Game bird shooting contributes over £600 million (one billion U.S. dollars) annually to Britain's rural economy, according to the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, the national representative body for game shooting. The Game Conservancy Trust, the country's main game research charity, says more game birds are reared and released in Britain than the rest of the world combined. This includes up to 35 million pheasants a year.
Burnett says young pheasants are especially vulnerable to buzzard attacks. These birds are reared in pens over summer then released into the wild in readiness for the winter shooting season.
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He said: "They get caught along fences, walls and ditches, while experienced buzzards will simply take them in the open."
This has led some people to take the law into their own hands. Increased numbers of illegally shot buzzards were reported in Scotland this year. The SGA condemns such action, but says the lack of an effective legal solution makes these killings more likely.
However bird groups deny the buzzard boom is at the expense of other species.
"Were constantly faced with the perception that a recovering bird of prey must be a bad thing," said Andre Farrar, spokesman for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Europe's largest wildlife conservation charity.
He insists this perception is wrong and that the main threat to curlews and plovers comes not from buzzards but habitat loss. He added: "We end up with the bizarre situation of people evoking some ecological myth to underpin a prejudice against birds of prey instilled in game management circles for hundreds of years."
Farrar says birds dont feature high on the menu of buzzards, which prefer insects, earthworms, rabbits, and voles; Graham Appleton of the BTO says buzzards turn more to birds and carrion if rabbit numbers are low, or voles are hard to find because of snow cover.
As for game birds, which in the case of pheasants are often stocked at unnaturally high densities, Farrar says, "We don't deny there can't be local problems, but with sensible deterrents around release pens these can be minimized."
He says preventative measures include reducing the availability of perches for buzzards, hanging up shiny CDs that blow in the wind, and increasing the age at which juvenile pheasants are released into the wild.
However, the SGA argues the problem isn't confined to direct attacks on game birds, but that the existence of large buzzard concentrations is damaging in itself. Burnett says young birds get stressed, are put off their feed, and become prone to disease. "This is one of the things the new study needs to look into," he added.
So the jury's out on the steely eyed hawk from way out west. Bird lovers will hope the verdict isn't too severe.
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