The controversy about the raven cull licence rumbles on. Ten days after the licence was revealed, SNH has yet to address any of the serious concerns raised about the licensing process and about the licence itself. The agency’s handling of this whole affair has been extraordinarily poor.
Meanwhile, on Saturday BBC Radio Scotland’s Out of Doors programme broadcast two interviews on this subject; one with Wendy Mattingley of Tayside Raptor Study Group (who has been monitoring ravens in Perthshire for 30 years), and one with Kenneth Stephen, PR & Communications Officer for the Scottish Gamekeepers Association.
The interviews were broadcast as separate items and they’re both well worth a listen. They’re available on BBC iPlayer for the next 27 days, here. Wendy’s interview begins at 21.45 min and Kenneth’s interview begins at 35.36 min.
Wendy did a great job of describing raven ecology and behaviour and stated her belief that the raven cull licence is for the benefit of grouse moors rather than waders. However, it’s Kenneth’s interview we’re going to focus on.
Before we share the transcript, have a look at this map we created at the weekend. It shows the raven cull licence area (yellow boundary line) running from Loch Tay in the west to the A9 in the east, and areas of grouse moor within that area. It’s a fairly coarse-scale map, derived from google earth images of strip muirburn, and input from local raptor study group members who know the ground well. There’s quite a lot of grouse moor, isn’t there? There are small pockets of walked-up grouse shooting in these areas but the majority is managed for driven grouse shooting. Keep this map in mind while reading what Kenneth had to say:
The interview was conducted by Euan McIlwraith of the BBC and it started with Kenneth Stephen being asked to describe the background to the raven cull licence application:
KS: The application has been the result of quite a lot of work. You’ll probably be aware that there was a fairly large-scale collaboration project which brought together everyone in the land management sector, the environmental sector, including people like the RSPB, Scottish Raptor Study Group members were all part of that process as well, and it was basically an understanding that something urgent had to be done to protect wading birds, so that was really the genesis of it. Since then, everyone who was involved in that project has been pushing forward to try and apply some of the things that were learned in that report and really what this licence is is a follow-on from that. I think we can probably see this being assimilated within the Working for Waders Project, so that’s really what this is about.
EM: How many ravens are they allowed to be taken, to be culled?
KS: Well there has been kind of a misrepresentation, I think there’s probably a slightly deliberate misrepresentation that it could be 300. The reality of the situation is in year one it’s up to 69 as a maximum, and then what they’re gonna do is, they’re obviously gonna correspond that with counts of waders at certain times of year which is stipulated in the licence, counts of the ravens at certain times of the year, and then at the end of year one everyone’ll sit down and have a look at that, see what needs to be adjusted. I mean next year it could be three ravens, or it could be more ravens, you know, so that these are the things that we don’t know so saying that it’s 300 ravens, it’s just a figure that’s been fag-packeted really.
EM: Why is it necessary to cull the ravens? What are they actually doing to the waders?
KS: One of the things that we have to say is that control area which has been mapped out, for many many years it’s been recognised by obviously the land managers in the area themselves but also independently as well, there’s been lots of wader studies etc been done, so what we’re looking at here is, it’s a great core area for waders, many different kinds of waders, but there are some areas where the waders are not doing so well. So what you’re really trying to do there is you’re trying to cement your core populations, ‘cos that’s gonna be a key to the future. So what the land managers have seen, what the farmers have seen with their own eyes for years and years, and the keepers as well on the ground is that when you have these sub-adult flocks that come in, I mean everyone is paying homage to how intelligent the raven is and that’s right, you know, they signal to one another, they will come in in large sub-adult flocks and they can basically sweep a field very quickly. So no matter amount of habitat programmes you’re doing, no matter how much public money might go in to those habitat programmes, if the end result is being eaten then we have to do something, you know, that’s what this is about.
EM: Does this licence cover a grouse moor?
KS: No, it doesn’t cover a grouse moor.
EM: Is there grouse moor in it?
KS: Well there’s obviously grouse moors in it, I mean part of the reason that there would be grouse moors in it is that, we know, from the Otterburn study for example that waders can produce up to three times more in areas where there’s keepers working on moors. So that is no surprise and it shouldn’t be any surprise to anyone but you know people are saying this is all for grouse. Well, I don’t know why the farmers in there are wanting it then because they have no grouse interests there….
EM: Well tell me, the application was by the Strathbraan Community Collaboration for Waders, who are they?
KS: They are, basically they’re the farms in the area, the local estates in the area, and the private interests in the area, you know so not everyone fits in to a certain box but generally in that boundary area that’s what you’re looking at as the major land uses.
EM: You know where I’m going with this. There’s a strong suggestion there’s a lot of grouse shooting owners or managers are part of that group.
KS: We sit round tables, everyone gets together, they make a pledge to do something for waders, and at the end of it we draw conclusions and now what seems like is the people who were part of drawing up those conclusions, there are no surprises, all the evidence was put in, now seem very very keen to rubbish it and walk away and essentially for, you know, the curlew to just disappear. We’re not, you know, we don’t want to do that, and one thing I would say as well, Euan, is, right at the start of the Understanding Predation process, the people who did sit around the table, it was a stipulation of groups like the RSPB that grouse should be a part of that project, it was the gamekeepers who said no, we don’t need this for grouse, we need this for waders. We’ve had some very very good years at the grouse, we don’t need to control ravens for grouse….
EM: But ravens will take grouse eggs, grouse chicks, so you will benefit if the ravens are removed?
KS: You know, the farmers will benefit, you know as well, but the key thing about this as I said from the beginning is this is about waders. That’s what we all sat around the table to do and this shouldn’t be a shock. If anyone reads the report and I would encourage them to do so, they will know that adaptive management was one of the things that was mentioned as a possible solution for what we’ve got in Scotland at the moment which is a rapidly plummeting wader population. I mean people have to remember that unless something is done soon, that call of the curlew will disppear in our lifetime.
EM: I’m not making a meal of this but a lot of voices are getting quite raised about this; the one last thing, nail it on the head, this cull is not about grouse?
KS: This cull is not about grouse and it’s never been about grouse. This has been a long-standing Scottish Government commitment through the Moorland Forum to address a pressing conservation needs and it is a conservation need.
So, according to the SGA this raven cull licence is not about grouse, even though most of the cull area is dominated by driven grouse moors. Come on, Kenneth, who are you trying to kid?
If this cull isn’t about grouse, how come the SGA has been lobbying for years to try and get ravens added to the General Licence?
And don’t try and pretend that the RSPB and SRSG had initially signed up for this cull but are now “trying to rubbish it and walk away“. As we wrote at the time the Understanding Predation report was published (here), there was agreement amongst all partners on the need for action to protect declining wader populations but they fundamentally disagreed on the approach needed. The anti-raptor crowd wanted raptor culling, the pro-raptor crowd wanted a focus on habitat management. The RSPB and SRSG didn’t ever sign up for a non-scientific cull ‘just to see what happens’ and it’s disingenuous to suggest otherwise.
There’s more to come on this story. In the next blog we’ll publish an email sent by Kenneth, shortly after recording this interview, to someone in the grouse shooting industry. It’s quite revealing about the membership of the mysterious Strathbraan Community Collaboration for Waders.
UPDATE 1 May 2018: Strathbraan Community Collaboration for Waders: who’s involved? (here)