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.

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.

He said: "They get caught along fences, walls and ditches, while experienced buzzards will simply take them in the open."

Illegal Shootings

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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