Buzzards, Badgers and Buffoons

Yes, the title of this blog post was directly influenced by former Daily Telegraph columnist Robin Page, who, true to character, recently launched a preposterous attack on “self-delusional” conservationists and what looks like every predatory species living in the UK. Check it out, it can be found here: “Buzzards and Badgers and Bigots

I do not make a habit of launching personal attacks, no matter how much I disagree with a person’s point of view, thus will not aim to slander Mr Page here. It is clear that his views lie poles apart from my own, and that it fine by me. It is, after all, rather healthy to possess different opinions. On the contrary, it is not, however, healthy to broadcast misinformation. Nor to produce a misguided rallying cry for the predator-hating wildlife criminals in the UK, or attempt to justify their illicit actions under the guise of conservation. Which is exactly what I think Robin has done here, whether intentional or not. Condemning species such as Red Kites, Buzzards and Badgers for their “widespread” ecological damage, yet, somewhat mysteriously producing no evidence to back it up. Oh wait, moles in the conservation sector, right?

 First thing first, do predators impact upon prey populations? Yes of course they do. But only in localised areas, where a host of other factors have already reduced prey numbers. Factors that usually can be attributed to humans, whether they be farmers, gamekeepers, developers or any other group. It would make no sense, in evolutionary terms, for any predator to decimate stocks of its own food source. And, as a rule, predators only flourish where prey stocks remain healthy, targeting species based on abundance. An argument I have had with anglers, on a number of occasions, who had claimed that otters purposely target large salmonids, while in truth they prey on the most numerous species within the ecosystem. Amphibians during spawning, or ducks during the breeding season and so forth. Something I am sure also applies to badgers and raptors too.

As for predators such as sparrowhawks, badgers and kites wiping our declining species such as Skylarks, there is a wealth of evidence out there that shows that this is not the case. With a particular study, by the impartial BTO no less, springing to mind immediately. Concluding that “for the majority of the songbird species examined there is no evidence that increases in common avian predators or Grey Squirrels are associated with large-scale population declines”. While for more information on the topic you can check out Thomson et al whom similarly conclude that spreading corvids are not driving songbird declines, and a quick google search will turn up a wealth of similar evidence, all of which serves to dismiss this misguided view.

As I said, predators can have a localised impact on scarce species, hence why genuine conservation bodies, like the RSPB, do occasionally implement control measures. Sometimes such measures are justified and I, personally, agree with these. I do not, however, think it is just, nor reasonable, to blame predators for nationwide declines. Or to propose preposterous acts of “control” based on myths. Take a look at Skylarks, a species Mr Page has mentioned quite a lot in recent blog posts. They have declined horribly in recent years, as a direct result of poor habitat management and habitat loss, not predation. I really would be interested if anyone could produce a scientific paper suggesting otherwise? The same applies to Lapwings – I had thought that Lapwing declines had been driven through farming and the all out destruction of traditional breeding sites?

The next snippet that irked me in Robin’s latest outpouring was the bit about Buzzard and Badger diet. And his apparent belief that their diets are seemingly painted in an untrue light, with conservationists claiming that both species are heavily reliant on Earthworms, while in truth they are actually feasting on fledgeling birds. Well, yes, they undoubtedly do predate birds (and nests – as seen on Springwatch when a Badger at Minsmere unceremoniously destroyed an Avocet colony in a single night). Is this, and the horror stories produced by a vocal minority, reason enough to condone a change to the protected status of these species? No, not in my opinion.

Both Buzzards and Badgers are generalistic, opportunistic predators. They will eat whatever they find, when they find it. No one can dispute that. They do however rely predominately on common and widespread species. Such as Lagomorphs and, contrary to Robin’s assertions, Earthworms. No, they do note rely solely on these species, no one has ever claimed that to the best of my knowledge, but the facts point towards such items making up a large proportion of their diet, in keeping with their widespread status and the theory of abundance based prey selection. Do songbirds feature? Yes, they do crop up in dietary assessments from time to time, but in not in substantial levels. And certainly not to such an enormous extent to suggest that predators are eradicating passerine populations. It is no coincidence that many in the rural community have noticed vast increases in predator numbers at a time when prey populations have declined. This is, however, most likely due to the fact that such carnivorous species would likely, and wrongly, have been killed on sight in the not too distant past. Not the result of a conspiracy by conservationists, content to bury their heads in the sand.

Another point in this blog that stands out, is the blame cast towards the Badger for Hedgehog declines. Well, this one may be justified, to some extent. Badgers do have a negative impact on ‘hog populations where alternate factors such as road traffic and habitat fragmentation have taken effect. Again, is this reason enough to justify removing the Badger from the protected list? No – if conservationists are worried about the local impact of badgers they should apply for a license to control them. If it is deemed vital, I am sure they will be granted. To me it makes more sense to pursue the root causes of declines before jumping to radical extremes. And the same can be applied to wading birds, ground-nesting passerines too. Would it not be better to tackle the main causes – overgrazing in our woodlands, a lack of hedgerows, intensive farming, traffic, shoddy gardening etc – before resorting to such  shortsighted barbarity?

On, and as for the “designer conservationists with little understanding of the countryside” argument – that is a debate for another day. Though, like I have said before, attacks of this kind on scientists, interested townies and well-known TV presenters are nothing more than an attempt to “gag the opposition” and serve only to widen the divide between the two sides. In some cases, such designer conservationists have the best interests of our countryside at heart, whereas, in a number of cases, rural know-it-alls do not. (Many other rural folk are also excellent and certainly do have the best interests of the countryside at heart).

Robin Page does occasionally make a good point, I am unashamed to admit that, but calling for the widespread control of iconic predators based on sketchy evidence and high profile, yet sparse, instances of recorded predation is wrong.

Rant over, I promise to go back to pictures of fluffy animals and more positive accounts next time.


  1. Tony says:

    Hi James,

    Just a few things I’d highlight in your piece. You state that ” It would make no sense, in evolutionary terms, for any predator to decimate stocks of its own food source.” Well, that is precisely what the evidence is starting to suggest. The growing imbalance in our countryside is slowly widening to favour the generalist species over and above those with special needs. Look at your daily bird observations and you will see this in your own datasets. It is also becoming apparent in the diets of the generalists in that Buzzards (I’m not an anti, so be gentle with me) are increasingly feeding on songbirds, ground-nesting species eggs and chicks with fewer rabbits in the diet. This comes about due to increasing raptor competition and via diseases affecting the rabbit populations, which results in you guessed it, an imbalance. The only way to rectify this is to bring about a wider implementation of legally effective conservation measures which would likely involve some form of control measures.

    When speaking of Skylarks, some estates I’ve worked on have scores of these red-listed delights but only the other day I did see a green-listed Sparrowhawk take a Skylark straight from the ground of an arable field. I was understandably initially quite shocked by its tenacity but I shouldn’t overly surprised because they are protected and as a result are thriving. Their biggest threat now apart from illegal persecution comes from an avian competitor, the Goshawk. Scientific evidence is evolving thanks to continually emerging discoveries, yet do we act in time when direct conclusions are ascertained, no. More often than not we let them slip by and as a result, many breeding species decline either locally or on a regional basis without direct human intervention.

    The overriding sentiment I have in all such debates is to state again that the scientists have to be mindful of birder’s observations and also of those who work the land because they aren’t necessarily out there to deceive. More often than not they’ve been there, done that and got the tee-shirt and take detailed accounts themselves. They know what happens on a daily basis on their landholdings as they’re patch workers just like you or me.

    Best Wishes


    1. James Common says:

      Hi Tony, I agree that the countryside is not a balanced place. Indeed, Goshawks control Sparrowhawks, and we would need a lot more Goshawks to level out the population of the latter. With the same going for Eagle owls and buzzards perhaps? And many other relationships we have ruined through our own actions. As you know, I do not oppose realistic conservation measures. If someone produced a genuine piece of science that suggested the targeted control of Buzzards would benefit say, Curlew, I would accept it. Likewise with Badgers and Hedgehogs. What I cannot abide is the generalist notion that predators are bad, and that many warrant widespread control. We cannot punish another species absent tackling the root cause of the issue, which 99% of the time, is us. Last resort perhaps? I see pieces such as this by Page as inflammatory, and detrimental to our continued relationship with other interested parties. I do not think we can jump to conclusions, but as ever, live to be informed. Will be monitoring forthcoming revelations with interest. Thanks for commenting as always.

  2. Alan says:

    Robin page comes across a bitter old dinosaur, with an axe to grind. I’d have a higher opinion of him if he didn’t constantly resort to name calling, which, frankly, makes him look foolish and weak. On his latest blog, he dismisses science on the one hand, and advocates it on the other. And his anecdotal evidence is, of course unreliable. I’m not surprised the Telegraph dropped him. You’re correct, though, he does have it in for raptors, and wrote a piece in the Daily Mail (yeah, I know), blaming them for anything and everything. When The Guardian asked for sources to back up his swivel eyed claims, his reply was: “I don’t want to, why should I?” Speaks for itself, I think.

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