The buzzard’s fortunes have been an up and down affair
11:00 15 February 2017
In this week’s Fruit of the Land column, CLAIRE APPLEBY reflects on the rise and fall of the buzzard.
I remember from childhood the mewing call of the buzzard, something I associated with the green valleys and grazing sheep of the Welsh hills. It is such a delight today to be able to hear the same haunting call over the Suffolk and Norfolk countryside.
In the early 1800s, buzzards bred throughout Britain. But through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they suffered a severe decline at the hands of gamekeepers, who considered them a threat to game bird numbers. By 1875 buzzards were confined to the western parts of England, Wales and Scotland, and by the early 1900s there were only 1000 breeding pairs left.
According to Ticehurst’s 1932 History of the Birds of Suffolk, buzzards last bred in Suffolk at the start of the twentieth century. “Little wonder”, Ticehurst comments, “that this fine bird has died out as a nesting species, every gamekeeper’s hand was against it, no one seems to have given it sanctuary”.
Reduced illegal killing during the two world wars allowed the buzzard to begin to recover. But in the 1950s and 1960s, organochlorine pesticides reduced the birds’ ability to reproduce, and in 1953, myxomatosis spread to the UK, killing more than 99pc of the rabbit population and reducing a staple of the buzzard’s diet.
Organochlorides were banned in the late 1960s, and the rabbit population gradually recovered.
At the same time, illegal killing was reduced as gamekeepers realised that the buzzard posed only a limited threat to game birds. Numbers doubled between 1997 and 2006, and doubled again over the next seven years, so that by 2013 there were 68,000 breeding pairs in Britain. During the 1990s, buzzards re-colonised the south and east of England, and since 2000 they have nested in every county.
They are found in significant numbers across the eastern counties, and the Suffolk Ornithologists’ Group reports that many parishes now host at least one breeding pair.
Unlike the once-common kestrel, which is in sharp decline, the buzzard is now our commonest raptor. But this recovery could be under threat if persecution increases. In 2014, the Dereham Times reported that ten buzzards and a sparrowhawk had been killed on a Norfolk estate.