Tories U-turn on plan to appear like eccentric aristocrats

Buzzards will no longer be captured and have their nests destroyed to protect pheasants, says DEFRA

Another U-turn from the government today, as DEFRA has announced that it is to stop funding research on catching buzzards to protect pheasant stocks.

The original plan had been for the department to spend £375,000 on capturing the birds of prey, which are a protected species in the UK, and destroying their nests. The aim was to see whether this reduces the amount of young pheasants they ate. Not only is there no evidence that buzzards eat that many anyway (an RSPB study concluded "losses to birds of prey were negligible"), but as George Monbiot, leading the charge against the plan, pointed out:

The government has no responsibility to protect pheasant shoots from our native wildlife, though it does have a responsibility to protect our native wildlife from pheasant shoots.

The fact that destroying the nests of a native protected species to protect the young of an imported species farmed to be shot for sport largely by the super-rich did not strike DEFRA or its minister, Richard Benyon ("inheritor of a vast stately home and a 20,000-acre walled estate in the south of England, as well as properties elsewhere" according to Monbiot), as a potential source of bad press is surprising. Once the policy was announced, however, the outcry was large and sustianed, so this morning the department announced:

We’ve listened to public concerns, so we are stopping current research and developing new research proposals on #buzzards.

On the one hand, the fact that the department is no longer officially acting like an eccentric arisocrat, railing against those damn birds eating their damn birds, is probably a good thing. On the other hand, it has revealed who the government's true constituents are:

The department's decision has itself been strongly criticised by the Countryside Alliance, which argues it shows the Government is "now willing to give in to whoever shouts the loudest".

A buzzard sits in a tree. It has yet to be captured. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.