Controversial plans to blast the nests of buzzards to help out pheasant shooters were abruptly dropped by the Government yesterday, 24 hours after they were extensively highlighted and criticised in The Independent.
Richard Benyon, the Wildlife Minister, who had brought in the plans and was labelled the "Bird-Brained Minister" by this newspaper as a result, abandoned them "in the light of public concern". The U-turn was as complete, as sudden and as humiliating as the scrapping of the plan to sell off the national forests last year.
A millionaire landowner and keen member of the shooting community, Mr Benyon had sanctioned a research project to investigate the alleged predation of young pheasants by buzzards on shooting estates. It involved destroying buzzard nests by blasting them with shotguns and removing the birds to other unspecified locations – and it produced outrage amongst conservationists.
But Mr Benyon's agreeing to the destruction of the nests of fully protected birds of prey was incompatible with his official position as the defender of British wildlife; it gave off the sort of image – of out-of-touch Tory toffs – that David Cameron has been at pains to excise from the modern Conservative Party.
It also became clear, as The Independent highlighted, that Mr Cameron himself might be dragged into the dispute, as the Prime Minister is also a keen shot – something he has been careful not to publicise.
The climbdown from Mr Benyon's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) yesterday bore all the hallmarks of having been ordered from above – just as Defra's abandoning of its forests sell-off policy was similarly directed by Downing Street when it began to produce ridicule for Mr Cameron's claim to be running the greenest Government ever.
In a statement, Mr Benyon said: "In the light of the public concerns expressed in recent days, I have decided to look at developing new research proposals on buzzards. The success of conservation measures has seen large increases in the numbers of buzzards and other birds of prey over the last two decades. As Minister for Wildlife I celebrate that, and since 2010 we have championed many new measures to benefit wildlife across England.
"At the same time, it is right that we make decisions on the basis of sound evidence and we do need to understand better the whole relationship between raptors, game birds and other livestock."
The U-turn, which caused surprise in its suddenness and completeness, was widely and warmly welcomed.
"I am delighted that this out-of-touch Government has dropped its ill-thought-through plans to use taxpayers' money to destroy our native buzzards' nests to 'protect' pheasants," Mary Creagh, Labour's shadow Environment Secretary, said.
"This was the latest environmental blunder from a Government that has long forgotten its pre-election green promises with the forests sell-off and badger cull."
Martin Harper, conservation director of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, said:"We believe the public's support has been pivotal to this, and the extensive coverage of the issue in The Independent has driven a flurry of activity that has convinced the minister of the depth of public feeling, and has encouraged him to take the right decision and drop the proposal.
"It is clear they don't want their taxes being spent on removing buzzards."