Raven cull licence: SGA evasive on benefits to grouse moors

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)

4 million blog views

We reached another milestone this weekend, with the blog passing 4 million views.

The last 2 million views have come in the last 22 months.

Thank you to everyone who contributes to this blog, comments on it, and most importantly, shares this work.

Thanks also to our funders at Lush whose financial (and moral) support has been especially important.

Last year when we reached 3 million views we posted a photograph to remind ourselves why we do this. Here it is again. It’s an image of a young golden eagle in the Cairngorms National Park, photographed (by the RSPB) in 2006. It had been illegally poisoned. It epitomises everything in its pitiful, poignant, senselessness.

These days we’re less likely to see photographs like this, not because the illegal persecution of golden eagles and other raptors has stopped, but because the methods have changed. There are very few poisonings now because the raptor killers are much more savvy but shooting and trapping has increased because it’s easier to hide the evidence.

Although, in the words of blog reader Dr Hugh Webster, “They can hide the satellite tags, they can hide the bodies, but they can’t hide the pattern“.

Thanks again for your support, let’s keep going.

New paper links raptor persecution to driven grouse moors in Peak District National Park

A new scientific, peer-reviewed paper, published in the journal British Birds, links the illegal killing of birds of prey with driven grouse moor management in the Dark Peak area of the Peak District National Park.

Full citation: Melling, T., Thomas, M., Price, M. and Roos, S. (2018). Raptor persecution in the Peak District National Park. British Birds 111 (May): 275-290.

Unfortunately we’re not permitted to publish the full paper [UPDATE: paper now available at the foot of this blog] but here is the abstract and a number of the figures:

The RSPB has published a blog about this research which is well worth a read – here.

At the end of the RSPB blog, RSPB Investigator Mark Thomas writes: “It’s going to be interesting to see the response to our paper“.

The response will be the same one we’ve seen to every other scientific paper linking illegal raptor persecution to driven grouse moor management (and there have been many):

  1. Conservationists will be appalled (but not surprised);
  2. The grouse shooting industry will either (a) ignore it or (b) try to undermine the credibility of the authors and the science;
  3. The statutory authorities will either (a) ignore it or (b) they’ll acknowledge it and say raptor persecution ‘won’t be tolerated’ and then do nothing.

We still need to work on increasing public awareness about the illegal persecution of raptors on driven grouse moors and encourage more voters to apply pressure to their political representatives. Good progress has been made in the last few years but there is much, much more to do.

Scientific papers such as this latest one all help build the evidence, although if they sit behind a journal paywall they have limited value. Please help spread the word about this paper, especially on social media, and if you’re a resident of the Peak District National Park or if you live nearby and your MP’s constituency extends in to the Park, please send a copy of the paper’s abstract to them and ask that they contact Wildlife Minister Therese Coffey at DEFRA to demand she takes action.

In fact, even if you’re not a Peak District resident, this is a National Park that is there for all of us to enjoy, so please send a copy of this paper’s abstract to your local MP, wherever you live, and ask him/her to demand action from Minister Therese Coffey on your behalf.

The illegal killing of raptors on grouse moors in this National Park (and many others) has been going on for decades. It’s all documented. It will continue to go on unless we demand change. Please act.

UPDATE: Here is the paper in full:

‘No justification’ for raven cull licence, says RSPB Scotland Director

RSPB Scotland has published a further damning statement on the SNH raven cull licence.

Written by Director Anne McCall, here’s a short excerpt:

Considering all of the above, RSPB Scotland maintains that there is no justification for this extreme course of action, and will continue to pursue that SNH withdraw this licence. Alternatively, the option is always open for those who have sought the licence to voluntarily pause any culling in order to allow time and space for the SNH Scientific Advisory Committee to conduct a thorough and meaningful analysis. Choosing not to pause a cull in order to make sure the science is in order has to beg the question why on earth is this being done at all?

To read the full statement, please see here.

Meanwhile, Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham has been examining the licence for any shred of scientific credibility, without success.

Buzzards found poisoned & decapitated in Co Cork

Reported on BirdWatch Ireland’s facebook page on 24 April 2018, news of three dead buzzards found in a field at Ring, near Clonakilty, Co Cork.

The birds were found in January and collected by staff from the National Parks & Wildlife Service (NPWS) to be sent for post-mortem. X-rays showed no sign of lead shot but two of the buzzards had missing heads and one had a missing leg.

Toxicology results have revealed high levels of the highly toxic pesticide Carborfuran as well as two rodenticides.

The NPWS is investigating and calling for information.

More details on the BirdGuides website (here).

Photo of the dead buzzards in evidence bags [photo by NPWS]

Green MSPs seek urgent meeting with SNH re: raven cull licence

For the benefit of those not on Twitter, last night MSP Mark Ruskell (Scottish Greens) tweeted that he is seeking an urgent meeting with Scottish Natural Heritage to discuss the raven cull licence. His colleague, Alison Johnstone MSP, will join him.

Well done and thanks to both of them for holding SNH to account.

SNH refuses to say whether raven cull licence has been suspended

In a desperate attempt to regain the narrative, this afternoon Scottish Natural Heritage has issued a further statement to try and justify its ridiculous decision to grant a licence to gamekeepers, permitting the mass killing of ravens in a noted wildlife crime hotspot, on the basis of ‘seeing what happens’.

Part of the latest statement is reproduced from the quote SNH provided to The Times yesterday, and there’s a bit of extra PR gloss (i.e. this is a “limited trial“) applied for good measure. Noticeably, the statement does not include the words ‘raven cull’.

Unfortunately, but not unsurprisingly, the statement fails to address any of the serious concerns raised about the licence. Perhaps that’s deliberate, because answering those questions would undoubtedly expose the flawed process behind this licensing decision, like issuing the licence first, in secret, and then assessing its scientific credibility sometime later but only after being challenged by sceptical conservationists.

Here’s the latest SNH statement:

It also hasn’t escaped our notice that SNH has avoided answering the very simple question we posed this morning: Has the raven cull licence been suspended whilst the Scientific Advisory Committee undertakes its review?

We put this straightforward question to the SNH media team this morning and they were unable to answer it. One of them told us that he had been told to tell us to put this question in writing to SNH Chair Mike Cantlay, which we have now done.

We’ll take that response, along with the content of the above statement, to indicate that SNH has NOT suspended the raven cull licence, despite this morning’s (deliberately?) misleading headline suggesting that SNH is having a ‘rethink’.

Please keep writing to SNH Chair Mike Cantlay (chair@snh.gov.uk) and please keep signing and sharing this petition (here).

This is a long way from being over.

Is the raven cull licence still active whilst SNH review takes place?

This morning The Times ran an ‘exclusive’ on the controversial raven cull licence, headlining its article with ‘RETHINK ON RAVEN CULL AFTER OUTCRY BY CONSERVATIONISTS’:

Many on social media are heralding this as a ‘win’ for conservationists, but we’re a bit more cynical. It looks to us like SNH is trying to hoodwink everyone with a bit of savvy PR.

The article in The Times focuses mostly on the email sent to SNH by Chris Packham, but provides very little detail about SNH’s planned ‘review’ by its Scientific Advisory Committee. It does, though, use the past tense when describing the cull (‘The cull, which was planned to take place over five years….’), which suggests the cull licence has been suspended while this review takes place, but doesn’t explicitly state that the licence HAS been suspended.

Now have a look at the full statement given by SNH to The Times yesterday:

A spokesperson for Scottish Natural Heritage said:

‘We need to get a balance between species –  bringing back waders from the brink, whilst still maintaining a healthy national population of ravens. 

‘Given concerns about the future for local ground nesting waders, the Strathbraan Community Collaboration for Waders (SCCW), approached us in 2017 with a request for a licence which would help us understand the decline of these important species.  SNH considered this request, following due process and have granted the licence, attaching clear conditions for SCCW to follow.

‘The information SCCW gather throughout the trial will contribute to the wider work for waders and will be made available to others who are also working to save these endangered birds to allow us all to learn and make progress in conserving some of our most threatened species.

‘SNH is confident about the rationale behind this licence.  However, in recognition of the concerns expressed, we have asked our Scientific Advisory Committee – a group of respected external experts – to review as speedily as possible how this particular case fits with the wider work on adaptive action to save waders and to report on whether the methods agreed for this trial fit with the wider body of work underway.


Does it say anything about the licence being suspended while the review takes place? No, it does not. We suspect that the licence is still active and SNH has put out this statement simply to calm the critics and pretend that it’s having a ‘rethink’.

It’s also worth noting the following in the SNH statement:

‘SNH considered this request, following due process and have granted the licence,….’

If SNH had followed due process, surely the Scientific Advisory Committee would have had sight of the licence application and been consulted BEFORE the decision to issue a licence was made, no? Well apparently not, if the Scientific Advisory Committee is only now being asked to review the licence.

What the hell? Isn’t SNH the government’s statutory scientific advisory agency?

We’ve contacted SNH this morning to ask for clarification about whether the licence has been suspended during the review. The media team didn’t know and apparently will be getting back to us.

We await the response with interest.

UPDATE 12.30hrs: The SNH media team has responded. They are unable to answer this very straightforward question and have been told to ask us to put our request in writing to Mike Cantlay: chair@snh.gov.uk

We have done this.

UPDATE 17.05hrs: SNH refuses to say whether raven cull licence has been suspended (here)

Chris Packham’s email to SNH re: raven cull licence

Further to the news that Scottish Natural Heritage has issued a multi-year licence to allow the mass culling of ravens in Highland Perthshire, ‘just to see what happens’, which prompted a surge of criticism from the Scottish Raptor Study Group (here), RSPB Scotland (here), OneKind (here), Mark Avery (here) and thousands of members of the public, Chris Packham has added his voice.

Here’s his email to Mike Cantlay, Chair of SNH:

Good morning Mr Cantlay,

I hope you are well.

I write with reference to the licensing of the raven cull. I’ll keep it short, I imagine you’ve had a fair few emails about this.

If you had asked a team of the very best PR executives to come up with a plan to incinerate the last vestiges of credibility, to banish any dwindling reserves of integrity and to destroy any remaining trust between conservationists and SNH, then it’s my bet that they would have suggested this. Top work.

As it stands the already beleaguered reputation of SNH lies in bloodied tatters, and, whilst I am not a PR person I would suggest that to reverse this ill judged and ruinous decision – as quickly as possible – would be a jolly good idea.


Chris Packham,



[Photo: RPUK]

Still no response from SNH since we blogged about this raven cull licence last Friday.

If you’d like to add your voice to those of us in opposition to the licence, please email Mike Cantlay, Chair of SNH: chair@snh.gov.uk

You can also sign this petition HERE

Grouse Moor Management Review Group: 1st meeting report

In May last year Scottish Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham announced her intention to establish a Grouse Moor Management Review Group, in response to the damning findings of the Golden Eagle Satellite Tag Review which had revealed that almost one third of satellite-tagged golden eagles had disappeared in highly suspicious circumstances on or close to intensively managed driven-grouse moors (see here).

The membership of the Grouse Moor Management Review Group was announced in November 2017 (see here) and the panel was expected to report back its findings to the Cabinet Secretary in early 2019.

The Group held its inaugural meeting on 16 January 2018 at the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Chair (Prof Alan Werritty) outlined the background and context for the Group, and the following terms of reference were agreed:

The Group will examine how to ensure that grouse moor management continues to contribute to the rural economy while being environmentally sustainable and compliant with the law. The Group will recommend options for regulation including licensing and other measures which could be put in place without new primary legislation‘.

[Photo of intensively managed driven grouse moor, Cairngorms National Park, by Ruth Tingay]

Prof Werritty noted that the Cabinet Secretary had also commissioned a socio-economic study to be undertaken in parallel with the work of the Group, with interim findings to be made available later in the year.

According to Prof Werritty’s report of this first meeting, in addition to identifying a schedule for meetings, the Group agreed the following framework:

January to July 2018: gathering evidence and identifying key issues:

  • Meeting 2. Evidence 1 (Environmental law relevant to grouse moors, current licensing systems and Codes of Practice, wildlife crime)
  • Meeting 3. Evidence 2 (Predation/raptors and mountain hares)
  • Meeting 4. Evidence 3 (Muirburn and medicated grit, call for written evidence)

September to December 2018: written and oral evidence, visit to estate(s), socio-economics:

  • Meeting 5. Written evidence reviewed and oral evidence from key stakeholders
  • Meeting 6. Visit to grouse shooting estate(s)
  • Meeting 7. Review input from socio-economic study

January to March 2019: drafting report and recommendations:

  • Meeting 8. Review evidence and initial drafting of report and recommendations
  • Meeting 9. Finalise report and recommendations

At the first meeting in January 2018, the Group heard presentations from three of the Group’s special advisors, as follows:

  • Adam Smith (GWCT): Grouse moors and their management: an introduction
  • Ben Ross (SNH): Current regulatory system governing grouse moor management
  • Des Thompson (SNH): Raptor persecution and driven grouse moors

[Photo of satellite-tagged golden eagle Fearnan, found illegally poisoned on a driven grouse moor in the Angus Glens. Image by RSPB Scotland]