By Charlotte Owen
The beautiful buzzard is a common sight across Sussex, whether soaring high overhead on a thermal or surveying its surroundings from a fence post. In fact, it’s the UK’s most common bird of prey and so often seen that it’s easy to take its presence for granted - and it’s a presence you can’t really miss. This is a big bird with a wingspan of up to 1.4 metres and a wonderfully wild, cat-like call that often provides the first cue to look up.
But this hasn’t always been the case, and as recently as the 1950s the Sussex skies were completely empty of buzzards. The species was almost lost to the UK completely after heavy persecution in the 1800s, when Victorian landowners and gamekeepers were wrongly convinced that buzzards would decimate their pheasants and grouse. From 1841-77, just seven buzzards were seen in Sussex and six of those were shot. By 1887, the once-widespread species was rare enough to be included in a book of Lost and Vanishing Birds, clinging on in just a handful of wilder places in Wales and south-west England, the Lake District and western Scotland - well away from the gamekeepers’ guns.
Persecution lessened during the two World Wars and buzzard populations began a slow recovery until 1955, when myxomatosis outbreaks decimated rabbit populations and caused widespread buzzard food shortages. At the same time, the ongoing use of organochlorine pesticides like DDT caused catastrophic eggshell-thinning in contaminated birds, literally crushing any attempts to reproduce. These chemicals were eventually withdrawn in the 1960s and with the introduction of better protection for birds of prey and enlightening attitudes among gamekeepers, buzzards finally started to prosper. In 1995 there were still fewer than ten pairs in Sussex but a mere three years later this had increased to an amazing forty pairs, and then to an almost unbelievable 100 pairs by 2002. Nobody had imagined that buzzards could bounce back so quickly, given the chance. Today there are potentially 900 pairs in Sussex and buzzards have re-colonised habitats right across the UK, making them one of our biggest conservation success stories.