If you happen to be a business man or a business woman, I am sure there is one particular part of your trade that you are all too aware of and is near impossible to avoid. Competition. Competition from others in the market who perhaps share your idea, sell the same merchandise or even offer the same deal. What do you do about this pesky competition? You do your absolute best to outsmart them and your utmost to come up with new and innovative ideas to make sure that your business remains afloat. Now, what if I were to tell you that you could, quite legally, take a shotgun and destroy the competition? You’d be utterly horrified by the idea! Or at least I hope you would. Why would I suggest such a thing? Because when it comes to humans and the natural world, this is exactly the approach. What species am I referring to that has been subjected to such a possibility? The Buzzard.
Cast your minds back to the end of July this year and I am sure you will remember the highly controversial and totally abhorrent decision to issue a gamekeeper with a license to shoot up to 10 buzzards. Although the gamekeeper in question was never named, we know that the reason behind this decision was so that he (or she) could protect their pheasant stocks. Now, these pheasants are raised purely for commercial purposes, or, in other words, so that some humans who feel inclined to do so can go and shoot them. What’s the problem with a few Buzzards flying about? That they are predators and are themselves inclined to sometimes hunt pheasants. They are, in business terms, the competition.
Now, you might not consider the shooting of 10 Buzzards that much of a problem when you hear that there are 57,000-79,000 breeding pairs of Buzzard in the UK. After all, what is 10 in 79,000? Small change! Maybe. However, as was feared when Natural England granted the first license, it has now been announced that more licenses are being considered and likely to be issued. More licenses means more Buzzards shot. It is all very confusing indeed when we know that Buzzards are a protected native species, who once faced extinction in the Victorian era, but are now being shot in order to protect a non-native game bird. It is estimated that each year approximately 40 million pheasant are released into the countryside. The losses to native birds of prey are estimated to be 1-2%. So we shot a native to protect the business interest of a few, who are releasing non-native species into our ecosystems. Curious.
Natural England and those that support their decision have justified these licenses and claimed that they would not be granted if they were likely to adversely affect the status of Buzzard in the UK. Currently, due to the successful recovery of Buzzard populations since their near extinction, Buzzards are not considered a ‘conservation concern’. In addition, by law, Natural England claim that they must balance the protection of wild birds against the requirement to prevent any serious damage to livestock. In the case of pheasants and red legged partridges, they are considered livestock. Furthermore, some claim that you cannot argue against the licenses purely on the basis that a now stable population of raptor was once close to extinction. In fact, those who champion the licenses have labelled the reaction of conservationists as an overreaction and put it all down to plain panic. However, there is one clear problem here that has been ignored. The issue of illegal raptor persecution. Raptor persecution which is still all too prevalent in our country. Raptor persecution, which is difficult to police, difficult to prove and even more difficult to punish. There are still those in our country who shoot, poison and trap birds of prey illegally, so, when we then offer for some birds to be legally shot, things become even more confused. How so? If you can shoot a Buzzard, you can shoot a Buzzard, that’s it. It does not condone the shooting of other species. No, but if you are prepared to break the law regardless, imagine the slight bit of leeway you may gain from there being legal licenses available.
Now, I would like to point out that I am not accusing all gamekeepers of illegal persecution, nor I am suggesting that those who secure licenses will abuse them. I am talking of those who do persecute raptors, because, whether you like to admit it or not, they do exist in our country. Now, imagine this. You’re a gamekeeper. You have pheasants or partridges and you are an illegal raptor persecutor. I then tell you that you could legally gain a license to kill some Buzzards. Your license is granted and there you are, in a field, shot gun in hand and even better, you are now acting within the law. Yes, you are limited to 10 Buzzards, or at least that’s the theory. But what if you decide to kill more than 10? What if you kill 20, or 30, or even 100? You have broken the law, but how would you be policed? In addition, what if, as you stand in your field, a Red Kite or a Golden Eagle passes, you take aim and you shoot. You have now broken the law again, but how long before you turn and say
‘Oh! Damn! I thought it was a Buzzard! Total accident! Oops!’
Ok, so you’d probably be more convincing than that and, as a skilled raptor persecutor, you would probably cover your tracks. The only threat now posed to you are members of the public seeing you shooting protected birds of prey. They see you and they go to the police. But wait! You have a license! You have a license to kill Buzzards near your pheasants! That is all you were doing! Honest!
Suddenly, policing raptor persecution becomes even more difficult. Curiouser and curiouser.
It would seem that we humans have a very short memory indeed. A couple of centuries ago, most of our bird of prey species were teetering on the brink of extinction. For many of those birds it has been a long, hard road back to population recovery and for some, such as the Hen Harrier, that road is still to be travelled. As a species who are hailed as quick learners, it would seem that this time we have not learnt the lessons that history has tried to teach us about persecution and its potential impacts on our bird of prey populations. 10 Buzzards today, 10,000 tomorrow?
“It would be so nice is something made sense for a change!”- Lewis Carroll, Alice In Wonderland
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