My passion for wildlife was stimulated in my teenage years, mainly thanks to my Mum (a biology teacher) who made me look at the world differently and being inspired by writers such as Paul Colinvaux. This early interest developed into biological research in my 20s, when I did practical conservation work in places such as the Comores and Mongolia.
Today, any free time I have I spend pottering around the flatlands of East Anglia or escaping to our hut on the Northumberland coast looking for wildlife and castles with my wife and children.
I studied Biological Sciences at Oxford and Conservation at UCL, and worked at Wildlife and Countryside Link before spending five years as Conservation Director at Plantlife.
I joined the RSPB as Head of Government Affairs in 2004, became Head of Sustainable Development in 2006, before becoming Conservation Director in 2011.
Yesterday, an article in the Sunday Times stated “Michael Gove, the environment secretary, has issued licences for farmers to shoot the birds [ravens] in Derbyshire, Lancashire, Berkshire, Wiltshire and Dorset.” This comes hot on the heels of the concern in Scotland over the research licence granted by Scottish Natural Heritage to local estates to cull over 60 non breeding ravens per annum over 5 years.
In the Sunday Times piece, a shepherd in Dorset expressed concern about the growth in the population locally, and the effect this was having on his sheep, claiming the birds last year were killing a couple of lambs a day from the 9000 sheep he tends.
The RSPB’s initial concern here is the lack of transparency in the process by which farmers are allowed to shoot ravens and what checks and balances are in place to safeguard against population level impacts on the birds.
Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com)
Ravens are undoubtedly doing well, especially in the West Country. But this is after a long period of scarcity. In Dorset towards the end of the 19th Century the species was almost extinct, driven to the edge by persistent persecution. There was a slight recovery in the first half of the 20th Century, with up to six pairs in the county, and mixed fortunes up until the late1980s (including a period in the late 70s when there were no ravens breeding in Dorset). But throughout the 1990s, the population, as elsewhere, began to recover. By the time of the 2007-11 Bird Atlas each 10km square in Dorset had possible or probably breeding pairs.
Naturally, many would celebrate such a recovery of a once scarce bird and delight in the company of such a legendary and intelligent creature. However, ravens are in part, predatory, or rather, they are great opportunists with a hugely catholic diet and will indeed, on occasion, kill lambs. The RSPB acknowledges this can be a distressing situation, and recognise that in some cases it may be necessary to issue licences to farmers to kill ravens for livestock protection.
However, our caution and concern is over how these two things, the increase in raven numbers, and the effects on sheep farming, can be managed appropriately so as to allow both to thrive.
The key to this is the licencing system operated by Natural England (NE).
This is how it should work …
...A farmer has a problem with ravens and applies for a licence for culling. Before being granted such a licence, he or she will need to have clearly stated the extent of the problem, what non-lethal measures had been tried to deal with the problem, and why these failed.
...NE will then review the application with regards to the status of the raven locally and nationally. This is a crucial step. The UK has a duty to protect wildlife and thus NE needs consider the number of licences with respect to the number of ravens to safeguard against population level impacts. If non-lethal methods have been tried and failed, and if the number of birds to be killed does not endanger the national population, a licence may be granted.
...And in this perfect scenario, we would not have any issue with the granting of such a licence. The farmer gets to deal with a local problem, and the raven population recovery is not threatened.
However, currently, the process appears far from transparent. And this is what concerns us about this case. It begs more questions than it answers:
None of this information is in the public domain.
In this darkness, as black as a raven’s plumage, how can we have confidence that these principles of wildlife licensing are applied rigorously, to protect both farmers’ interests, and ensure that the continued recovery of ravens in England will not be compromised?
Naturalist - the short answer is yes, jays and magpies (and a few other species) can be controlled under the general license - see here.
Ravens on the other hand need a specific license following the process outlined in section 4 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act including having to demonstrate they have explore all other measures, and that it had “no other satisfactory solution”.
Did the English people have chance to vote on whether or not to shoot the Ravens in this democracy of ours?
Martin Is the licence for ravens different from that for the likes of Jays, Magpies etc.
My understanding from converstions with shooters over the years is that they are allowed to kill them no mention of trying non lethal meaasures etc or individuals being given a peice of paper.
Surely a key test is whether killing a 'problem' species is the first resort or the last resort. Sadly, we have a long and inglorious tradition in the British countryside of killing wildlife as the first resort to a perceived problem - often based on superstition rather than fact, and that is not all in the past. There are big question marks over how we manage sheep in the uplands and the casual attitudes to lamb survival from the headage payment days are not all gone. But beyond that, perhaps, with the subsidies that are central, crucial and overwhelmingly important to upland farming it would perhaps be sensible for farmers to step back and think about the impact of this on public opinion - and how it may spin out when the money is divided up post Brexit.
I agree on more transparency Martin.
Trouble is there are some very vocal views from all angles that have driven public accountability 'underground' - perhaps for fear of 'trolls'? That is a great shame when there are tough complex issues to discuss in the open without 'value' judgements clouding matters often far from the desktop.
For those wanting to know if ravens attack lambs (it's not all be in the book) come to the hills for action 'red in tooth and claw' twitter.com/.../966765302229995520
best wishes, Rob
Thank you for the reply Martin. I have looked up the "The Raven" book and accept that Ravens "will indeed, on occasion, kill lambs." As you say, "it should be noted that this is the exception rather than the norm for Ravens."
I realise that this is not accepted by many gamekeepers, some sheep flock owners, the media or by NE and SNH.
Very good points Martin and all credit to the RSPBs for their patience and clear thinking on an action I find utterly disgraceful on the part of this Government. After all this time they still adopt the antideluvian and Victorian attitude towards wildlife, and that is, if it is a slightest bit of a nuisance or supposedly harming their interests in any ways all then shoot it.
I am sorry to say we get a lot of fine words from Mr Gove but he and his department’s actions are totally opposite to his words. I don’t think one can believe a word they say.
Hi Alex and thanks for the query,
There is indeed some literature that records the predation of lambs by Ravens. For example Ratcliffe D. 1997. (The Raven: A Natural History in Britain and Ireland. T & AD Poyser,
London.) relates a study undertaken, by the then Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, into reports of lamb-killing in Pembrokeshire. Further afield in Germany a study (Brehme et al. undated), considered the impacts of Raven on livestock, mainly sheep and cattle. These reports do confirm that on occasion Ravens will kill lambs, however it should be noted that this is the exception rather than the norm for Ravens.
As such, while we acknowledge that there may be occasions where the need for a licence to cull is required, we would hope that this is only ever the final option after all other mechanisms have been trialled. Our concerns are that the current system lacks the transparency and robustness to ensure that this is the case. It is our view that proper regulation and scrutiny should ensure that licences to cull any bird are only ever seen as a last resort. We hope that by calling into question the current approach, Defra and Natural England will rapidly put the necessary measures in place to ensure a robust system which only allows licences to be granted or refused on the basis of proper evidence of damage, and where all other measures have been exhausted.
Is it really lambs some of these farmers are seeking to protect? How many of them also happen to be raising pheasants?
I would like to see evidence that Ravens "will indeed, on occasion, kill lambs." I'm sure that Ravens do attack dead and dying lambs, but where in the literature is killing healthy lambs recognised as a fact?
Fighting to protect such birds is exactly what the RSPB was set up to do.