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Buzzard Control: A Scottish View

The date of the first official discussions on the need for legal solutions to the raptor problem have faded into the mists of time, but it was certainly one of the first key issues tackled by the fledgling Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association (SGA) more than 10 years ago. Lobbying has continued almost incessantly and remains, along with the problem of illegal poisoning, one of the hottest issues in the industry.

Entrenched views and old wounds continue to hamper progress, but in order to make headway on the unacceptable blight of headlinegrabbing illegal persecution, the SGA has continued to plough through the red tape and climb endless false summits.

The experiences of this summer have been yet another reminder that persuading the powers that be that raptor numbers have exploded and balance needs to be restored has become an uphill struggle.

But first I need to explain the background to the SGA’s latest setback. The problem we experienced in the early days of the SGA was that no-one knew the true impact of rising numbers of buzzards and other raptors on waders, songbirds or gamebirds. The debate on conservation and control couldn’t be based on fact because we had no detailed information — and no-one was volunteering to do the science.

So in January 2002 the SGA launched a petition asking the Scottish Parliament to initiate an independent investigation into the impact of predatory birds on waders, songbirds, fish stocks and gamebirds. We gave evidence to Parliament alongside representatives from Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH). Eventually the research was carried out by scientists from Stirling University and the British Trust for Ornithology. The work was done, but the 2006 report, Impacts of Predatory Birds on Waders, Songbirds, Gamebirds and Fisheries Interests, raised as many questions as answers, and one of the conclusions was that there were glaring holes in the science of this subject. No-one had kept account of the extent of the problems of raptors or the damage done to other birdlife. The scientific view was that a huge amount of work still needed to be done. But that “further research” has been slow in taking place — so slow that we are still waiting for those results.

Practical measures

In the absence of that supplementary science I resorted to practical measures and applied for a licence to control the buzzards that were circling my pheasant pens and killing the poults. The last time I applied, in 2005, it took three weeks for an inspector to look into the problem. When she arrived she reached the spectacular conclusion that to deter further predation I should cut down any branches near the pens where the buzzards could perch. My licence was rejected. My reaction is best left unprinted.

I admit I was so disheartened by this rejection that I didn’t apply for a licence again. But then this spring a fresh burst of activity appeared to result in a breakthrough. SNH, which is in charge of looking after Scotland’s biodiversity and has become keen to adopt a partnership approach to these issues in recent years, announced new guidance for land managers who wanted to apply for licences to control raptors. Headlines in Shooting Times (8 May 2009) and other publications welcomed this significant change in attitude and we all believed that progress had finally been made.

Through articles in the SGA magazine and its website I informed the membership that we needed to be thorough in our applications. As soon as the first poults in my pens were killed, I phoned the Scottish Government’s Rural Payments and Inspections Directorate (RPID) asking for an inspector to investigate my problem. I kept a diary of the kills, took piles of photographic evidence and continued the usual scaring tactics. I jumped through all the hoops in the expectation that we had finally achieved a breakthrough.

My blog kept the SGA membership — and anyone else who cared to look — up to date on my feelings of frustration at the speed of the process, and I received enormous support from across the industry and from ordinary members of the public who were distraught at the loss of songbirds and waders in their gardens or favourite places. They understood and supported my desire to protect my birds. But it was all to no avail.

Two weeks after my initial application, I received a letter from the RPID informing me that a licence was not justified because the losses I suffered did not constitute a “serious economic loss”, and that, in any case, the losses should be measured not at the potential value of the birds at adulthood but rather at the actual cost of acquiring them as poults. The RPID also had “concerns” as to whether killing a few buzzards would represent a satisfactory solution.

My problem, of course, was that I had applied for a licence as soon as I had a problem, and when the inspector came I had lost only 12 poults to buzzards. That number rose to more than 30, and the constant aerial attacks and kills meant that hundreds more poults abandoned their pens prematurely and disappeared. It was a Catch 22 situation. Should I have waited until an “impressive” number had died or was I right to try to save my livestock by applying early?

The question is academic, however, because it turns out that the RPID did not draw up similar protocols and guidance along the lines of that issued by SNH in the spring. The SNH brief extends only to the conservation of wild birds, and while the RPID already has a protocol in place for raven predation on lambs, it has still to work out guidelines for licences to prevent serious damage to livestock. So another year has gone by without any real progress.

To say that I’m demoralised and battered by this summer’s experiences is a major understatement. But submitting to setbacks isn’t an option and the next stage is to meet the relevant officials and thrash out a protocol specifically for protecting gamebirds from next year onwards.

Two steps forward, one step back is par for the course. Cynicism is probably unhelpful, but it will be interesting to see what obstruction is put in our path next season.

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