Buzzards Bounce Back in U.K., Sparking Cull Debate

James Owen in England
for National Geographic News
December 22, 2003

Hunched, motley and impressively sized, the common buzzard speaks of the wild hills and mountains far to the west side of Britain, where it sought refuge through two centuries of human persecution. But now Buteo buteo is becoming a familiar sight all over the U.K., and can even be spotted circling over central London.

It's a remarkable comeback story, but one that could be turning full circle. For while the return of this broad-winged hawk is welcomed by many, others say numbers must be controlled to protect vulnerable birds from predation.

Latest figures from bird conservation charity the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) indicate a massive 404 percent increase in buzzard numbers in southeast England since 1994. Traditional strongholds in western regions have also experienced big rises.

BTO spokesman Graham Appleton said, "If one looks at a map showing the distribution of buzzards in 1990, it's amazing because there's almost nothing in eastern England. Now buzzards have spread to most counties."

With an estimated 120,000 adult buzzards breeding in Britain, the species has overtaken the kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) as the country's commonest bird of prey. This represents a huge turnaround—the so-called "common" buzzard was once actually extremely scarce, having been almost wiped out by farmers and gamekeepers who considered it a pest.

Still a rarity just 20 years ago, ornithologists put the bird's dramatic recovery down to tighter pesticide controls, much reduced persecution levels, and the rabbit bouncing back from myxomatosis—a disease that first took hold in the1950s, decimating populations of the buzzard's main prey.

Buzzards also feed on other small mammals, invertebrates, and carrion, but it's the impact of soaring buzzard numbers on other birds that's become the focus of debate.

Buzzard Blamed

In Scotland, gamekeepers blame the buzzard, a protected bird, for the deaths of thousands of partridges, pheasants, and waders such as curlews and plovers. The Scottish Gamekeepers Association (SGA) has called for a controlled cull of buzzards, and last month won backing from the Scottish Parliament for an independent study into the bird's impact on wildlife. The study will be commissioned by a raptor working group made up of various bodies, with gamekeepers and conservationists both represented.

Buzzard numbers have risen 73 percent in Scotland since 1994, according to the BTO. But SGA committee member Bert Burnett, a gamekeeper from Angus, reckons the increase is nearer 1,000 percent.

"Numbers have exploded beyond anyone's expectation," he said. "They've become almost as common as carrion crows and are killing not only game birds but many waders."

Burnett says gamekeepers, who manage both private and commercial game-bird shoots, are being denied the right to protect their stock and livelihoods, and that some shooting estates are losing thousands of pounds in revenue each year. He says the SGA doesn't want to see buzzards wiped out, but populations reduced to sustainable levels.

Continued on Next Page >>


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