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?
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.
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