Thanks to an aristocratic minister, state spending is being used to support pheasant shoots and destroy birds of prey.
By George Monbiot, published on the Guardian’s website 24th May 2012.
David Cameron must have been having a laugh when he made Richard Benyon his minister for wildlife and biodiversity. In a previous post I explained what appears to be a crashing conflict of interest. Last year, Benyon, inheritor of a vast stately home and a 20,000-acre walled estate in the south of England, as well as properties elsewhere, managed to get planning permission for a sand and gravel quarry. It was fiercely opposed by conservation groups, on the grounds that it will trash wildlife and biodiversity.
Benyon has also distinguished himself by demonstrating a spectacular ignorance of the natural world he is charged with protecting. First, on a Channel 4 programme, he was unable to identify the common fish species for whose survival he is responsible (he is also minister for fisheries). Then he announced that he would wage war on people who let ragwort grow. As ecologists were quick to point out, ragwort is a native plant critical to the survival of other species.
But his latest adventure suggests something even worse: that he is using his department’s budget to subsidise the class and culture to which he belongs, at the expense of both taxpayers and birds of prey.
Pheasants, which are an exotic species in the United Kingdom, are bred here in large numbers to be shot, generally by and for some of the richest people in the country. They are reared in pens, then released into the countryside. People then pay a fortune to line up in a field, armed with shotguns, while an army of beaters works its way through the woods towards them, driving the pheasants into the air and over their heads. This activity is classified as “sport”.
As a teenager I sometimes worked as a beater or loader, and I think it is fair to say that the pheasant shoot is one of the most odious spectacles I have ever witnessed. The “guns” (the men doing the shooting) were so pumped up they would sometimes quiver. At some points in the shoot, the pheasants, which are slow and clumsy fliers, and try to stay on the ground for as long as they can, came over so low and in such numbers that if you shut your eyes and fired randomly into the air you could scarcely fail to hit one. Even so, many were not killed cleanly, but spun away through the air, one wing flapping, then hit the ground and ran off brokenly across the fields.
At lunchtime, while we ate our sandwiches, the guns would go into a barn where a feast of cold meat and pies was laid out on trestle tables. They would emerge an hour later, red-faced and reeking of cherry brandy, and even more wired than they were at the beginning of the shoot. After lunch they tended to fire at anything that came over their heads: crows, jays, woodcock; on one occasion I saw a green woodpecker blasted to feathers.
I dare say that they are not allowed to get so drunk these days, but the appetite for carnage on a tremendous scale appears to be undiminished. Woods in which, in my childhood, we could freely roam are now filled with blue plastic pheasant feeders, and anyone stepping into them is quickly rounded up and ejected by an angry man on a quad bike. Pheasant pens seem to be springing up everywhere, as the money flushing through the City is spent on the traditional pursuits of the ruling class.
We don’t know what impact this might have on our native wildlife. Every year some 40 million pheasants are released in the United Kingdom. We know that they scour the woods and hedgerows for invertebrates, seeds and seedlings and that they compete in various ways with native birds and other wildlife, but the impacts have not been properly quantified. Nor do we know what effect the beating and shooting of other wildlife might have, nor do we have a clear idea of the scope of illegal killing of predators and other wildlife by those who manage the shoots.
But none of this seems to be of interest to Richard Benyon’s section of DEFRA. Instead of defending the wildlife and biodiversity for which he is responsible from pheasant shooting, he appears to see his role as defending pheasant shooting from wildlife and biodiversity. His department is about to spend £375,000 on capturing buzzards and destroying their nests to see whether this reduces their consumption of young pheasants (or poults). The buzzard is a protected species, whose continued survival is one of Mr Benyon’s responsibilities.
The rationale for this research is the weakest that I have ever seen in a government document. As DEFRA’s tender for the research project admits, “at present, the extent of the problem on a national scale is unclear. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that it can be significant at the local site level. In one case, it is claimed that 25-30% of pheasant poults were lost to buzzards.”
No reference is given for this claim. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds makes the following observation:
“An independent study carried out by ADAS (an independent consultant), commissioned by the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, found that on average, 1-2% of pheasant poults released were taken by birds of prey. It found 45% of poults released were shot, with the remainder dying as a result of other factors, such as road collision and disease, or surviving to join the feral population. The study therefore concluded that losses to birds of prey were negligible compared to other much greater causes of loss. It found the financial cost of “average” bird of prey predation to a shoot releasing 1,000 poults per year, would be just £30.”
This, note, is all birds of prey, not just buzzards.
There are a number of sensible options for responding to the request by pheasant shooting estates that DEFRA fund research into reducing the impact of buzzards on the birds they breed.
1. Tell them to bog off. The government has no responsibility to protect pheasant shoots from our native wildlife, though it does have a responsibility to protect our native wildlife from pheasant shoots.
2. If, for a reason that so far eludes me, DEFRA deems that research does need to be conducted, tell the estates that they can fund it themselves: people who can afford to lay down and shoot pheasants don’t need taxpayers’ money.
3. If, for an even more obscure reason, DEFRA decides that the taxpayer should pay to discover how the estates can preserve more of their birds for the purpose of being blasted out of the air, the question it should be asking is not “how can we best control buzzards?”, but “are buzzards a major cause of pheasant mortality?”, or “is this ‘anecdotal evidence’ supported by anything more than a whiskey-soaked conversation in leather armchairs?”.
Facts, who needs ‘em? DEFRA has decided to go ahead anyway, paying researchers to catch buzzards and destroy their nests with shotguns, on the grounds of the “anecdotal evidence” that they are taking large numbers of pheasants.
This is state-sponsored persecution of a protected species to please some of the richest people in the country, pursuing a cruel, destructive and pointless activity. It is state spending for the 1% – or the 0.01% – which everyone else must pay for. It looks to me as if Richard Benyon is using public money to provide services for his aristocratic friends.
Has there, with the possible exception of Nicholas Ridley (another scion of an aristocratic family with vast estates), ever been a worse minister with responsibility for the environment in this country? Has there ever been a clearer sign that the “greenest government ever” couldn’t give a tinker’s cuss for the environment? Can David Cameron claim even a shred of green credibility while Richard Benyon remains in his post?
Buoyed by the success of this inspired appointment, I understand that the prime minister has asked Bob Diamond to become his new poverty tsar, and is currently scouring Transylvania to find the next chairman of the UK Blood Transfusion Service. Benyon should go, and so should the ridiculous policies his division is now supporting.