I'm not sure I know where to start. Last year I wrote a fair amount, starting with this, about DEFRA's proposals to trial various techniques to control Buzzards around Pheasant release pens. I was horrified by the suggestions that they might destroy nests and capture wild Buzzards perhaps to be passed off to falconers and permanently held in captivity. The plans, as I'm sure you know, never went ahead. Through social media and the eventual tacit support of several prominent organisations including the RSPB, DEFRA caved in to public pressure and cancelled the trials.
To be met this morning with news that licences had been issued for the destruction of Buzzard nests in order to prevent predation of Pheasant poults initially left me feeling impotent, it had all been for nothing. Quickly followed by anger, did DEFRA and Benyon et al really think they could get away with it? How could this be justified? After spending a while furiously tweeting my fury, I stopped and began to read the documents published under a Freedom of Information Act request by the RSPB and linked to on Martin Harper's blog today.
Reading the actual applications and the evidence provided by the applicants as well as the review undertaken by Natural England's Director of Regulation Janette Ward, a process currently being described as detailed and rigorous I can't help but stare in disbelief at the complete lack of real evidence to support either application nor the lack of any detailed survey work to establish whether the anecdotal claims of the applicants stand up to scrutiny.
Misguided, incompetent, under political pressure from above, I don't know which if any is applicable in this case but the decision to issue licences simply does not appear logical or defensible when the information is reviewed properly. I could write reams but let us just consider a few points.
1. Evidence - Look at the diary entries provided as evidence of a reduction in shooting returns. Notice anything? Look at the 'Birds in Pen' and 'Birds on Shoot' columns, all nice round numbers, in other words estimates. So the evidence for a reduction in shot numbers is based on estimates rather than hard evidence. I wonder, were the same shooters involved in the same conditions, given the appalling weather conditions in the summer of 2013 how much of the bag reduction could be attributed to less favourable conditions in which to shoot or for gundogs to retrieve birds etc?
One applicant provided 35 corpses that they attributed to buzzard or sparrowhawk predation. Of the 35 analysed only five showed signs of avian predation. So 84% of the evidence provided in this instance was wrong, yet licences were still issued by Natural England.
2. Return Rates
The information in italics is lifted from Natural England's report on the licence application " The latest advice from the GWCT suggests that returns around the 35% mark are reasonable and to be expected." - the return rates for this applicant 2011-12 34.5% and 2012-13 37.3% so despite this claimed serious predation by Buzzards the return rates during shoots are reasonable and to be expected based on GWCT advice, yet licences were still issued. The originator of the NE report posted lots of graphs (though all the actual content was redacted) which highlight that at the same time as Buzzards have increased return rates have decreased. No doubt many other changes havce occurred over the same period and drawing a corroletaion between two sets of data and simply basing a decision on that without further investigation displays a remarkable ignorance of good science.
According to the report summary NE considered the evidence as follows: "The quantity and quality of information and evidence provided for this case by the applicant provides comprehensive support for the application. The information recorded by the applicant appears to be thorough, systematic and accurate for this type of case". Personally I consider the evidence provided as scant, anecdotal based on estimates and opinion rather than sound surveying.
3. Release Sites
NE visits concluded "The recommended layout for the release pen is one third open area, one third ground cover and one third shrubs and trees. Few of the release sites visited conformed with this" yet they issued the licences.
"The recommended woodland thinning and provision of brash piles has yet to be carried out" yet they issued the liceneces.
"Reflective tape – This was tried in 2011 but the applicant used red and white barrier tape instead of single sided reflective tape, due to availability of the latter. The cost of single sided reflective tape is also considerable, especially when compared with barrier tape. His concerns were the time taken for the installation of tape, the unattractive appearance of the woodland for other users (resulting in complaints) and the interference with the pheasants when they fly in and out of the pens. The use of tape may have contributed to the increased returns seen on some shoots in 2011-12 but this measure was not used to same degree in 2012-13 due to cost, time and the complaints received. It is therefore difficult to evaluate its effectiveness in reducing predation."
DEFRA's overarching policy and advice which NE should follow states they will issue licences "where all other reasonable non-lethal solutions have been tried and shown to be ineffective" given the above statements in NE's own report they have issued licences in direct conflict with this advice.
It is clear in my mind that Natural England are failing or unable due to interference to discharge their responsibilities in relation to the adequate review of licence applications. They have fallen far short of the standards we should expect. It is clear that The Environment Secretary needs to stop this mess before it goes any further and make a public statement that no further licences will be issued to destroy the nests, capture and remove or kill protected birds of prey.
Once again I'd urge everyone contact your MP, write to the Environment Secretary or Richard Benyon MP Minister of the Natural Environment, they need to understand that we will not tolerate this abuse of our natural heritage in order to protect the profits of business.