted by either Natural England or Scottish Natural Heritage and estates have been seeking help for a growing problem.
It is now hoped this study will provide the basis for a proper management plan to be introduced to mitigate expensive losses to buzzard predation, which has threatened livelihoods.
The findings will be eagerly anticipated on this side of the border.
“What is happening in England is not about reducing buzzard numbers willy nilly, it is about giving people the legal basis to rectify a problem where there is a definite need,” added SGA Chairman, Alex Hogg.
“The same situation exists in Scotland. Whether someone disagrees with country sports or not, very few rational individuals would think it would be right for someone to walk into a shop every day, steal a large amount of the goods and for the shopkeeper to have no tools to deal with it. If there was a proper legal system of management, it would help everyone.”
Methods to be used to keep buzzards away from pheasant young in the study will include diversionary feeding, removal of buzzards to falconry centres, cutting back available cover and the breaking of nests to stall breeding.