When worlds collide

Outdoor Living

PROTECTED Buzzards (Clamhán in Irish) are fully protected and to harm one is a criminal offence.

With lambing season underway, the practice of bait poisoning by some farmers can have devastating consequences

Country Sights and Sounds
John Shelley

It is only in the last five years or so that common buzzards have been seen on a regular basis in County Mayo. Small numbers had been seen before that, and any breeding sites were being kept secret.
For the last two or three years occasional buzzards have been seen around Lough Carra. One day I saw four together, riding thermals high above me. What a sight that was!
Now a pair appear to have taken up residence in the Moore Hall area. How welcome they are. And how we would love to think their future secure.
It is lambing time across these low hills. A shepherd walks his fields at night, keeping an eye on his flock, probing distant corners with his flashlight. A pair of eyes are lit momentarily; primarily yellow with just a spark of red, they belong to his sworn enemy, the fox.
He knows foxes are about, and knows only too well the danger they pose to newborn lambs. He mulls over what little he has heard. A ewe will successfully defend a single lamb, but a determined fox will take one of twins. A weak or sickly lamb makes an easy target. A dead one will not lie long on the turf.
Every year a good many lambs are lost to foxes (and badgers, some will assert, though I doubt this is the case), and with each one goes a slice of the year’s profit. Shooting foxes isn’t an easy option, at least with a shotgun. A rifle makes pest control a little easier, but rifles bring their own risks and responsibilities.
There is, in the cupboard at the back of the barn, a small amount of pesticide containing a substance known as Carbofuran. Once widely available, Carbofurin has been banned across most of Europe since 2007, when Irish sellers and users were given 18 months to use up what stocks they had left. This is a powerful toxin that causes respiratory failure in whatever happens to ingest it.
The bottle has been there a long time, having been purchased before the ban. What harm could there be in using it just one more time? The fox would die, the lambs would be safe, and sheep farming could remain viable.
A lamb is dead following a difficult delivery. The bottle is brought and the body is dosed, then left over the fence, out of sight and out of mind. The fox stays away, and in the morning the dead lamb is spotted by the buzzard pair while doing their rounds.
A large part of the buzzard’s normal diet is earthworms, beetles and rodents. They do take rabbits where these are available. Perhaps, on occasion, one might take a small lamb. I never knew this to happen, but we cannot rule it out. They will, however, freely feed on carrion, and their find this morning looks a rare treat.
A single grain of Carbofurin will kill each one. An entire community will be deprived of their birds of prey and the sky above will be empty for years yet.
Perhaps we feel this to be a mere imaginary scenario.
In December 2019 a total of 23 poisoned buzzards were discovered in one County Cork location. Each of these had ingested Carbofurin in what appears to have been a premeditated attack on their numbers.
In an article covering that occasion the Irish Times quoted John Lusby of Birdwatch Ireland: “Illegal poisonings are widespread… Knowing the extent of illegal persecution and specifically, illegal poisoning, it’s not surprising that this incident occurred and unfortunately, incidents such as this one will continue to occur until further action is taken.”
Carbofurin is not the only weapon in the poisoner’s armoury. Modern rodenticides are nearly as effective in controlling all manner of ‘pests’.
So-called ‘Second Generation Anticoagulants’ are powerful, fast-acting rodenticides that cause fatal liver damage, especially in owls that hunt around farm buildings. Accidental secondary poisoning is common even when poisons are properly used.
Nothing is straightforward. The shepherd wants his flock to prosper. The naturalist wants birds of prey. The teacher wants to show his pupils Ireland’s full potential while politicians prevaricate.
In a determined effort to ‘tackle the issue head on’, Minister for Heritage Malcolm Noonan gave the go-ahead for the National Parks and Wildlife Service to operate its own Wildlife Crime Unit, with a dedicated team of, umm, just one actually. We shall watch it grow, and as it does our wildlife will thrive.

Michael Kingdon formerly wrote these columns under the pseudonym John Shelley. A naturalist and keen fisherman, he lives close to the shores of Lough Carra.