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 (

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:

  • How would we, either the RSPB or a member of the public, know what non-lethal measures had been carried out by a farmer and why they failed?
  • How would we know how many licences for how many birds have been issued?
  • How would we know the process by which NE decided that the granting of licences would not have a population level impact? Put more simply, how many ravens will NE allow to be culled in England, now and into the future?

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?

  • 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?