A privilege to see buzzards - Veterinary Practice
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InFocus

A privilege to see buzzards

Andrew Coe is delighted that raptors have complete protection in the UK

One morning last week my wife was disturbed by the sound of buzzards calling to each other just outside the house.

Looking out of the window she saw a magnificent buzzard perched on a gatepost close to the free-range chicken ark. As she watched, it swooped down behind the hedge out of view and simultaneously half-a-dozen panicstricken hens appeared above the hedge in a flurry of feathers, as close to flying as it possible for a hen to get.

My wife ran down the stairs and out through the garden to the back field. Several piles of assorted coloured feathers were strewn on the ground and all the hens were hiding in the hedge bottom … save for one, the little silver dorking, who had completely vanished. If it’s not the fox it’s the b****y buzzards, my wife thought.

When we moved to this house over 16 years ago we never saw or heard a buzzard in the sky around us. Now rarely a day goes by without us seeing one and last summer a pair nested successfully less than half a mile from our house. We watched them develop over a period of many weeks until they were eventually strong enough to leave their nest.

The increase in the number of raptors in Britain over the last 20 years is a real success story. Some of this increase has been brought about by the reintroduction of birds from Europe, the red kite and white-tailed eagle being the notable success stories to date. But there has also been a substantial increase in the native populations of buzzards, peregrine falcons and sparrowhawks.

Scattering

Home here we have a sparrowhawk that regularly flies up our drive in front of the car or swoops wildly through the garden to attack the tits and finches on the bird feeders, scattering them, shrieking, in all directions.

Once a rarity, peregrines are now increasingly seen in both rural and urban environments, with one pair causing quite a stir in the press last year after having taken up residence on the Houses of Parliament, no less. Peregrines first returned to London in 2001 and there are now an estimated 13 pairs in and around the capital.

Peregrine numbers dropped to around just 360 pairs back in the early sixties, partly through persecution but in particular due to the adverse effect on their breeding success of the widespread use of the insecticide DDT.

Other raptors such as sparrowhawks, goshawks, red kites, and white-tailed and golden eagles were also severely persecuted by gamekeepers trying to maximise game bird numbers. Shooting, poisoning and trapping were widespread. Kestrels were the only birds of prey you were likely to see in many parts of the country.

This situation has since changed dramatically for the better and legislation now gives raptors complete and unequivocal protection in the UK. Even so there are still cases of illegal destruction, though fortunately these incidents are relatively rare compared to those which took place early in the last century.

On a wider note, an increase in the number of end-stage predators is a good indication of a generally healthy ecosystem as these animals and birds usually rely on quite complicated food chains and webs in order to thrive. This is particularly true of the more specialised hunters like peregrines and sparrowhawks than, say, the more opportunistic scavengers such as buzzards and red kites who are just as at home feeding off a dead sheep as off a dead rabbit.

We are very pleased to see “our” buzzards on a regular basis and consider it a privilege to be able to share our home with them. And, oh yes, the little silver dorking hen reappeared later in the day so it seems that the previously cursed buzzard left our field empty-handed after all.

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