RSPB angered by Defra proposals to control buzzards

Conservationists and bird charities in Norfolk have criticised government proposals to control the population of buzzards in order to protect pheasant shoots.

Defra is expected to spend up to �375,000 researching ways to prevent the birds of prey from targeting captive-reared game birds.

Proposed methods include destroying nests to prevent breeding, catching and relocating buzzards to places such as falconry centres or providing alternative food sources for the predators.

The RSPB said the idea of taking wild buzzards into captivity or destroying their nests was 'totally unacceptable', and criticised Defra for spending large sums of public money on the project.

Defra said the 2011 National Gamekeepers Organisation survey found three quarters of gamekeepers believed buzzards had a harmful effect on pheasant shoots. In one case, it was claimed that 25-30pc of young pheasants were lost to buzzards, making the shoot unsustainable.

But the RSPB said buzzards play only a small role in game bird losses compared to other factors such as collisions with cars, with another study finding only 1-2pc of pheasants, on average, being taken by birds of prey.

Paul Forecast, regional director for the RSPB in the East, said: 'Buzzards are a bird of prey that have been particularly vulnerable historically. Ten or 15 years ago, we wouldn't have seen these magnificent birds in Norfolk or elsewhere for that matter. Nowadays they are far more visible and one of the great glories of a trip to the countryside is watching these birds in flight.

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'This proposal by Defra to take a wild bird into captivity for the sake of the pheasant, an introduced species, feels counter-intuitive.

'There must be better ways of spending nearly �500,000 of public money on environmental issues. The RSPB is well aware that a balance has to be struck between all parties with interest in our countryside including shooting estates. But Defra's new plans are a far cry from balanced.'

Nigel Middleton, of the Hawk and Owl Conservation Trust which has its flagship reserve at Sculthorpe Moor near Fakenham, said destroying the nests of buzzards was tantamount to persecution.

'We believe that alternatives should always be sought to lethal control where the commercial interests of humans come into conflict with birds of prey,' he said.

Buzzards usually scavenge on dead animals, but are thought to target pheasant release pens if they find there is a readily available source of food. The government's conservation agency, Natural England, has received a number of requests to license the killing of the bird of prey, which is a protected species.

Tim Russell, director of conservation at the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC), said: 'By commissioning this research Defra is showing its willingness to investigate how non-lethal methods might be used to solve serious problems with buzzards at the local level.

'In recent years there has been growing concern amongst some keepers that buzzards are causing serious damage around pheasant release pens. BASC believes that good scientific research is essential when making decisions about wildlife management and so we welcome this research.'

David Taylor, shooting campaign manager for the Countryside Alliance, said: 'While we welcome the study, it is a shame the government has had to commission this expensive exercise simply is to appease a group of people who believe that raptors have a greater significance than any other bird. Such a mentality is dangerous for conservation and scarcely justifies the large cost to the taxpayer.'

A Defra spokesman said: 'The buzzard population in this country has been protected for over 30 years and, as the RSPB says, has resulted in a fantastic conservation story.

'At the same time we have cases of buzzards preying on young pheasants. We are looking at funding research to find ways of protecting these young birds while making sure the buzzard population continues to thrive.

'This research is about maintaining the balance between captive and wild birds.'

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