Friday, 15 June 2012

Birds of Prey

In the backyard of a small pebble dashed semi, just south of Edinburgh, we found a father and son scanning the sky. Peering intently above the roof tops and shading their eyes from the bright cloud. Even as we talked they cast nervous glances to the heavens. They fear ‘death from above’, not for them but their prized pigeons. What most people would welcome as a wildlife success story - the gradual recovery of many of Britain’s bird of prey species – they view as a deadly threat to their pets and their passion. They’ve lost six in the last six months this year. Watching a peregrine falcon hunt a pigeon is like a “Ferrari taking on yer’ Astra” according to William – a pigeon fancier from the age of seven who, now approaching sixty, has just given up as he can't bear the growing death toll. 

This week we are filming an investigation into the impact of our growing birds of prey population: majestic kings of the air restored to their rightful dominion of the sky or a menace to game, pigeons and garden birds? The lordly language above has been prompted by another filming location. Dalhousie Castle was the last redoubt in Scotland to be besieged by an English King in person: Henry IV in 1400. There we saw our most successful bird of prey – the buzzard – whose numbers have doubled in the last fifteen years. We needed some stunt birds for close ups and controlled filming so the local falconer Denise flew Dolly and Watson. Graceful in flight, stunning in detail but still faintly chilling sitting on my thick glove, especially as they turn to fix you with those hawk-eyes. I know what it feels like to be lunch. 

So do pheasants. Especially those reared for shooting on a nearby estate where the gamekeeper reckons they kill one thousand of his birds every year. He wants permission to kill or move the local buzzards. 

“But surely” I said “they are part of the natural world undeserving of extermination for your sport”. 

“No, pheasants are my livestock and my livelihood and like a farmer I should be allowed to protect them”. 

Another thorny one: see for yourself on CountryFile BBC 1 Sunday July 1st.

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