The granting of a licence to destroy buzzard nests in Northumberland has been branded a “betrayal” by conservation groups.
Government agency Natural England issued the licence to destroy four nests a year after Defra had to halt plans to spend up to £375,000 researching ways to keep buzzards from targeting captive-reared pheasants following a public outcry.
The aim was to base the project on a Northumberland estate as a national test area for the destruction of nests and buzzards taken into captivity to protect pheasant shoots.
At the time Alan Tilmouth, secretary of the Northumberland and Tyneside Bird Club, said he was “absolutely horrified” by the move, which was quickly shelved following huge opposition.
But the new move which allowed nests to be destroyed – believed to be after an application from a game shooting interest – has been widely condemned.
It has come just a few days after the inaugural State of Nature report revealed huge declines in hundreds of native species, including many in the North East.
Last night Mike Pratt, Northumberland Wildlife Trust chief executive, said of the licence decision: “It’s buzzard barbarism. Once more we are seeing nature sacrificed for short term economic gain.
“This stance is increasingly unacceptable as our natural capital continues to be eroded as we saw in the State Of Nature report this week.”
The report found that of 3,148 species, 60% have declined over the last 50 years, with almost a third dropping strongly.
“These licences are a step backwards,” said Mr Pratt. “Buzzards are beautiful birds whose numbers have recovered after years of past persecution.
“We totally oppose these measures and the way in which they have been administered. There is a betrayal here of buzzards and of conservation.”
He said of Natural England’s claim that there will be no impact on the conservation status of the bird in the licence area: “That is not the point. These they are protected species, until recently in decline, and should not be controlled.”
Natural England has issued licences to destroy nests in Northumberland and Cornwall, but would not name the Northumberland location.
The Duke of Northumberland’s Northumberland Estates said that it was not involved.
Martin Harper, RSPB director of conservation, said: “Buzzard populations are recovering from historical declines caused by decades of persecution. Some in the shooting community claim that buzzards are to blame for reduced number of pheasants available to be shot.
“Yet evidence shows that raptors only play a minor role in pheasant losses – 1%-2% in most cases – and that overall predation pressure is unlikely to decrease if buzzards were removed.
“We therefore believe that lethal control of buzzards and destruction of their nests is unjustified, ineffective and unacceptable.
“We had been participating in discussions about future research options while continuing to urge Defra to make it clear that it is inappropriate to issue licences for the killing of a native bird of prey to protect a shootable surplus of a non-native gamebird.
“I think that it is wrong for Natural England to issue buzzard control licences to protect commercial interests. It is wrong that there has been no public scrutiny of these decisions and it is wrong that we only heard of these decisions after the nests may have been destroyed.”
Natural England issued a statement saying: “In certain isolated cases buzzards – like any predatory species – can cause serious problems. In this particular case, the applicant has sustained increased levels of predation by buzzards.
“Natural England has provided advice on a wide range of non-lethal methods and deterrents – including scaring, diversionary feeding and habitat improvements – but despite their consistent application, buzzard predation has continued.
“Given these circumstances, the licence applicant submitted an application to carry out lethal control (shooting) and nest destruction.
“Assessment of the application concluded that the damage being caused was not serious enough to licence lethal control, but did meet the criteria for the less severe option of nest destruction.
“A total of four nests were removed and no further control activity has been authorised.”