When we talk of villains and evil characters there is undoubtably a plethora of individuals and personalities who spring to mind for different people. Personally, I might think of The Joker, Maleficent, Dracula, Hannibal Lecter or Lord Voldemort, but if there is one thing that all these villains have in common, it is not their cruelty or evil genius, but the fact that they are fictional. The likelihood that I am to get up one morning and walk into Maleficent in my kitchen, is exceedingly unlikely, if not impossible. In fiction we create these characters, they are to be feared, they are to be loathed and ultimately, they are to be gotten rid of. Now, I am sure that in the real world we all have our own opinions of who is villainous and who is not, and some would even have such opinions of species which belong to the natural world. In the UK, there are a number of species who all too often have such stigma attached to them. Who or indeed what are they? Birds of prey.
Cunning, fearsome, merciless and savage are just some of the words that are often printed in association with the many bird of prey species we have in the UK. By many they are viewed as creatures that will take livestock, pets and even children, should the opportunity present itself. From the smallest, the Merlin, to the largest, the White-tailed Eagle, birds of prey are highly prone to getting an exceedingly bad rap in our country. Why? Because they are predators. Because they are opportunists. They are highly intelligent, fast and very powerful, each one a master of the hunt and king of their habitat. However, it is these very qualities that make them unlovable in the eyes of many and even a target for extermination by others. The natural habitat of many of these species is enough to make them targetable, with the Hen Harrier facing extinction in the UK purely because it breeds on moorlands where the game bird the Red Grouse is raised to be shot for human profit. White-tailed Eagles are targetable because their sheer size means they are capable of taking lambs and Red Kites are feared due to their recent colonisation of cities.
Recently, a newspaper published an article warning people to protect their pets and children against Buzzards. The information within this article was nothing short of sensationalist and totally erroneous, designed to scaremonger and instil fear into the hearts of those who may lay eyes upon these birds. Now, there have been incidences where birds of prey have had altercations with humans and their pets, but such occurrences are rare at best. Unfortunately, when such events unfold, the automatic assumption is that this bird was aiming to harm, aiming to terrorise and ultimately, aiming to kill. Highly unlikely. More often than not, attacks occur as a result of territoriality or because they perceive there to be a threat to them or their nests. My own dad has been ‘attacked’ by a Buzzard when he went running on a holiday in France. My mum who went with him was not attacked, but witnessed it. Where were they running? Through woodland. When? In breeding season. My dad is a tall man, whilst my mother is quite ‘dinky’ (if I say short she’ll come after me). This buzzard swooped down low several times, snatching at my dads head for a minute or so, then, the bird left. My dad was fairly unscathed, with a small scratch on the back of his head that barely fazed him, he brushed off the attack with a literal shrug of the shoulders and moved on. I of course cannot know for sure, but I believe he was ‘attacked’ because he is a tall man who ran too close to a nest which more than likely had recently hatched young within it. My father was perceived as a threat and in the birds eyes, had to be shooed away. It was neither merciless nor savage, but a method of protection.
Persecution of all raptor species with the exception of the sparrow hawk (outlawed 1961) became illegal in 1954. However, as we are all aware, this protection has done little to shield them from persistent illegal persecution. Unfortunately, those who continue to persecute these birds are rather medieval in their mindset; raptors are a threat and therefore must be exterminated. However, for media outlets to print material that deliberately tarnishes the view of these birds is quite irresponsible. There are already those within certain circles who possess such narrow-minded opinions and we do not need these to be believed by the general public. Raptor persecution is probably one of our greatest conservation hurdles which we are yet to overcome in the UK. There are some figures that would claim that raptor persecution is falling and although the figures do not directly lie, what about those incidences that have not been recorded? With raptor persecution becoming more published, individuals who carry out such activities become more careful in their approach and there are undoubtedly many who will dispose of the evidence of illegal persecution.
Birds of prey are not species that should be feared or hated, they are important players in their ecosystems and are magnificent specimens of evolution. Birds of prey reflect healthy ecosystem functioning and indicate that other species within their food web are thriving within their habitats. As top predators, raptors keep balance within their ecosystems and ensure that the functioning of these ecosystem remain healthy. Without raptors, the populations of their prey species would soar, creating an imbalance which could easily damage plants and vegetation and degrade that ecosystem. This effect is seen within all ecosystems when predators are removed. For example, in Yellowstone National Park when Wolves, the keystone species and apex predator, was removed Elk populations exploded, tree species were overgrazed and degraded, song bird populations plummeted and beaver populations crashed due to the depletion of their food and resources. Coyote numbers increased and they removed more small mammals which then reduced food for foxes, badgers and raptors. Although the issue of birds of prey in the UK is a different location and their are different species involved, the effects can be similar when important predators are lost.
In the UK, we have already lost our most important carnivores. Wolves, Lynx and Bears have long been extinct in our country and we can still see the effects of that today with our huge deer populations degrading ecosystems through overgrazing. We have lost some of our birds of prey also, but luckily, they have been reintroduced and wildlife has since thrived. As with any predator, there are risks associated with them, however, although some would believe we do, we DO NOT have the right to remove them from the habitats that they belong to. Yes, a White-tailed Eagle has the ability to take a lamb, but when there is plenty of other food (small mammals, fish) available, such events are unlikely and are rarely occur. In the case of the White-tailed Eagle, many in Scotland were worried that hill sheep stocks would suffer, but such concerns never came to fruition and such events never unfolded.
We should not judge a species on what they have the ability to do, nor exact retribution because we fear them. After all, if we were to point the finger at those species that are the most threatening, fearsome and have the greatest ability to commit horrifying acts, I am afraid we would find that finger pointing firmly back toward us.
“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” ― Mahatma Gandhi
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