Friday, 7 September 2007

"You don't have to be an ornithologist (to draw absurd conclusions to suit your prejudices)

It’s not often I’m moved to write to a newspaper, but this particular piece of ill-informed drivel did the trick. At a time when several of the broadsheets are jumping on the ‘let’s control raptors’ bandwagon (The Times had this piece*, and The Telegraph this – there’s loads to argue with in both, but they do at least make passing reference to one or two facts), Richard Ingrams and The Independent take things to a quite spectacular level of ignorance, prejudice and downright malevolence.
Where to start? Maybe with the Red Kites flying “menacingly” over his house. Menacing who, exactly? Does he suppose they’re about to swoop down and carry off young children, or the family pets? They take little live prey as it is, most of it no bigger than a rat.
What about the growing numbers of “larger birds”? By this Ingrams seems to mean raptors, although of course there are plenty of larger birds that are no such thing. If he’s really interested – and of course he’s not – there are plenty of figures available for larger birds, and if he took the trouble to read them he’d find that a lot of them are also struggling. Notable among them is the Hen Harrier, under threat precisely because it is still persecuted by shooting interests.
Connected with that, there’s the fact that the rapid increases in the number of Buzzards in particular, plus some other species of bird of prey, is entirely down to their populations having reached such dangerously low levels not so long ago. And the reason for that? Well, myxamatosis played a part where Buzzards are concerned, but again, systematic persecution by gamekeepers was the main cause.
As for the decline of small birds being down to the increased number of raptors – bullshit. The two we’ve been talking about, Buzzards and Red Kites, take very few birds. In the case of those British raptors who do – Sparrowhawk, Goshawk, Hobby, Merlin and Peregrine – many of their preferred prey species (Blue Tit, Great Tit, Blackbird, Collared Dove, Woodpigeon, to name but a few) are thriving. Ingrams is right to note that certain small birds have declined considerably, but of course it doesn’t suit his purpose to mention that others are doing very well.
The paragraph beginning “You don’t have to be an ornithologist…” is quite staggering in its stupidity. Perhaps you don’t need to be, but a basic grasp of a few facts would be a help. He seems to think, from what he says, that Sparrowhawks do nothing but catch sparrows, when in fact they take a whole wide range of prey. But they’re a native species too (as are all the raptors we’re talking about), so those losses are factored into nature’s equations. Predators do NOT wipe out their prey species, then wonder where the next meal is coming from.
Finally, there’s his little dig at the RSPB. Where exactly did he find out about the declines in small birds? From the RSPB, of course, and the BTO, and all the other organisations genuinely concerned with conservation. Certainly not from his grouse moor-owning, old school tie chums, anyway.
Perhaps the most disturbing thing about the whole piece is what it doesn’t mention. In the whole, long, sad list of bird and animal species that have disappeared into extinction, there isn’t one that was killed off by being preyed on by another native species. If, as Ingrams suggests, raptor numbers grow too large, then populations will experience a levelling off as they find their appropriate level. In the case of Buzzards, for example, that depends on Rabbit numbers. In the case of Red Kites, largely on the availability of roadkill and other carrion. All assuming, of course, that shotgun or poison-wielding types don’t take a hand.
Because there is a common factor in that list of extinctions. Mankind. Our interference with natural habitats and lifestyles is what causes extinction, and that’s exactly what’s happening with those birds now in serious decline, including the House Sparrow and a lot of farmland species. Intensive farming, plus the disappearance of a lot of green space in urban areas (for parking, or patios) is the culprit, not Sparrowhawks or corvids or cats or any of the other reasons suggested by the head-in-the-sand brigade. Lots of farmers ARE making an effort, with and without Government and EU help, and it’s heartening that declines can be reversed relatively quickly, but only if they’re spotted and acted upon in time. And there are always those for whom greed comes first.
There’s one consolation in all this, and that’s that Ingrams’ droolings will only have been read by a tiny percentage of the population anyway, having been published in a paper that sells under 250,000 copies daily, most of them in London and the Home Counties (it's given up even pretending it knows the rest of the country exists). That’s under a quarter of the number of people who pay their RSPB subs each month.
Rant over.
* Once you know that Magnus Linklater owns a grouse moor, it rather colours your view of his objectivity.

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