A MAJOR row blew up last night over plans to use a Northumberland estate as a national test area to destroy nests of a bird of prey.
The Government plans would allow buzzard nests to be destroyed and the birds taken into captivity to protect pheasant shoots.
Defra is to spend up to £375,000 on the project after claims that buzzards are taking captive-reared pheasants.
Proposed methods include destroying nests with poles or guns to prevent birds breeding, and catching and relocating buzzards to places such as falconry centres.
The Defra document, issued to bidders considering taking on the project, says they are “strongly encouraged” to use a site that consists of six shoots spread over an area of 2,000-2,400 hectares in Northumberland.
“It is claimed that the shoots have suffered significant losses from buzzard predation and the owners have agreed in principle to allow them to be used in this research project,” says the document.
Last night Alan Tilmouth, secretary of the Northumberland and Tyneside Bird Club, said: “I am absolutely horrified and we will be asking our 250 members to contact their MPs and Defra.”
Steve Lowe, conservation manager for Northumberland Wildlife Trust, said: “ I am outraged and I think many of our 15,000 members will also be outraged. I just cannot believe it.
“They may as well take cars off the road because they have a greater lethal effect on pheasants than anything in the natural world.”
Mick Carroll, of the Northern England Raptor Forum, said: “Given that buzzards are still recovering from past persecution and there is no evidence they are a significant cause of loss, this is a scandalous waste of public money.”
Mr Tilmouth said that 30 years ago buzzards were virtually absent from the North East after decades of persecution and pesticide poisoning.
They had gradually re-colonised the region, with an estimated 300 breeding pairs in Northumberland.
He said: “This has been a fantastic conservation success story but here is Defra proposing to spend public money to destroy the nests of a protected native bird to protect a non-native bird, 40 million of which are released into the countryside each year to be shot.
“This is the thin end of the wedge. Ospreys, which have just returned to Northumberland, are where buzzards were 25 years ago. Will we see in 25 years’ time requests to Defra to destroy osprey nests because somebody considers they are taking too many fish?
“These plans are absolutely ludicrous and I am struggling to control my anger that a Government department has taken the first steps in allowing the destruction of the nests of these magnificent birds, that have taken over half my life to recover from historical persecution.
“This is unbelievable on so many levels – that these birds have finally reached a point where their population has stabilised and for our Government to sanction the destruction of nests even as a trial is beyond belief.”
Mr Tilmouth said it was difficult to tell if nests were of buzzards and not other species like goshawk, sparrowhawk or red kites, so they could also suffer.
He said: “The nest destruction methods proposed have also been used illegally for years and yet Government now plans to fund this.”
He said that although buzzards would take some pheasants, they mainly fed on carrion and rabbits and that of 486 radio-tagged pheasants in a study, only three were killed by birds of prey.
Defra said the 2011 National Gamekeepers Organisation survey found that three quarters of gamekeepers believed buzzards had a harmful effect on pheasant shoots.
But the RSPB said the idea of taking wild buzzards into captivity or destroying their nests was “totally unacceptable“, and criticised Defra for spending on the project when money was tight for conservation measures.
Nigel Middleton, of the Hawk and Owl Conservation Trust, said destroying the nests of buzzards was tantamount to persecution.
A Defra spokeswoman said: “The buzzard population in this country has been protected for over 30 years, and as the RSPB says, has resulted in a fantastic conservation story.
“At the same time we have cases of buzzards preying on young pheasants. We are looking at funding research to find ways of protecting these young birds while making sure the buzzard population continues to thrive.
“This research is about maintaining the balance between captive and wild birds.”