IRELAND: Seeing red

Back from the brink of extinction, the red kite has been enjoying a population surge in Ireland since 2007. Jason Doyle asks what this means for vulnerable birds further down the food chain

Lough Tay, Wicklow, Ireland

I’m on dawn patrol on a South Wicklow mountain. All my usual stalking kit is with me – rifle, binos and hound – but with the sika season a distant memory my purpose here is of a vulpine nature. I’m involved with the Red Grouse Regeneration project on this estate and foxes are a major threat to Ireland’s modest population of the ultimate sporting bird. Sitting high on a vantage point at sunrise, I glass the moor below and admire the work that’s been done to improve the grouse’s habitat here over the last few years. Controlled burning and swiping have been carried out along with extensive corvid and fox control. However in this part of Wicklow the grouse are still struggling to make a comeback. The reason?  The same reason that gun clubs all around the country have been seeing less and less wild pheasants surviving to adulthood over the last few years, despite good weather during the breeding seasons. The same reason there has been a decline in lapwings, in skylarks and in hares.

The answer is the explosion in the raptor population in Ireland. The buzzard has enjoyed a huge increase in numbers since the early 2000s and this coincided with the reintroduction of the red kite to Wicklow in 2007. The success of the red kite has far exceeded the expectations of even the most optimistic ornithologist and now, on this beautiful summer’s morning sat on the moor, I can count no fewer than sixteen red kites – all in search of a meal. Now I know there are plenty who preach the myth that kites feed only on carrion and earth worms but it’s now commonly accepted that they will eat the chicks of ground nesting birds. Does this include our red grouse? Does this include all our other rare birds and our wild game birds? I have witnessed first-hand in my keepering days the taking of poults by buzzards so I am in no doubt that the enlarged population has contributed to the widely reported drop in wild pheasants.

As keen game shots and members of game conservation clubs, we try to control magpies, jackdaws, grey squirrels and foxes, all of whom have a detrimental effect on our game birds and the wider avian family but the raptors are totally protected due to their previous endangered status. My question is this: what happens when a rare bird enjoys a huge population recovery and starts to predate on vulnerable birds to a point where there is risk of extermination? Surely impact studies are needed to measure the consequences of the current number of raptors in Ireland and some measures taken to stem the rapid growth and the detrimental effects they are having on other birds and animals?

If the numbers continue to increase at the current rate, I dread to think what the outcome will be for many of our wild birds. From a sporting point of view we may have very little rough shooting to enjoy in the future. My fear is that gun club members will become disheartened by the decline in pheasant numbers and lose interest in the essential control of foxes, magpies etc. and the outcome will be disastrous for much of our wildlife. n

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