The recent media coverage about the licensed control of Common Buzzards Buteo buteo got me thinking about the way that we appear to value different species (or groups of species) in different ways and the extent to which tradition and culture influence our thinking, albeit often on a subconscious level.
For a significant number of people, the killing of any bird for sport or to protect crops, livestock or gamebirds is simply wrong on moral grounds. While that is not a view I share, I admit to being rather envious of its simplicity. It is a straightforward and clear-cut position to adopt. And it neatly avoids the complicating influences of culture, tradition and even personal prejudice when it comes to forming a view of what is, and what is not, acceptable.
For conservation-minded people not opposed to all killing on moral grounds, attention usually focuses on whether lethal control (or shooting for sport) will have an impact on the population of the species in question, be that at a national, local or site level. Many species are killed in Britain every year, sometimes in large numbers, with apparently minimal, if any, detectable impact on their overall populations. Think of the Wood Pigeons Columba palumbus killed by farmers to protect crops, Magpies Pica pica and Carrion Crows Corvus corone to protect gamebirds and ground-nesting waders, Herring Gulls Larus argentatus to protect breeding terns, and the huge numbers of waders, ducks and geese of a wide variety of different species killed by wildfowlers each winter. True, there is sometimes debate about the numbers of birds that can be killed ‘sustainably’ and special attention is given to this in relation to SSSIs and Special Protection Areas (SPAs), but, by and large, we are reassured that the impact on populations will not be significant and the killing of these species tends not to receive much by way of media attention.
Traditional practices can, of course, be very different in other countries and (with echoes of the recent horsemeat scandal) I think that many people in Britain are instinctively horrified by the idea of hunters killing large numbers of Blackbirds Turdus merula, Song Thrushes T. philomelos or Skylarks Alauda arvensis, for example – something that is commonplace and perfectly legal in some EU countries. On reflection, it is rather hard to find any sound justification for such strong feelings and certainly difficult to make a case that the shooting of Mallards Anas platyrhynchos and Teals A. crecca for the table is acceptable (or at least tolerable) whilst the killing of Skylarks for the same reason is most certainly not. Our strong feelings seem to become instilled in us almost by osmosis, simply by living in a country where there is no recent tradition of hunting these birds. Such is the strength of these cultural differences that they are written into some aspects of our wildlife legislation. The list of species that may be legitimately hunted under the EU Birds Directive, for example, varies between countries, with the selection of species based primarily on traditional practices rather than conservation status.
Talk of instinctive horror brings us back to the Common Buzzard, and I would imagine that phrase sums up the feelings of many BB readers when first hearing about the recent examples of licensed control of this species in England (Brit. Birds 106: 365). This strong reaction is presumably not based on concerns for the Common Buzzard population. This has increased rapidly in recent decades, to an estimated 56,000-77,000 pairs in Britain according to the latest Avian Population Estimates Panel assessment (Brit Birds 106: 64-100), and the issuing of small numbers of licences is unlikely to prevent a continued and very welcome increase. Rather, our strong feelings appear to be an instinctive reaction to the control of a species that has no recent history of legal control in Britain. And, as it is a bird of prey at the top of the food chain, we perhaps accord it an elevated status. For reasons that are not clearly defined, it is evidently deemed to be more worthy of complete protection than say a humble gull or a species of wildfowl. It was interesting that one commentator opposed to licensed control was quoted as saying that this was ‘England’s eagle’, the presumption being that the larger and more impressive the species, the more outrageous the idea of controlling it. A ‘buzzard’ was probably enough to win over many people to the argument but an ‘eagle’ would force home the point even more strongly. The same commentator also made the point that control of this species was wrong because ‘most people would prefer to see Buzzards soaring in the sky’. Whilst that is hard to disagree with, surely much the same point can be made about all the other species that are controlled routinely. For example, I find that a sighting of a Fox Vulpes vulpes adds greatly to any day’s birding; yet I also accept that they can be controlled legitimately for a number of different reasons, including the protection of gamebirds and livestock.
While it is, of course, perfectly legitimate to object to the killing of individuals of any species, I do think there is a need to be clear about the reasons behind such opposition. The Common Buzzard is a popular and impressive bird that has enjoyed full protection under the legislation for many years. Much as with the Skylark, Blackbird and Song Thrush, we have got used to the fact that Common Buzzards are not hunted in Britain or controlled to protect gamebirds, or any other species, and we resent the apparent sudden change in status implied by the issuing of licences. This does, however, raise some tricky questions about the way that we apparently value some species rather more highly than others. Is a Common Buzzard really worth more to us than a Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus, a Brent Goose Branta bernicla or a Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo, all of which have smaller populations in Britain, but are killed regularly under licence without too much of a public outcry? Are we saying that a large, impressive bird of prey should be treated differently from these species, primarily because it is more popular? And, if so, how do we expect this to be reflected in our wildlife legislation and by those charged with its interpretation?
Acknowledgments With many thanks to Andy Brown, Allan Drewitt and Matt Heydon for their insights and for helpful comments on an earlier draft. The views expressed remain entirely my own.