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Kestrels, cuckoos and the blame game

Friday 23 July 2010

Our countryside commentator John Sheard was planning to write a column about what he thought was a booming kestrel population when out came a report saying the bird was in steep decline. But are the farmers really to blame?

AS I was driving to my favourite fly fishing location last weekend, hoping that some heavy rain may have eased the drought and got the sea trout running (it hadn’t!) I was struck that in a journey of some 32 miles I had spotted no fewer than three kestrels in their characteristic pre-swoop hover.

Although this was not good news for the various field mice, shrews and out-and-about moles up for a breath of fresh country air, it was good news to me, The decline of our birds of prey which started back in the 1960s has only recently been reversed, or so I thought, and this would make a nice subject for this column.

Kestrel: up and down?

So imagine my surprise when one of the countryside’s most valued conservation bodies, the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) issued the results of a survey which said that kestrel numbers had dived by a chilling 36% in just t two years from 2008.

Now I am a long time supporter of the BTO because, unlike some other pressure groups, it specialises in scientific fact rather than politically correct propaganda and if it says the kestrel is in trouble, I accept that without a quibble.

But this was a nationwide survey and I can only wonder if there are some areas of this green and pleasant land where this wonderful hunter is having a particularly hard time: it seems to be living high on the hog in the Yorkshire Dales and surrounding areas.

This, I realise, is the opinion of a mere amateur but it is based on half a century of observation in the great outdoors. And there was another survey issued this week with which I take no exception: the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) said that the cuckoo is in danger of disappearing from the English summer.

I have no doubt that this is quite true. Sadly, I have not kept a record of this but I have not heard a cuckoo in the Dales for at least three years and perhaps a good deal longer. But perhaps that is because of out local habitat. The cuckoo’s favourite victims as unwilling foster parents are reed buntings, plentiful (I hope) in the fens of East Anglia but rarer than hen’s teeth here in North Yorkshire.

That takes us back to the missing kestrels. The entire journey to the Lune Valley in Cumbria takes me through livestock farming country, cattle in the lowlands, sheep on the tops. There is the odd field of maize, no doubt intended as animal feed, but it is predominately pasture all the way. And, to repeat myself, our kestrels seemed to be doing just fine, thank you very much.

So I was not best pleased when the RSPB came out – yet again – to blame the kestrel decline on “intensive farming” – an excuse that this huge and influential charity has been trotting out for years whenever a bird species is threatened.

This is not for the first time that the RSPB have played the blame game against other rural interests

It may have been true in the 20th Century – certainly, from the 1950s until the 1980s - but I have grave doubts about its veracity today. Farming has changed in the past ten years or so and now farmers receive much of their income from so-called “agri-environmental schemes” which recognise the work they do (and have done for centuries) is maintaining our countryside.

This is not for the first time that the RSPB have played the blame game against other rural interests, which perhaps reflects the fact that the majority of their members are townsfolk.

They dismiss the rights of anglers to protect fish stocks against predatory birds like cormorants and goosanders and, contrary to the wishes of the vast majority of country folk, are great supporters of windfarms – so long as they are not built in the flypaths of migrating birds!

Not for the first time, the RSPB’s casual and much repeated allegation against the farmers drew an angry response. Mr William Worsley, the North Yorkshire landowner who is president of the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) said coldly:

"It is clearly not the case that farming has become more intensive in the past five years. In fact, with the introduction of the Single Payment Scheme, the opposite is the case, and 70 percent of farmland in England is covered by agri-environment schemes.

“So it is nonsense for the RSPB to blame intensification for the problem. It is a pity they have once again gone for the knee-jerk reaction rather than look at the real reasons."

So if the BTO figures are accurate, which I accept, there must be other reasons for kestrel decline. Is this a regional phenomenon? Are there farming areas, like the wheat prairies of East Anglia, where more pesticides are used? Are small mammals, the kestrels’ prey, also in decline? These are questions in need of serious investigation not cheap shots at an industry struggling to meet Europe’s highest environmental standards.

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