More on Leadhills Estate’s individual licence to shoot crows

Back in November 2019, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) imposed a three-year General Licence restriction on Leadhills Estate in South Lanarkshire following ‘clear evidence from Police Scotland that wildlife crimes had been committed on this estate’ (see hereherehere, here, and here).

Those alleged offences included the ‘illegal killing of a short-eared owl, two buzzards and three hen harriers’ that had been ‘shot or caught in traps’ on Leadhills Estate since 2014. SNH also claimed that ‘wild birds’ nests had also been disturbed’, although there was no further detail on this. The estate denied responsibility, obviously.

[This male hen harrier was found with its leg almost severed, caught in an illegally-set trap next to its nest on Leadhills Estate in 2019. Despite valiant efforts by a top wildlife surgeon, the bird didn’t survive. Photo by Ruth Tingay]

As regular blog readers will know, a General Licence restriction is supposed to prevent an estate from killing so-called ‘pest’ species (e.g. crows) that would otherwise be permissible under the General Licences but estates can still apply to SNH for an ‘individual licence’ to circumvent the General Licence restriction and continue killing birds, albeit with a bit more paperwork to complete.

This ridiculous situation is a legal quirk, outlined in a Judicial Review, and isn’t SNH’s fault (although SNH could be doing a lot more to point out the system failings to the Scottish Government). Basically if a penalised estate isn’t provided with an opportunity to apply for an individual licence the estate could argue the system was unfair and the legality of the General Licence restriction probably wouldn’t stand. If further wildlife crimes are discovered on the estate when an individual licence is in place, SNH can revoke the individual licence but the estate can simply reapply for another one. We’ve discussed how the General Licence restriction is a wholly ineffective deterrent plenty of times in the past, (e.g. see herehereherehere) and last year we even gave evidence to this effect alongside RSPB Scotland and others to a Scottish parliamentary committee (here).

In July this year we discovered via a freedom of information request that SNH had indeed granted an individual licence to Leadhills Estate that was valid between 27 April – 1 June 2020. It permitted the shooting of two species, hooded crow and carrion crow, in a limited part of the estate and apparently to protect lambs (see here).

One of the conditions of the licence was that the estate had to submit a return to SNH no later than 1 July 2020, documenting all shooting and scaring activities undertaken under this licence.

We wanted to see this return and we also wanted to know the details of the compliance checks undertaken by SNH. SNH has stated previously that any individual licences issued to Leadhills Estate would be ‘closely monitored’ and this ‘tighter supervision is a proportionate response to protect wild birds in the area and prevent further wildlife crime’.

Another FoI was submitted and here is SNH’s response:

It’s all very interesting, isn’t it?

But not as interesting as the fact that Police Scotland are currently investigating a number of new alleged wildlife crimes on this estate (see here) including the alleged shooting of a(nother) short-eared owl by a masked gunman on a quad bike as witnessed by a local resident and his eight year old son (see here).

The question now is, in light of these new alleged offences and the obvious conclusion that imposing a three-year General Licence restriction did not prevent further wildlife crime taking place, as SNH thought it might, will SNH now extend Leadhills Estate’s three-year General Licence restriction as its policy allows if further evidence of wildlife crime is uncovered during the original three-year restriction period, and refuse the individual licence that the estate appears to want for next spring? Is there any point to further licence restrictions? It seems pretty ineffective, to be honest.

There are another couple of questions, too, but these are for Scottish Land & Estates (SLE), the grouse shooting owners’ lobby group. We’ve been asking these questions for years but SLE hasn’t replied yet. Can’t imagine why. These are really questions that should be asked by the so-called ‘partner organisations’ that serve alongside SLE on the so-called ‘partnerships’ such as the Partnership for Action against Wildlife Crime Raptor Group with its zero tolerance for raptor persecution. Here are the questions again, for old times’ sake:

  1. Is Leadhills Estate still a member of SLE?
  2. Is Lord Hopetoun of Leadhills Estate still Chairman of SLE’s Scottish Moorland Group?


If you’re concerned about the level of illegal raptor persecution in the UK, especially the high incidence of killing that takes place on or close to driven grouse moors, you can sign this e-action which urges your politician to take note and actually do something about it.

Launched two weeks ago by three organisations: Wild Justice, the RSPB and Hen Harrier Action, so far over 86,000 people have signed up. All you need to do is enter your postcode and a polite, pre-written email will automatically be sent to your parliamentary representative asking them to stop ignoring this issue.

If you want to add your voice and give your elected politician a polite nudge, please sign up HERE and pass this link on to others.

Thank you

31 thoughts on “More on Leadhills Estate’s individual licence to shoot crows”

  1. But where is the evidence of the damage claimed to have been caused by these Carrion Crows – even when the lethal shooting was taking place as authorised under the individual licence?

    As ever, great work RP.

    1. A very good point.

      I assume the terms of the individual licence issued to Leadhills were similar to GL26 which applies to crows?

      One of the conditions of the GL is:- “Only as a last resort to prevent serious damage” – serious damage includes attacks on lambs and ewes by crows.
      However in the reply there is no quantifiable evidence provided of “serious damage” occurring other than the sweeping statement, ” Damage was therefore occurring”.- surely evidence should have been offered as to how many lambs were attacked, the extent and nature of injuries? The mere presence of crows in a field doesn’t necessarily equate to attacks on livestock.

      Equally within the conditions of the GL regarding deterrence methods it stipulates “Use a wide range of devices and methods, varying them as often as possible, and use active human scaring. “.

      From reading the response it would appear that only rope bangers were deployed in the lambing parks along with occasional presence of humans- would this be sufficient to constitute a wide range of devices or methods?

      Neither does it appear that any evidence is offered to prevent predation occurring through effective animal husbandry or reducing the attractiveness of the environment to crows by removing potential food sources. Surely this should also have been evidenced by the Estate?

      Whilst it is agreed that a mixture of deterrent methods and occasional shooting of problem birds is the most effective method of reducing and preventing “serious damage”; and farmers must be allowed to protect vulnerable livestock.
      We must not forget that it is an offence under the Countryside and Wildlife act to kill a wild bird. When a crow is shot an offence has still been committed- GL and individual licences offer a defence to this unlawful act, but surely the evidence to support this defence has to be quantifiable and testable?

      Equally, whilst it is claimed only 38 crows were shot in the lambing parks and nowhere else on the Estate, how credible is this? Can this be independently corroborated?
      ( Have I not read a report of someone on a quad, on open moors seen shooting an owl? What justification was there for being on moorland with a gun, if shooting on the Estate under the individual licence was limited to the lambing parks? Was this person trespassing with a firearm? -was this reported to Police Scotland? Is this evidence of failing to comply with the terms of the individual licence? – Bearing in mind all that has previously gone on on this Estate, I am not sure I agree with SNH statement that by issuing only an individual licence for use in the lambing fields, there was “no additional compliance risk”?? – a lot of unanswered questions!)

      If I am correct Leadhills Estate arrived at the position of losing the right to use a GL due to previous criminal activity which was successfully prosecuted- so if the usual tests of considering previous offences and character is considered, then does this make the Estate a credible witness?

      I hope SNH take this and the other information that new wildlife offences on the Estate are being investigated by Police Scotland, all into consideration before responding to Leadhills request to allow individual licences to be permitted in future years.

      Realistically the only way to deal with estates where wildlife crimes are occurring is to completely remove the right to possess firearms on any land owned or leased by the estate – which would make any form of shooting a criminal offence, as all that would be needed to prove the offence -was that a person was in possession of a firearm.
      Another benefit of this approach would also be that tenant farmers would be reluctant to lease land from rogue landowners, as there would be a risk of not being able to effectively protect livestock, which could in turn reduce the income and value of the estate?
      This would add additional pressure to landowners, to ensure their land management methods were entirely lawful?

      Hopefully that day will come?

      1. There is no restriction on shooting of non-protected mammals (Foxes, Stoats, Mink etc) which may need to be ‘dispatched’ if snared etc so that’s the ‘excuse’ for having a shotgun on the open moor

      2. “We must not forget that it is an offence under the Countryside and Wildlife act to kill a wild bird. When a crow is shot an offence has still been committed- GL and individual licences offer a defence to this unlawful act”

        That is not true, John. Section 16 Power to grant licences of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 state:

        (1)Sections 1, 5, 6(3), 7 and 8 and orders under section 3 do not apply to anything done—

        (k) for the purposes of preventing serious damage to livestock, foodstuffs for livestock, crops, vegetables, fruit, growing timber [F3, fisheries or inland waters],

        and the license granted (GL34 in England) lists crows (among others) as birds which may be ‘taken’, or their nest and eggs damaged or destroyed.

        It will be similar in Scotland. It is all part and parcel of the WCA 1981.

        1. Keith,
          I agree with what you have quoted from the legislation, but you have missed the importance sentence at the end of Sect 16(1).

          -… “if it is done under and in accordance with the terms of a licence granted by the appropriate authority”.

          Both GL26 and GL34, state on the licence, to remind those relying on the licence that-

          “This licence authorises acts that would otherwise be offences under the legislation referred to above.”

          “Failure to comply with its terms and conditions:
          i. may be an offence under the 1981 Act or mean that the licence cannot be relied upon and an
          offence could therefore be committed. The maximum penalty available for an offence under
          the 1981 Act is, at the time of the issue of this licence, an unlimited fine and/or a six month
          custodial sentence;
          ii. may result in your permission to use this licence being withdrawn. Defra will inform any person
          or organisation whose permission to use this licence is withdrawn in writing. This sanction may
          be applied to other similar licences; and
          iii. may mean you are not able to rely on this licence as a defence in respect to the prohibitions
          within the Animal Welfare Act 2006 or the Wild Mammals (Protection) Act 1996.”

          Having had it explained to me, my understanding is that a GL only offered an exemption from prosecution if the person relying on the licence fully complied with the terms and conditions of the licence, otherwise that person may have committed an offence under Sect 1 of the Countryside and Wildlife Act… even if they were acting on one of the provisions (a) to (k) listed in Sect 16.

          This was something that came out out the debate last year when Natural England temporarily withdrew the GL.
          If mistaken, I will stand corrected, but that is my understanding of the legislation.
          (Ed- are you able to clarify the position on this??)

  2. A shepherd once told me that birds such as these do not routinely harm lambs, although might take dead or sickly ones, including having a go at poorly Ewes. Just nature tidying up. Some people with a perpetual blood lust apparently need therapy.

  3. Excellent investigation, as ever. It is clear that the system of issuing GLs and SLs is not fit for purpose. However, it is the parent act which is the problem. The WCA needs to be reviewed and amended, perhaps repealed and rewritten. While campaigners acknowledge the difficulties that NE and SNH experience in administering and monitoring the licences, both organisations are curiously silent. Perhaps it is time the chairs of both organisations, using the benefit of their independent status, started to make their views public about the value or otherwise of this system.

    1. The General License is clearly a problem, together with most of the Schedules (particularly 1, part 2; 2; 3, parts 2 and 3). Not sure there is a problem with anything else in the WCA 1981?

      These were all drawn up with shooting interests at heart, both as a ‘sport/business’ and as a recourse, and are seriously out-of-date at the very least, besides pandering to an obsolete tiny minority.

  4. OK. So why can’t the Scottish farmers bring their sheep under cover at lambing time, as is done in the south. I’m sure a few galvanised barns in farmyards (even temporary ones) would mitigate a fair proportion of the sheep losses., as well as providing storage for equipment, etc.
    Before you shout at me, I do know there is quite a big difference between Highland and lowland sheep, but something along these lines is surely possible. They have to come in for shearing, so why not also for lambing?

    1. It would require a hell of a lot of barns. The EU isn’t there to pay for them. Not sure i would like to see the number of barns increase by 100 fold. In Scotland the ewes are grazing often on the hills. Don’t know the economics but presume the lambs just don’t make enough money to pay for feed at that time of year. Some years the farmers get net to nothing for lambs. They are auctioned so if no one is paying they get very little. Basically i don’t think it is feasible but correct me if i’m wrong. I live on a sheep farm.

      1. Fair enough, Anandprasad. I too used to work summers on a Welsh Farm, so I didn’t see the problems associated with Lambing on the hills. I have experience with Lowland sheep birthing. Cheers.

    2. I’m not sure that hill farming should be supported… Is it environmentally beneficial and economically viable?

  5. ‘I am having such a terrible time in this jail. The food sucks, no trifle and they don’t have Sky. No shooting allowed and no Mummy and Daddy to tuck me in and read a bed time story. All in all a really poor show. Don’t even know what i did wrong. I cry myself to sleep.’

  6. Bim Afolami is my eton bred MP. He tells me he’s in favour of driven grouse shooting and associated cruelty for the employment benefits( what a shitty way to pay yer rent!)
    He won’t enjoy my reply, much of which was based on information from this website, so thanks, really useful stuff.

  7. As noted by others above, I should like an FOI request to see the “evidence of crows causing serious damage to livestock”. It’s pretty impossible to find any online. Many farmers go to see their stock and find crows (and/or gulls) picking at a dead or dying lamb and immediately assume that the birds have killed the lamb. This is almost never the case and they are merely clearing up, as any scavenger does. I bet a whole lot of money that there is no “clear evidence”, but the word of the farmer/shepherd and some photos after the event – possibly.

    1. Andy – xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxxxxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxxxxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx. I see that the measures they allegedly took in order to get the licence in the first place ticks all the required boxes. SNH only had ‘their word’ that they had taken all non-lethal steps to prevent the ‘damage’ to their sheep. Call me cynical but…….

  8. There may well be case for killing these crows for the benefit of (tenant?) farmers during lambing, but the Estate should foot the cost to bring in bona fide external contractors auditable and answerable to SNH. The keepers guns should be idle under the restrictions, but of course they won’t be, this crow thing is clearly an loophole for keepers to go about on quads as normal xxxxx xxxxx. Plus I bet if the bloke who did the “Hanged by the feet…” ( brilliant work btw) survey was brought in he would find a few things of interest still occurring on Leadhills. I am all for funding that guy to go right around all of Scotland and north England!

  9. When the Landowners simply cock a snoot at anyone who attempts to regulate their activities it is highly surprising that their hired help do too.
    Q. : Why are taxpayers funding the SNH to provide a fig leaf for continuing wildlife crimes?
    A . : They are fatally compromised due to the huge power that out land owning system provides for these modern day Robber Barons.

  10. So a shotgun was used to attempt to scare away the Carrion crows – “But it just happened that a Short-eared owl was flying overhead when I discharged the gun officer”. I trust it was non-toxic shot discharged.
    The whole saga is an absolute p!ss take!

  11. It reminds me of the filmed “evidence” of Ravens attacking sheep and lambs, which shows no such thing. Just a few Ravens feeding in the same field as the sheep and lambs. I believe that one pecks a fly off the backside of a lamb, perhaps that’s the attack?

    Neither species seems remotely interested in each other. You would certainly expect ewes to show hostility towards species they know to be predatory. The whole of the “damage” argument, it seems to me, is based on lies and misinformation, i.e. anecdotal “evidence” and is not worth one Crow’s life.

    1. Crows will eat the afterbirth and membranes. Whether they actually attack and injure lambs is something that needs proper research

  12. As usual, the laws only lick the rich landowners instead of biting them. Add the plans to criminalise trespass to this and they will be able to continue their ecocide with impunity.

  13. Like many above, I want to see this ‘evidence’ of harm. There’s an interesting study from 1969 that was done in Australia ( where flocks were observed every day for weeks to see what exactly was going on with the crows vs lambs there. Like so many other observation exercises it was noted that, “Few healthy lambs are killed by corvids but many sick animals are finished off by them, a distinction not appreciated by most farmers. Dystocia, twin births, weakness, and desertion are the main circumstances that predispose lambs to serious attacks. Aviary experiments suggest that on the south-east mainland of Australia C. coronoides and C. tasmanicus are the only species capable of damaging lambs.”

    And then, “A change in sheep management, particularly by providing shelter for lambing flocks, will ensure a greater and more permanent improvement in lambing results than will control of corvids which at best has only a temporary effect.”

    I appreciate that hill farming is very marginal and that bringing ewes in to lamb would be difficult even if the money was there but we should remember that wonderful ‘must have’ chi-chi accoutrement of 21st century middle class gardens – the shepherd’s hut – had a real purpose back in the day. The shepherds went out to oversee the lambing. Their dogs kept the foxes away, difficult births were attended to and orphan lambs or unsuckled twins were taken into the hut and hand fed by the little wood-burning stove, out of the wind and rain.

    Like so much the countryside lobby claims, predation of lambs by crows and other predators is, if not a myth, then greatly exaggerated. Mostly the crows are cleaning up the afterbirth, the lamb’s first (nutritious to them) fecal output (euch!) or doing as their name suggests, eating the carrion of already dead (and uncared for) animals.

    1. Thank You, Oldlongdog, that is what I was groping towards, but I’d forgotten the old shepherd’s huts. which could be towed around the fields, (well, I am 72!) and saw few of them in use. Returning to the old ways would help, during lambing time, or can modern farmers not be bothered to care more for their stock?

  14. It’s time there was a rigorous publicly funded research project to determine whether attacks on lambs and birthing ewes are real and to what extent they take place. A job for SASA (Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture) perhaps?

    I guess there’s a problem as an impartial researching observer if crows/ravens/large gulls actually do start taking the eyes and tongues of lamnbs and other parts towards the rear of lambing ewes. I suppose non-intervention would be un-ethical, but surely there is a research design out there that could investigate these claims/losses.

  15. Shooting estates…

    Had your GL suspended due to your criminal activities?

    Don’t fret, there’s an easy solution…

    Simply whack a few sheep out on your land, and use their presence as an excuse for “necessary” corvid “control”!

    Works every time!

    P.S. If any member of the public started letting bangers off around pregnant ewes, “farmers” would play merry hell.

  16. Some excellent points made above….most of which should have SNH hanging their heads in shame. Sloppy couldnt care less attitude.

    No doubt they will be determined to issue a new licence next year…..but one thing is abundantly clear from the data provided, there absolutely no need for it to include hooded crow.

    1. Re-reading from the licence return….it reports that the single lambs on the hill were unprotected…..but does not report any losses or “damage”. So they cant expect a licence for the hill parks next year.

      In fact when you read closely, it reports that the limited scaring techniques were not successful in keeping the crows away 100% of the time. Thats all. It does not actually report any “damage” in the lambing parks…..simply that crows were present. So with no actual damage recorded, should they have moved from scaring to shooting?

  17. Did they test the sheep to see if they were dosed with ivermectin products? If they were this would kill the main food of the crow – Dung Beetle larva! Farming today is responsible for a massive reduction in wildlife and when a species reverts to other prey, there is a reason!

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