Country: Feathers fly in raptor debate

Last autumn a gamekeeper confided to me that he had recently shot four buzzards in the space of 30 seconds as they emerged from a raid on his pheasant pen. "A double right-and-left!" he said, not without satisfaction. Yet his memory of the incident was tinged with anxiety, for he knew that if he had been detected, he would have been liable to a heavy fine.

Dozens of gamekeepers all over Britain have no doubt taken the law into their own hands in similar fashion during the past year. Whether they have shot a sparrowhawk, poked out a goshawk's nest or trampled a hen harrier's eggs into oblivion, they are goaded by the belief that birds of prey have become intolerably numerous.

Many other country people share their conviction, and none more vociferously than John Pugh, a Breconshire hill farmer who recently held an open day at his home near Rhayader to encourage discussion of conservation issues. The fact that more than 60 people turned out was in itself a reflection of widespread concern; many were sympathetic farmers, but the company included several representatives of national organisations, not least one from Mr Pugh's bete noire, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

The main purpose of the day was to make professional conservationists face the realities of country life, from which Mr Pugh reckons they are far removed, and in particular to stir up the debate about raptors which is coming to the boil countrywide.

The RSPB has just brought out Birds of Prey in the UK - Back from the Brink, a report showing that most species of raptor have increased significantly in recent years. Sparrow-hawks, for instance, are now thought to number 35,000 pairs, and peregrines have recovered from the nadir of the Sixties, to which they were reduced by organochlorine pesticides, to 1,300 pairs, the highest total recorded this century. The same document insists that full legal protection of raptors must be maintained. It also records a steep fall in the numbers of songbirds: skylarks, song thrushes, tree sparrows and bullfinches have all gone down by more than 50 per cent in the past 25 years. Yet the RSPB attributes their demise to inimical farming practices, and concludes that "sparrowhawks are not a significant cause of these declines". Such remarks are red rags to the likes of John Pugh, who maintains that members of the RSPB are no better than "blood sports enthusiasts". He claims that, by supporting the obsessive protection of raptors, they are in effect promoting mass slaughter every day of the year.

"Who are they to say that I cannot have peewits and curlews on my land?" he demands. "Who are they to say that I cannot have bullfinches in my hedges? Why should I have all these hawks killing everything?"

He points out that the RSPB already culls magpies and crows on some of its reserves, and now he is calling for an immediate change in the law which would enable landowners to take out licences for culling peregrines, sparrowhawks and goshawks. He maintains that his crusade is gathering support, and predicts that if no positive action is taken within the next few months, an alternative, more realistic bird society will come into being, with 50,000 domestic pigeon fanciers as instant starter members.

Less aggressive lobbyists are surprised, to put it mildly, that the RSPB has fired off its latest broadside without awaiting the report of the five-year joint raptor study now coming to an end at Langholm, the Duke of Buccleuch's estate in Dumfriess-shire. The aim of this major investigation, in which the RSPB itself has been taking part, along with the Game Conservancy Trust, the Institute for Terrestrial Ecology and other bodies, is to study the interaction of grouse and harriers. Its conclusions are eagerly awaited, and will be the talking-point of the summer.

Meanwhile, here on the Cotswold escarpment, my neighbour has just lost his eighth tumbler pigeon in as many weeks to our resident sparrowhawk, which flickers up and down the lane like a grey shadow. Unlike John Pugh, Dave take his losses calmly, reckoning that he has to live in harmony with nature. But not everyone is that philosophical, and fireworks are to be expected.

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