Killing jackdaws in Strathbraan: another SNH licensing fiasco?

Just before Christmas we wrote a blog about a hilarious GWCT video in which Scottish gamekeeper Ronnie Kippen (of Garrows Estate, Strathbraan) claimed, with a straight face, that “Rewilding is deadlier to a mountain hare than a 12 bore shotgun“.

Here’s the video again for those that missed it – it’s well worth a few minutes of your day:

But that ridiculous statement wasn’t the only thing to catch our attention. In this video Ronnie Kippen also let on that last year SNH had issued a licence to gamekeepers in Strathbraan to use jackdaws as decoys in Larsen traps (to attract other jackdaws that would then be killed to protect waders).

This was really interesting on a number of points, not least because this was Strathbraan, an area identified in a Government-commissioned report as a raptor persecution hotspot and also the location of the controversial raven cull in 2018 which was successfully challenged by the Scottish Raptor Study Group after it emerged the GWCT’s scientific proposal was “completely inadequate” and “seriously flawed“.

Gamekeepers are permitted to kill jackdaws under the General Licences, but this species cannot be used as a decoy bird inside a Larsen trap in Scotland – only inside crow cage traps. We wanted to know the evidential basis that SNH had used to agree to issuing this licence (i.e. what evidence was provided by the gamekeepers to SNH of the purported damage to waders by jackdaws?) so we submitted an FoI to ask for the licence application and associated documents, as well as the actual licence itself.

SNH has responded with the following letter:

Hmm. Ok, so according to this letter the decision to issue the licence was apparently based on a “site visit“. Hold that in mind and also hold in mind the statement, “We have not yet received a return for this licence“.

Now let’s look at the supporting documentation that SNH released as part of this FoI:

We don’t know who the licence applicant is because the name has been redacted so let’s just call him Mr Gammon. On 27 March 2019 Mr Gammon emailed SNH and asked for a licence. The ‘evidence’ provided by Mr Gammon appears to be that during an undisclosed meeting someone from the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) said he’d seen jackdaws predating wader eggs and Mr Gammon had agreed with him. That’s it!

Mr Gammon’s ‘evidence’ was apparently sufficient, according to this internal email between SNH’s Robbie Kernahan and an unnamed SNH employee, presumably someone in the licensing dept:

Later that day, an unidentified SNH employee sent an email to SNH licensing asking them to contact Mr Gammon to ask for a licensing application:

The next morning SNH licensing contacted Mr Gammon and asked for some basic details (note, no request for actual evidence):

A couple of days later Mr Gammon responds with the basic information requested, and a map (which has been redacted):

A couple of weeks later, SNH issued the licence to Mr Gammon. Take note that one of the licence conditions has been highlighted – Mr Gammon must submit a return within one month of the licence’s expiry date (31 July 2019):

So, according to all this documentation there was no ‘site visit’ as described in SNH’s letter to us, or if there was, SNH has forgotten to include it in this bundle of associated documents. What actually happened, according to these documents, is that Mr Gammon asked for a licence because some bloke from the BTO had once mentioned jackdaws predating waders and SNH decided to issue one without asking for any supportive evidence.

The second big issue here is that it appears Mr Gammon has breached the licence. A clear condition (#5) of the licence, as highlighted to Mr Gammon by SNH’s cover letter to him, was that ‘the licence holder must provide SNH licensing team with a return within one month of the expiry of this licence [so by 31 August 2019]. The return must summarise all works carried out under the terms of this licence. Please send this information by email’.

According to the FoI cover letter we received from SNH on 31 January 2020, ‘We have not received a return for this licence’.

We’ll be seeking further clarification on this from SNH and seeking assurances that if Mr Gammon is applying for any further licences this year that due consideration is given to this apparent breach of last year’s licence.

Watch this space.

UPDATE 12 March 2020: This morning we received an email from an SNH licensing officer which included the following:

In my letter about the Jackdaw licence dated 31 March  I include a paragraph which said that no licence return had been received.  This paragraph was included in error.  The licence return was recorded in database and the information is provided in the paragraph above. A corrected version of our response is attached.  I apologise for any confusion this has caused“.

It’s good to receive a swift response from SNH – although it still doesn’t clarify when the licence return was received, nor why a copy of the return wasn’t included in the FoI response docs. Is there a written return, as stipulated by the licence, or was the ‘return’ just a hasty phone call after the deadline?

It also doesn’t address the issue of SNH’s apparent failure to seek evidential support for the licence application. We will be following up on these points.

28 thoughts on “Killing jackdaws in Strathbraan: another SNH licensing fiasco?”

  1. how on earth can a statutory body issue this licence to preserve wild birds. worst threat to biodiversity in scotland is the very people SNH are dishing out licences to. Burning and degrading habitat and massive scale raptor persecution and the killing of hares, badgers and foxes is doing far more damage than a few Jackdaws. SNH appear either clueless or corrupt, or possibly both. they are supposed to be tasked with preserving the natural heritage of scotland – clue is in the name

    1. Definitely corrupt! [Ed: In your opinion!] Due to the number of shooting fraternity members within SNH! I know of 8 active fun shooters..They display NO remorse OR empathy for their killing sprees!

      1. TaddyOfKentoo

        Please don’t use this site to infer or accuse identifiable individuals of corruption unless you have evidence. NB: being what you call “an active fun shooter” isn’t evidence.

        Now, if you were talking about incompetence……

    2. This is what SNH (the appropriate authority) have a duty to do!

      Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, S16(1A)
      “The appropriate authority—

      (a) shall not grant a licence for any purpose mentioned in subsection (1)* (*which includes at 16(1)(c) the purpose of conserving wild birds) unless it is satisfied that, as regards that purpose, there is no other satisfactory solution”

      So, like RPUK says, where’s the evidence of the previous solutions attempted and the results of that work? Actually, what wader birds are they even trying to conserve?!

  2. What I dont understand is they say a return wasn’t made, so why does it state ” Return 53 birds caught in traps with 4 decoy birds” ?

    1. Ian, I noticed that as well. I think that there is either a mistake by SNH (quelle surprise!) and they have had a return or the licence holder was let them know that he killed 53 Jackdaws (although it says caught, I think we can safely assume they weren’t realeased) but hasn’t submitted the formal report required.

  3. What I find astonishing is how thousands of red grouse manage to survive to be shot whilst other moorland birds are being “devastated” by the depredations of Corvids. What do Red grouse know that Curlew, Golden Plover etc don’t?

  4. Didn’t SNH break their own rules by authorising the use of Jackdaws in a Larsen trap rather than a crow trap and so should take themselves to task? Of course not as they self regulate and make things up as they go along it seems.

  5. There are to my knowledge records of Jackdaws taking wader eggs ( usually Lapwing) but my experience says only when those Lapwing nests are in very short grass. So this is really a habitat problem. As to allowing the use of Jackdaws as Larsen trap decoys, on the basis of the information supplied I’d think it should have been refused. I would certainly want a much better standard of “evidence.” One wonders if they did also use crow cage traps which are very good at taking Jackdaws and if so what was the catch. The other thing missing from all of this is did the waders have a better breeding season as a result, especially given most proven ( filmed) wader egg predation elsewhere is caused by Foxes and Carrion Crows?
    No official licence return, to me means no further licences for this licensee this year at least.

  6. SNH and the shooting fraternity hiding behind the skirts of wading birds again.
    Does no-one see this for what it is.? Does this gamekeeper and his masters give a flying **** about anything other than recreational killing. This is why we drink!

  7. Classic case of ‘regulator capture’.

    Mr Gammon has a word with Robbie K and next you know a licence is getting the nod.

    Former staff of the Deer Commission…just too close to the shooting fraternity.

  8. I spend a lot of time in Glen Quaich (in the heart of the ‘Strathbraan Raven Cull Area’) and have never seen a jackdaw predate a lapwing nest. Hundreds of jackdaws are culled in the glen from crow traps each year. I have witnessed a cock pheasant killing and eating a small lapwing chick in the glen despite being mobbed by lots of adults, should we advocate the ban of releasing pheasants in wader breeding areas?

    1. YES Keith! Also saw camera trap footage of sheep trying to eat Curlew eggs in England somewhere (Mary Colwell presentation at Birdfair). I think we can also advocate the ban of releasing sheep into natural habitats/ wader breeding areas

    2. One of the moorland groups posted a video – I believe it’s been taken down now – filmed by a gamekeeper of a pheasant attacking an adder. Probably too big for it to swallow, but must have done serious damage to its head. The depredations on our wildlife from over thirty five million pheasant being released into the countryside must be bloody enormous. Of course they can deplete natural food sources because they get supplementary feeding, an option not open for most of our native predators that are being maligned as the big reason our other wildlife is in serious decline.

  9. Thanks to Keith Brockie for bringing some good information on what is happening in this area. A person who lives and works in the countryside for years and has sound knowledge of such matters.

    I am disgusted with all of this and feel that SNH are just giving in to this gamekeeper to do as he pleases under the guise of having a licence.

    1. The thing about Larsen traps is that they are portable. These devices are often used in open spaces on flight routes between woodlands and feeding areas. The users want the ‘invading’ decoy bird to be seen and heard by the target bird so open moorland or grazing areas can fit the bill.

      Of course, other bird traps could have been used without resorting to the use of Larsen traps.

    2. In my experience, which might not apply to grouse moors out of my range, I have very infrequently seen Jackdaws foraging on heather moorland. Like Keith Brockie, I have never seen a Jackdaw take any Lapwing egg or chick. Lapwings tend to nest on marginal grassland grazed by sheep or cattle. It has to be said that in a lifetime birdwatching one can’t help but notice that Lapwings have seriously declined, and this has happened in a range of habitat types (“Rewilding” herb-rich grasslands with 99% Sitka Spruce has a lot to answer). Only one field within 10km of where I live has had native deciduous trees planted, but that’s no use as far as Lapwings are concerned. I’m starting to think of “Rewilding” as “Dewilding”!

      For years I’ve anguished over seeing Jackdaws as lures, although that isn’t always the case because Jackdaws will enter of their own accord if the lure species are Rooks. In fact I despair whenever I see a Larsen trap or crow trap set out on the moors. For a while during a very good vole year, one particular trap was catching Ravens, which I admit I released. Regarding Jackdaws as “vermin” is just pure nonsense in my opinion. I see them having absolutely no impact on game birds or wader chicks, which is another silly “blast from the past” we have to endure when the wee crow is subject to cruelty and death. SNH’s part in this foolish escapade is very worrying. For some reason they give the impression that they are taking the side of the game-shooting industry, rather than those advocating the end of releasing non-native, highly damaging pheasants. I suspect that might include a bit of laziness on the part of (hopefully) a few SNH staff.

      Presumably SNH believes the old adage that Jackdaws and any other crow species are “vermin.” A highly subjective view, hardly a scientifically researched conclusion. Why do gamekeepers, and even some birdwatchers, believe (do they?) that Jackdaws and Rooks are somehow going to impact on grouse shooting or breeding waders. Is it “because they is black”? Predation by other crows, eg Carrion Crows, is purely natural and I would like to see them being afforded the same statutory protection as most birds. A fact which has not been highlighted in recent years is the sharp decline of a number of farmland birds, including Lapwings, Starlings, Carrion Crows, Rooks and Jackdaws, and other breeding waders of course. Surely it should be the case that the claims of the game-shooting industry, that raptors and crows are “vermin”, needs to be scientifically investigated.

      As an aside, a recent issue I have taken up with SNH concerns a proposed ‘control’ of Greylag Geese in fields surrounding a major Scottish Airport. The application justified the proposed control by the airport reporting to SNH that their security staff had estimated that there were “many thousands” of Greylags feeding in fields adjacent to the airport. One of the fields and part of a major river have been designated as SPA (Special Protection Area) for its winter flock of Whooper Swans, and the site has been monitored by a WeBS counter. The area is also well covered by birdwatchers, and the maximum count of Greylag Geese within a wider area (up to 5km radius) is in region of 400 Greylags, hardly “many thousands.” I’ll leave it to readers to guess which side SNH believed.

  10. Reading through the correspondence, it is not difficult to suspect “dark forces” were at work here?

    As I have stated in other blogs, my understanding is: The Countryside a Wildlife Act 1981 affords protection to all wild birds, and makes it an offence to kill any wild birds, including Jackdaws . The GL offers a statuary defence to the killing of certain species of birds only when strict criteria, which are laid out in the GL are met.

    It is interesting that in the application to use Larsen traps with Jackdaw decoy birds, the applicant doesn’t offer any direct evidence from his/her own observations that Jackdaws are causing a specific conservation problems to other wild birds in the area.
    But the application appears to be based solely on hearsay evidence of an unknown person from the BTO, named only in the correspondence as “fellow from the BTO”. So, how was it possible to check the validity of this hearsay evidence with the person who it is claimed made it?

    This hearsay evidence in itself is somewhat dubious, in that it specifically mentions Jackdaws as the bird predating “wader eggs”, but doesn’t identify the species of wader whose eggs are being predated?
    Now, I may be mistaken but members of the BTO are deemed experts in birds, and as such I would have expected that if this hearsay evidence was correct, then surely the “fellow from the BTO” would have been able to identify the species of wader whose eggs were being predated? So why wasn’t this included in the application?
    Or were the hearsay comments being offered in the application misinterpreted by the applicant or actually never made?
    For this reason hearsay is usually inadmissible as evidence in a court?

    Surely, when Parliament agreed to the terms of the GL, it was not Parliaments intention to undermine the importance of the Countryside and Wildlife Act by simply allowing the defence offered by the GL to be based solely on the hearsay evidence of an unidentified 3rd party?

    It is therefore surprising that the SNH have permitted the use of Larsen traps in these circumstances based on such unsound evidence.

    I may be cynical, but could it be that the applicant really has a problem with Jackdaws predating on the eggs of ground nesting game birds; and that this is preventing an abundance of game birds for shooting purposes? As these game birds are specifically being reared to be killed, and not for conservation purposes, then it makes it rather difficult to apply for a licence to deploy Larsen traps using a decoy bird not allowed under the terms of the GL?

    It will be interesting to see how this develops?

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