Raven cull licence: scientific rigour ‘completely inadequate’ says SNH’s Scientific Advisory Committee

There’s some welcome news this morning as Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) has been forced to admit its Strathbraan raven cull licence was ‘completely inadequate’ following a review by its own Scientific Advisory Committee.

[Raven photo by Dieter Schaeffer]

This controversial ‘research’ licence was issued earlier this spring to a bunch of predator-hating gamekeepers, on the pretence of ‘studying’ the impact of raven predation on wader populations. SNH argued that it was permitting the mass killing of ravens on the basis of ‘seeing what happens’ but this decision was widely condemned as having no scientific justification whatsoever. Many believed the licence had nothing to do with ‘protecting’ waders but everything to do with protecting red grouse stocks for the shooting season, especially as the cull area is dominated by driven grouse moors.

[Photos of Strathbraan, the heart of the raven cull area, taken in June 2018, by Ruth Tingay]

In the face of huge public anger (over 175,000 signatures on this petition) and criticism from various conservation organisations including the RSPB (here) and politicians (herehere, here), SNH asked its Scientific Advisory Committee to review the scientific justification of this licence. SNH was asked to suspend or revoke the licence while the review was underway but it refused to do so, and after several weeks of SNH consistently ducking and dodging legitimate questions, the Scottish Raptor Study Group was left with no option but to take the unprecedented step of launching a legal challenge in the form of a Judicial Review (see here) after a highly successful crowdfunding campaign helped raise sufficient funds.

This morning, SNH has published its Scientific Advisory Committee’s review (see link below) and has released an accompanying press release:

Update on Strathbraan licence to cull ravens

A report into Strathbraan Community work to support wader populations has been published today by Scottish Natural Heritage’s Scientific Advisory Committee.

Earlier this year, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) issued a licence to the Strathbraan Community Collaboration for Waders (SCCW) to control ravens in order to reduce impacts on nesting waders, which are in marked decline nationally.

Following concerns, SNH commissioned its Scientific Advisory Committee to review the methodology of the study. The Committee has found it to be inadequate to provide robust scientific conclusions and advised on ways in which the scientific rigour of the study can be improved.

SNH has agreed to ensure these terms are part of any licenced raven control going forward and the SCCW have voluntarily suspended the cull until revised monitoring arrangements are in place.

A specific Scientific Advisory Group will now be created to assist the project and will include members from the SNH Scientific Advisory Committee, the British Trust for Ornithology and the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust.

The group will advise on further methods and analytical work required including:

  • Monitoring the full range of factors which could be impacting wader bird numbers and productivity;
  • Developing the way data are collected and analysed – including using cameras to monitor nests;
  • Making sure that the work is linked to the wider conservation programme Working for Waders.

Professor Des Thompson, Principal Scientific Adviser on science and biodiversity at Scottish Natural Heritage, said:

Populations of curlew and lapwing in Scotland have more than halved over the past 20 years. We are rapidly reaching crisis point and we need to take action. After all, the Curlew is one of our most rapidly declining of all our breeding bird species in the UK.

Our Scientific Advisory Committee has provided us with a detailed assessment and very helpful pointers to further work at Strathbraan and more widely. In particular, the Committee notes that more needs to be done to understand the effects of predation by ravens and other factors in driving down wader numbers.

We need to learn from this trial, and the experience and knowledge gained, and move on to develop advice and support for action on the ground to benefit waders.  Having a Scientific Advisory Group will be a huge help in developing the work.

SNH welcomes the decision by the Strathbraan Community Group to suspend the cull for the rest of this year.”


SNH Scientific Advisory Committee’s review of the raven cull licence can be downloaded here:

SAC Review of Strathbraan licenced raven killing trial

It’s perhaps no coincidence that SNH has published this today. Today just happens to be the deadline for SNH’s lawyers to respond to the Scottish Raptor Study Group’s application for judicial review.

We haven’t had time to read the Scientific Committee’s Review yet but we will be reading it in detail today. Here are just a few initial thoughts after reading SNH’s press release:

Gosh, who would have thought that issuing a licence to kill ravens on the basis of ‘seeing what happens’ would be considered ‘completely inadequate? Well, pretty much everybody except the so-called scientific experts at SNH, the so-called scientific experts at GWCT who designed this ‘study’, and members of the Scottish Gamekeepers Association who don’t really go in for science, just for killing stuff.

The Scientific Advisory Committee’s condemnation of this licence was fully expected. It’s good that SNH has now finally accepted this expert opinion but it could have avoided having to make this embarrassing climb down if it had consulted these experts BEFORE issuing the licence, instead of several weeks after the killing had begun. It beggars belief that the government’s statutory scientific conservation agency issued this licence based on the old wives tales spun by gamekeepers instead of seeking the opinions of well-respected professional scientists.

We note with interest that SNH will now form a specific scientific advisory group to oversee the ongoing cull, but that it will invite GWCT to serve on that group. Eh? GWCT ‘scientists’ designed this ‘completely inadequate’ study and yet they’ll now be playing a role on a scientific advisory group? That’s just plain bonkers.

We also note with interest that the Scottish Raptor Study Group remains excluded from this whole process, despite having a long-term interest and expertise in raven population monitoring in Strathbraan. Hmm.

We also note that the gamekeepers (masquerading under the name of the Strathbraan Community Collaboration for Waders) have ‘voluntarily suspended’ the cull until adequate amendments are made. That’s a very interesting move. Of course they’ve agreed to voluntarily suspend the cull – they’ve already declared the cull ‘a success’ (and thought that waving a couple of wader chicks infront of a camera was evidence of this!). By ‘voluntarily’ suspending the killing the group probably seeks to portray itself as being cooperatively concerned – the question remains, however, why didn’t SNH formally revoke the licence after its own Scientific Advisory Committee pronounced the scientific justification for this licence as being ‘completely inadequate’?

It’s important to note here that although the gamekeepers have voluntarily suspended the cull, the licence itself is still legally active until 31 December 2018 because SNH has still not revoked it. This means that the gamekeepers could continue with their raven cull at any time (because a voluntary suspension is not legally enforceable) and none of us would be any the wiser.

So, where does this leave the application for a judicial review? No doubt the Scottish Raptor Study Group will be taking further legal advice in light of today’s announcement. It could be argued that the Scientific Advisory Committee’s findings completely vindicate the legal challenge, and this should be seen as a significant ‘win’. However, the legal challenge involved several areas of concern, not least the total exclusion of the Scottish Raptor Study Group in the decision-making process, and that issue does not appear to have been resolved by today’s announcement.

Watch this space.

To read all our previous blogs about the raven cull licence please click here

UPDATE 13.40hrs: Voluntary suspension of raven cull is meaningless greenwash (here)

21 thoughts on “Raven cull licence: scientific rigour ‘completely inadequate’ says SNH’s Scientific Advisory Committee”

  1. Good news. But they are still wriggling and squirming, aren’t they? This is no way for an accountable public body to behave. My strong instinct, and I hope the SRSG lawyers agree with this, is that we should press on with the JR. At its simplest, the licence was unlawfully granted and has not been revoked. If SNH still can’t see their proper course of action even now, that just strengthens the case for reminding them that they, too, are subject to the law.

    1. Indeed, Alan.

      It would appear that although the cull itself has been ‘voluntarily suspended’ (by the gamekeepers, therefore the ‘suspension’ has no legal enforcement), the actual licence itself has not been suspended or revoked despite the utter condemnation of its methods by the scientific advisory committee.

      What this means is that the gamekeeprs could restart their cull at any time if they felt like it (because the licence is still legally active until 31 December 2018) and none of us would be any the wiser.

  2. If statutory social work had behaved as SNH have three would be an inquiry and someone would be held accountable. It’s absolutely scandalous how they have conducted themselves. They have to be held accountable for this nonsensical cull!

  3. Some progress then, but somewhat too late for all those poor birds kil!ed in the interim. Ban killing for fun…just bloody ban it and watch Nature take over .

  4. I doubt any of the gamekeepers involved have suspended any killing at all. xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxx xxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx

    Is there to be any independent monitoring of this situation (of course not)?

    [Ed: Thanks Accidental Activist, part of your comment has been deleted as potentially libellous]

  5. Firstly, a big thanks to those who have challenged this monstrous decision, especially of course this site, and have embarrassed those justifying it into what unfortunately seems like a temporary climb down. Reading between the lines it seems to say, back to the drawing board to see if we can come up with a more cunning specious justification for this, one more difficult to challenge. The GCWT have lost what little credibility they had and SNH, at least at the higher levels look shabby.

    I like the bluntness of this article – “This controversial ‘research’ licence was issued earlier this spring to a bunch of predator-hating gamekeepers” – it’s appropriate. Informed people know that this was nothing whatsoever to do with protecting waders and everything to do with protecting driven grouse shooting. Unfortunately with all such specious justifications and sophistry, we’ll never get to the bottom of why SNH accepted this plan. It seems like many such decisions, that behind the scenes, someone or some very influential people had spoken to other very influential people, and a plan was hatched to try and hoodwink the public.

  6. SNH not to be trusted. An organisation that can be be taken over by the killing orgs. has failed in its responsibility for in house scientific scrutiny. No longer fit for purpose because of the “too close allegiance” to the killing industry.

    For many years I have thought the GWCT should really be called the Game Conservation and Killing Wildlife Trust. A doctrine that its members fully agree with.


  7. Some very interesting pointers. I’m personally troubled by the inclusion of GWCT and not SRSG and the continued refusal to revoke the licence. And I did note the words “move on” too. Haven’t we heard them already this week?
    Beyond that, no further words while everyone takes stock and I await the next news and what your lawyers say.

  8. Your sarcasm can undoubtedly be excused. As one of the 175000 it is no surprise that scientists are not prepared to back the “see what happens” cull. Well done to all who have taken action. Let’s see where it goes from here. Back down? Courts say they can not take action against the authority of the SNH who can do as they like? Court says think again? I’m as impatient as anyone.

  9. “It’s perhaps no coincidence that SNH has published this today. Today just happens to be the deadline for SNH’s lawyers to respond to the Scottish Raptor Study Group’s application for judicial review.”

    I suspect that the threat of a judicial review has rather a lot to do with today’s announcement. SNH (and probably others in Holyrood who are cannot be seen as champions in the battle against raptor persecution) may well prefer the option of an embarrassing climb down rather than see internal activities exposed to the public eye.

    I hope that the judicial review proceeds in order to throw some light in dark and murky corners.

  10. The key point that SNH have to answer is: how do ravens select curlew and lapwing chicks in preference to red grouse chicks? As the obscenely high numbers of red grouse being reared on these same grounds continue to grow, whilst the numbers of curlew, lapwing, golden plover etc are declining, surely the study should be into the impact of over-population of the red grouse on wader breeding success?

    1. An excellent point, which supports those who believe that the whole licence application charade was to protect grouse, not waders.

      Whilst SNH is getting a much deserved pasting over this issue, I don’t think that the GWCT comes out of it smelling of roses either.

  11. “will include members from the SNH Scientific Advisory Committee, the British Trust for Ornithology and the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust.”

    Hmm, that implies that BTO and GWCT are there to provide ‘balance’ as opposing viewpoints. GWCT’s existence as a scientific false flag operation for the shooting industry surely preculdes them from having an involvement

  12. All the comment and support is good to see. But accusations are not going to get this resolved. This Cull is the result of a carefully thought out conspiracy, by some people in public office and those with shooting interests to cull Ravens to protect game birds.
    This a very serious matter. The only way forward is to continue to press for a Judicial Review
    Gerald Hayward

  13. It is long overdue for our MSPs to wake up and fully investigate what SNH, Marine Scotland and other Government departments have been doing for the last few years. We elect politicians to police and direct these public employees on our behalf. Instead we have cull crazy civil servants listening to the nonsense spouted by tax avoiding land owners, foreign fish farming companies and others who don’t give a damn for our environment and our wildlife apart from the profits they can make by exploiting it.

    1. When wrote to my MSP she declined to take action as it was an operational matter for SNH. However, she did note that she would be watching the outcome of the Scientific Advisory Committee review. Well now its out, and it says that SNH is incompetent, I might just ask her to revisit her position. More of the pension going on postage….

  14. If the judicial review sheds light on the means by which the SNH were persuaded to debase themselves by backing this cull, what pressure/influence was brought to bear (if any), who authorised it and what procedures (if any) were ignored/circumvented in so doing then it will be money well spent. Until we know the answers to questions like this then it’s unfinished business as far as I’m concerned.

  15. Personally I would have great difficulty in trusting SNH under their current executive, but I sincerely hope that the scientific review recommends total protection for Ravens, and that this is adopted by the Scottish Government at least. I don’t think I know a single birdwatcher or ornithologist who doesn’t love Ravens, and I have become extremely fond of them since they began recolonising former territories in Clyde, from which they were virtually wiped out by gamekeepers and hill sheep farmers long before 1960. However love doesn’t win the debate, only robust science will do so.

    A single nesting pair of Ravens returned to Renfrewshire in 1987, and the species spectacularly recovered from 1994 onwards, resulting in up to 13 breeding pairs, most of them nesting in electricity towers. We now also have several breeding pairs in urban locations, including major towns like Paisley, Motherwell and at least two regular nest sites within the City of Glasgow. Subsequently, flocks of immature non-breeding Ravens built up to a maximum roost count of 113 in Renfrewshire. The increase was widespread throughout the Clyde Region.

    I won’t repeat too many details of my intensive studies of Ravens associating with lambing ewes on in bye fields in spring, but will say that the observations revealed that Ravens very rarely kill lambs, if at all. In truth, I did not observe any Raven attacking any lambs or full-grown ewes (with one exception described below), in seven years of observing what was actually happening, more carefully than any local hill shepherd has ever done to my knowledge. I was recording up to 50 Ravens at a time in contiguous sets of three or four fields, and I did speak to a number of farmers and shepherds, asking if they were removing any carcasses from the fields before I arrived in the morning. The usual response I got (apart from “lazy bugger!”) was “well, it’s not been a bad year this year, y’ken”, the same answer usually being repeated every year. The less usual response included a case of one individual farmer telling me two years in a row that he had lost exactly 100 lambs to “foxes and crows”. I confess I felt I had to exclude his (and other shepherds’) rather wild claims from my data, especially as I hadn’t seen a single lamb carcass in his fields either year! Other than those which had apparently died of other natural causes, of course, usually overnight heavy snow, severe frost or during birthing.

    The usual story from farmers and often quoted by “genuine country folks and true conservationists” egged on by the Countryside Alliance and other anti-science or received wisdom believers, is that Ravens and crows often kill the first-born lamb while the mother is giving birth to the second lamb. I have seen no evidence of this. Neither did I find any evidence of Ravens pecking out lambs’ tongues or eyes, except if they were already dead or profoundly moribund. The only actual case of a live and apparently healthy ewe being attacked was when a pregnant “cowpit yow” was firmly stuck on its back, and two Ravens were pecking at its teets. Admittedly a grueling site, and apologies to anyone squeamish. I did inform the farmer, but his answer was to rather casually slit the animal’s throat with a large knife, and hide it from roadside view behind a drystane dyke. A flock of 36 Ravens feasted on it the following day, completely stripping the carcass of flesh in only 24 hours!

    There are very obvious signs (to experienced ornithologists, naturalists or ecologists) of the more likely reasons for the decline of breeding waders nationally. In effect, the current law allowing licensed culling of Ravens is fundamentally flawed, based on widespread traditional hearsay and auld wive’s tales, rather than scientific research. That science which does exist on the matter appears to have been ignored by the initial legislators, and dare one say it regarding the impact on sheep farming, the RSPB in its earlier days? I would like to see my research (which I would not claim to be original) repeated on a wider scale, by acknowledged academic and practical field scientists. We can only hope (or insist?) that a review recommends separating the fundamental truth from traditional anecdotal reports. This research should be commissioned to honest and widely trusted scientists, not to the apparent friends of game shooters in certain fake “conservation” bodies and trusts with a prime interest in killing any species that are poorly conceived threats to their so-called sport. I suspect most who read this blog will know exactly the organisations to which I refer.

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