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)

43 thoughts on “Raven cull licence: SGA evasive on benefits to grouse moors”

  1. Personally, I dont give a fig, whatever justification anyone may make for this hideous proposal…I dont want a single Raven killed…this the 21st century for god’s sake. This kind of intervention in the natural world has to end……

    1. Good point, listening to their so called justifications just gives them oxygen ,its about time we called them out for what they are a bunch of outdated killers and subsidy junkies. If any business model ,be it shooting or farming relies on killing wildlife it is a flawed one and should be amended or abandoned.

  2. Have’t listened yet, but that sounds like a car crash, even allowing for the interviewer being an acknowleged shooter (See Out of Doors past).

    Do they really think p[eople are stupid?

    “How do we get a way of reducing Ravens?” “Let’s make it about the waders”

    Also, interesting how the debate on the OOD Facebook page became dominated with lamb predation, including the ‘pecking out new born tongues and eyes’ and one video of a lamb that had been pecked at the back end.

    1. That’s fairly standard of their tactics. Due to their lack of any real argument they go down the deflection route and ignore the real issue. The NFU are doing exactly the same with the badger cull. They claim its to help hedghogs and ground nesting birds.

      They must all think we’re stupid.

      Problem is while there’s financial vested interests involved the licensing authorities just cave in or are simply paid off (allegedly).

      1. ALEX HOGG. Chairman of the Scottish Gamekeepers Association ….. and Clown of the Month.

        It would appear that the SGA have a man who does not even understand what differentiates science from anecdotal accounts by those who have a financial interest in the outcome of research.
        Alex Hogg states,
        ” The combined field knowledge of farmers and gamekeepers, gleaned over centuries, is no less valid than other science on this issue.”

        75 per cent of the people who were convicted of bird of prey persecution between 1996 and 2008 were employed as gamekeepers.

        The lunatics are helping to run the Asylum.

    2. i9 read an article about lambs being predated and it was saying its usually lambs born that are weak and then on the hills with little shelter. they are sick and or dead and so are taken by birds of prey, badgers and foxes. so its bad animal husbandry surely.

      1. It is difficult to tell the difference between a lamb that died naturally and is being scavenged by ravens and one that a raven killed.

  3. This hole just gets deeper. We may not be able to see the senior SNH people at the bottom at this rate. I know RPUK are helping but the idiots in charge of this can’t but help themselves to dig deeper.
    Many thanks for keeping up the pressure.

  4. Ravens, Grouse, Predation and Disease.

    The demonisation of ravens seems to have started around three years ago with three aims in focus ;
    A) to help sheep farmers gain compensation following the same deceptions they
    practised re inflated and generally false claims that sea eagles preyed in healthy lambs
    B) to boost grouse numbers by less raven predation on chicks
    C) to help close the divide between tennant farmers and landowners which has always been problematic due to exploitation of farmers by the land interests.

    The RSPB made a serious mistake at the time by accepting that sea eagles did prey on healthy lambs and not just creatures which were already dead, in poor health or seriously underweight, as research indicates. This decision by the RSPB appeared a sop to impoverished hill sheep farmers to maintain and reinforce good relations but has seriously backfired.

    Click to access 370finalreport.pdf

    Click to access 0014566.pdf

    extract ;
    “However most carcasses show evidence of scavenging. There was circumstantial evidence that many of the lambs killed were not viable because, compared with live lambs they were small for their age and similar to lambs lying dead on the hill from other causes. The larger lambs that were killed could have
    been viable but also could have been predisposed to predation by disease. (predominantly tick borne disease)”

    1. Nail on head George. They are really pushing the sea eagle line as well, just keep milking public sympathy and subsidy.

    2. Good post, George.

      Might I add that contract farmers are deemed as NOT being the farmers even although they may work and live on a farm. They are in contract with the estates who ARE deemed as being the farmer (so the estate receives the subsidy).

    3. Actually, George, maybe this was part of the campaign you mention. Two years ago, a campaign group called Calling for Raven Control set up a petition calling for Ravens to be added to the general license. If you look up Calling for Raven Control you’ll get quite a lot of hits but I know of more articles than shown. There was considerable national coverage across mainstream and specialist media. The membership of this group is unclear to me but some clever person might be able to find out more. Anyway, despite the successful media campaign, the petition only obtained 3406 signatures. One article claimed that the 1700 signatures at that time were mainly farmers, Gamekeepers etc. Here’s a link to the petition.


    1. Pretty certain that crows were killed. This brings in the point what are the dynamics between ravens and crows, would fewer ravens mean more crows? And of course what would happen if there were as many eagles as there should be in North Perthshire, that’s what this trial should be about watching what happens when illegal persecution stops.

      1. I worry that we might fall into a trap if we don’t wake up to the truth about crows in relation to sheep farming. During my 7-year study of Raven flocks attending lambing fields, I was interested in Carrion Crows which were also present throughout almost all of my observations. Like the Ravens, the crows were never seen to attack healthy lambs. Attendant foxes were fewer in number, but not once did I observe a fox to show any interest in doing so either. In my 50+ years of intensive walking and birdwatching in the local countryside, I have never witnessed any attempt by a crow to predate a healthy lamb. Like the Ravens and the foxes, they are merely scavenging dead or moribund animals, and their prime interest during the lambing season is to clean up afterbirths and other birthing material which is freely available. All the so-called evidence produced by farmers that purports to prove that these scavengers actually kill healthy lambs ties in with my observations that they rarely, if ever, do anything other than scavenge dead or moribund livestock. It is normal for Ravens and crows to commence feeding with the soft parts, hence the horror stories about eyes and tongues being pecked out. Published research on Hooded Crows and foxes in Argyll came to an identical conclusion to my own.

        1. Thanks, I think the whole thing is a load of crap too – my point is that if they are also killing crows, legally, to protect ground nesting birds (in effect just the grouse) then they need to acknowledge that raven numbers might (probably?) depress crow numbers – so even by their own baseless arguments a raven cull would not be a wholly positive thing, if they are moaning that crows are munching on wader eggs/chicks then shouldn’t they be interested in how ravens affect crows? Likewise what would happen to raven numbers and behaviour if eagles were allowed back on the hills? The closer we move towards the natural predator assemblage we would have had for the ecosystem the weaker and weaker any argument for predator ‘control’ gets. I said on the Angus Glens Moorland Group fb page that it would be better to see what happens after birds of prey are allowed back rather than kill ravens. Of course they are trying to push the whole thing in the entirely opposite direction.

          1. That’s very odd, anandprasad, because although I have occasionally witnessed crows and Ravens doing so with very sickly or moribund lambs, out of approximately 600 births observed during my 7-year study, I never once saw this happening to an otherwise healthy lamb. Also, I have spoken extensively to around a dozen sheep farmers in my study area, and none of them ever mentioned nursing lambs with no tongues. One actually admitted that if he found a sickly lamb without a tongue, he simply slaughtered it, by cutting its throat! I’d be interested to know the percentage of tongue-less lambs which are affected in the farm you mention. If you live there, do you have any evidence of what species is pecking out the tongues? I assume you’re implying either Raven or crow.

            1. Iain, i’m not implying anything just stating facts. It could be Great Black-backed Gulls.
              I will ask to get an idea of figures. I don’t think the farmer has actually seen the species involved but i think he blames Hooded Crows but again i will ask for clarification. These kind of lambs go for virtually nothing at auction (as little as £1). There are sure to be some which die unnoticed from pecked tongues as they can’t suckle so would die of cold very quickly.
              I am not saying this as a reason to cull anything. I think we should live with nature not the other way around.

              1. Thanks anandprasad, I’d certainly be interested in any information you can provide, although to be totally honest this sounds like the kind of tall tale I’ve come to expect from shepherds and hill farmers. However as you live on the farm in question, and if you have personally witnessed the tongue-less lambs, I will believe you that they do exist. Whether they were de-tongued by Hooded Crows or Ravens I’d say is seriously open to question. If true, it must be extremely rare, as I’ve never heard of anyone witnessing such an event, and unless my memory is fading, such behaviour was not mentioned in Ratcliffe’s monograph, apart perhaps to report it as unproven anecdote. I’d also say Great Black-backed Gull is an unlikely candidate. There is a small Great Black-back colony inland within my harrier study area, and I have frequently watched them from vantage points as they foraged across the moors, as well as feeding their chicks at the colony. They certainly do scavenge dead livestock, usually sheep, but apart from that the only prey I’ve seen them catching is common frogs! I have never, in 15 years of intensive monitoring, seen any Great Black-backed Gull attack a lamb. Large numbers of transient Lesser Black-backed Gulls forage over the heather moorland for a week or two in midsummer, but they’re feeding almost exclusively on northern eggar moths following the main hatch.

              1. Just seen this question after adding my comment above. The answer is certainly not! You seem to have misunderstood my grammar. I should probably have worded it “As you live there…”.

            2. Just spoke to the farmer’s wife. It varies from year to year. None this year so far. She can’t be exact but some years it can be two or three. The ones which he nurses are the ones which have only had the very tip of the tongue pecked. The others have to be slaughtered as they can’t be bottle fed.
              If a ewe has twins the first lamb is vulnerable whilst the second lamb is being born, in the time it takes to get up and have its first feed.

              1. anandprasad, on what evidence do you base your last sentence? If you have personally witnessed it I’ll be gobsmacked! As I stated earlier, during my 7-year study I witnessed about 600 births with Ravens in attendance (average about 40, max 113 birds). The majority of lambs born were twins, and not once did I observe anything remotely resembling any being attacked as you describe. In fact I came to think of Ravens as behaving like midwives, because when a ewe went into labour, anything between one and half a dozen Ravens would patiently wait beside her for the lambs to be born (sometimes half an hour or more), before cleaning up not only any afterbirth, etc from the grass, but also tenderly picking material from the ewe’s back end, while the ewe would normally stand still showing no concern or alarm. Every shepherd and farmer I told this to refused to believe me, so as they’ve never apparently witnessed this themselves, that suggests they don’t really know what actually goes on during the birth of the lambs with ravens or crows (or foxes) in attendance. I’ve yet to see a shepherd watching from their quadbike or land rover through a telescope!

                1. Iain, i wrote
                  ‘If a ewe has twins the first lamb is vulnerable whilst the second lamb is being born, in the time it takes to get up and have its first feed.’
                  I didn’t say more than that, i didn’t say anything about it being attacked. The first lamb is vulnerable that is a fact, the ewe can’t protect the first lamb. What happens as a result of that vulnerability is debatable.
                  This aspect of vulnerability was pointed out to me by the farmer’s wife but it just a fact. If i approach a lamb the ewe will come to defend the lamb. If she is giving birth she can’t.
                  I have seen Hooded Crows hassling a Golden Eagle on the ground, with one pulling at the tail whilst others distract it. I have no doubt that they must do the same to sick or vulnerable lambs. The question is how often and whether farmers can either lessen it or learn to live with it.

                  1. Hi anandprasad, I’m a bit concerned that we might be debating at cross purposes here. Also, I’m not sure you’re fully aware of the depth of my research into Ravens interacting with lambing ewes. During the 7-year investigation, I observed and carefully noted these interactions on the occasion of at least 600 lambs being born with Ravens in attendance. Most ewes gave birth to twins, and while they were giving birth to the second lamb, the behaviour of the Ravens to the first lamb was highly unexpected until I eventually became used to it. Not once did I witness any Raven attempting to attack a healthy lamb, in fact quite the opposite – they would attend to the lamb, removing any birth material from the wool that the ewe had not licked off before the second lamb was being born. The Ravens did this in a delicate manner, in much the same way they would “clean up” the ewe’s back end while she stood still and allowed them to get on with it. I see no reason why the BBC Natural History Unit could not set up to film this remarkable behaviour.

      2. If I recall correctly, Otterburn was a project to see if Songbird numbers could be increased by changing farming practices and removing predators, it was a success, however the RSPB also ran a similar project without predator control which was just as successful, other projects have also been done since on smaller scale again with similar results, the running Hare is a good read if you get chance

  5. I travelled through the Lammermuirs yesterday pm on the way home from a lovely walk near Duns. Near Duns Saw Pair of Buzzard, Ring Ouzel, calling Green Woodpecker, Nuthatch, Great Tit, Coal Tit, Chaffinch. Needless to say around the Whiteadder Reservoir and toward Gifford nothing but barren open moorland. Nothing with wings moved other than the odd Red Grouse here and there.
    What a devasting landscape near our capital city. Not one for the tourists to see. I despair.

  6. The whole charade of current upland management seeks to hide the glaringly obvious ;
    Sheep farming & Grouse farming are totally unsustainable by any objective measure in the uplands.
    As is afforestation with exotic tree species.
    Having spent decades working there I was repeatedly urged to accept these facts by the hill farmers themselves, not that any urging was needed !
    That is why these industries have gradually stripped the hills of biodiversity & have always relied upon massive public subsidy, hidden or otherwise.
    The inevitable pressure to intensity is the only answer in their eyes until the day when subsidy is withdrawn, laws are enforced & a more enlightened age dawns in which politicians are held to account for the rural environment.

    It won’t include overgrazing & ludicrously high numbers of Grouse.
    Native woodland will be a key part of the future, but the long term nature of landscape – scale change means that we won’t be around to see it unfortunately.

    Keep up the pressure !

  7. Shouldn’t we be finding out which seniors at SNH endorsed this licence? There always appears to be this anonymity amongst these organisations where ‘collective’ decisions are being made. No one appears to be accountable. It just stinks of corruption – a statutory body tasked with preserving Scotland’s wildlife caving into the demands of farmers and gamekeepers. It’s just scandalous.

  8. Just wondering how much scientific research has been done on just what food is available for waders, both as adults and to feed chicks, in the areas of grouse moor? Does the regular burning affect worm supply, which is stated on RSPB site as one of the main foods for lapwing and curlew, and oystercatchers away from the coast?

  9. I disagree that the RSPB should have denied that WTS eagles occasionally preyed on healthy lambs if it was true. If you leave out evidenced truths you supply ammunition.
    That still does not justify killing, ‘culling’, sea eagles. That is how they were wiped out in the first place…there was no-one to speak up for them and those with vested interests in their demise had a free reign. Like everything else that has, or has also disappeared; I dont need to list them. But in the 21st century, the losses need to be mitigated by other means, or reduced by technology. There are still very few eagles, but they are growing…thankfully.
    There are not TOO many large birds, or raptors so they dont need culling. An apparent overpopulation of deer may exist & may be down to a lack of predators, and this may(?) require intervention in some places. Eagles, ravens etc have always been top of the food chain…mostly, and until we arrived with our intense farming and intolerance probably thrived along with their prey species, as a population. If we cant feed ourselves without killing wild animals we need to change the way we farm, supply food, AND, reduce the population! It’s time that insisting on smaller families is a positive discussion and not seen as some oriental inspired denial of human rights.

  10. Perhaps someone could whisper in the collective SNH lug that they should try banning driven grouse shooting. You know, “just to see what happens” to raptor populations.

  11. This has maybe been covered already but do we have scientific evidence about the Raven population in the area concerned eg from Raptor Study Group, details from BTO Atlases or the Strathbraan group? Has 300 been plucked from the air or is it similar to Mountain Hares’ numbers – “we have far too many therefore we need to cull them”. Also a healthy Eagle population would control Raven numbers naturally. A healthy eco-system needs apex predators.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: