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Buzzards soar in Mayo skies once more

Outdoor Living

BENEFITTING FROM GREATER UNDERSTANDING Perhaps the resurgence of the Common buzzard is a sign of clearer thinking and better times to come.

Country Sights and Sounds

John Shelley

A large, brown bird got up from the ground and lifted into the breeze on broad wings. After making a wide circuit of the field it settled on overhead wires at the roadside, from where it watched us, rather imperiously I thought, as we meandered toward it, pretending to have no interest at all. Immediate eye contact would send it further away, as would a direct course.
With that dull, chocolate brown plumage, the lightly barred chest and pale underbelly, it looked like a Common buzzard. When I looked up from 40 paces or so and saw the yellow legs I knew I was right. The buzzard didn’t seem to appreciate having its legs looked at, but spread its wings and gave a plaintive, mewing cry as it let the breeze carry it another 100 paces before settling back on the wire in typical buzzard manner; these are inherently lazy birds that like to let the wind do their work.
We followed it along the field boundary, watching it glide short distances before perching to watch us ambling behind. There was good reason for wanting a closer look, for despite being known as the Common buzzard, these birds have spent many years virtually unknown in Mayo. Until recently, that is.
I grew up surrounded by them in England’s Exmoor hills, where we would see them every day, but went many years without seeing a single one here in Mayo. What I wanted to know was whether this bird was wearing a leg ring or not. If it was, we should be able to find out where it had come from. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t, which means it must be a fully wild bird that found it’s own way here as part of a natural expansion of territory.
Last spring I saw four together, and know where two of them nested and raised at least one chick, and learned of another pair that bred successfully a few miles further south in 2018.
Large birds of prey are, to some, synonymous with the wholesale destruction of newborn lambs in spring and free-range poultry the year through, and as such are the people’s enemy and born only for destruction. Until recently, poisoned baits have been widely used to keep the numbers of ‘pests’ down. While some of the more commonly used poison compounds have been taken off the market, other equally potent substances remain widely and legally available, although poisoning is now illegal except in the control of rats and mice.
More than ten years after the banning of alphachloralose, a chemical once approved for the control of crows but which killed almost everything else that ingested it, including large birds of prey, it’s time we were seeing a resurgence of wildlife.
Who of us remembers the widespread use of Dieldrin in sheep dip? It was actually banned in the late 1960s, although it was possibly still in use many years later. Dieldrin is extremely toxic to most creatures and its half-life in soil is about 60 years, which means the toxicity of infected soil is still half of what it was at its peak.  
More recently, organophosphates were principal ingredients in farm chemicals and animal treatments. Despite research indicating the potential for devastating impacts on human health these were long promoted by government agencies. Organophosphates allegedly crippled with neurological disorders many who came into contact with them.
When a sheep died on the hill it would traditionally be left for the fox, and often would be dosed with whatever chemicals were available at the time. In this way, the population of foxes, crows and ravens would be kept in check. Unfortunately, eagles, kites, harriers and buzzards also act as scavengers and have died after eating poisoned carrion.
It’s no wonder we lost our apex predator birds. Perhaps the resurgence of the Common buzzard is a sign of clearer thinking and better times to come.
Maps in the Atlas of Breeding Birds in Britain and Ireland show a widespread population of breeding buzzards in Ireland in 1800. By 1865 they were restricted to Northern Ireland and by 1915 there were few, if any Irish records. Some 40 years later the situation remained the same. Isn’t it fine that now, in 2019, we could start to mark in a few small ‘X’s here in County Mayo?
Yet there are still some among us who would not have large birds of prey here at all. For the most part we live in a more enlightened age. Once we’ve seen them, why would we want to be without them?