The recent issuing of licence to destroy buzzard nests to protect released pheasants demonstrates that some very uncomfortable truths about the game-shooting industry need to be outed but also that there is a lack of research evidence about the impacts of large-scale gamebird releases.
Do we know the real figures for the number of gamebirds released in Britain every year? It is estimated that between 40 and 50 million birds (that is pheasants, red-legged partridge and a smaller number of grey partridge) are released into Britain's countryside annually. While the industry has carried out research into the benefits to the countryside from shooting, perhaps the research has been a little selective? It is all "a question of balance" (the title of a Game Conservancy [now the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust] publication about its research), so here are my research questions on the impact of these releases, and associated activities (including predator-culling), relevant to wildlife, farming and human health.
1) What is the impact of providing all this extra easy food on predator populations: i.e. fox, stoat, buzzard
2) What is the impact of predator-culling on their prey; and if this has an impact on those species, what is the effect? e.g. rabbit populations and impact on agricultural crops, whether grass or arable; is there an economic impact, if so, what is the cost and who bears this cost?
3) How many road traffic collisions are caused by drivers crashing into or swerving to avoid released gamebirds? What are the death and injury statistics? (I sadly remember a 17-year old who died because he swerved to avoid a pheasant when on his motorbike). What is the cost to the insurance industry and to the NHS? What are the social and economic costs to the impacted families who have been bereaved or injured?
Raptors have increased, but the recent request for a licence to destroy buzzard nests is just the beginning of what the game industry really wants, which is to get rid of more buzzards, shortly followed by ravens (nicely recovering after a century of absenteeism from large swathes of Britain) and red kites. In some parts of the countryside foxes are already very scarce, as shoots do not tolerate them and it is very clear from this that a substantial number of gamekeepers and shoot managers (and their landlords) will only be happy when they can see no raptors in the sky. Where will it stop? Surely, it's time to put the brakes on the game industry, not recovering wildlife. It is now time for those who love the countryside and its wildlife to up their game.