Duncan Orr-Ewing, RSPB Scotland's Head of Species and Land Management, sets out our response to the raven research licence that has been issued by Scottish Natural Heritage.

Concern over Raven research licence – RSPB Scotland’s response

Like so many of our supporters who have been in touch with us over the weekend, we were similarly outraged when we learned that SNH has, after some deliberation, finally decided to issue a Research Licence to local estates to cull over 60 non breeding ravens per annum over 5 years in the Strathbraan area of Perthshire. There are a number of reasons that this decision has caused us such concern, and we have written to the Chair of SNH, Mike Cantlay, and also to the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, Roseanna Cunningham MSP, to make these points clear.

We have requested that this licence be stopped from proceeding to give SNH the time to take into account the wider considerations and context set out below.

First – some of the broader background. The conservation of breeding waders is a very high priority for the work of RSPB Scotland. Sadly, some of these species, notably the curlew, redshank and the lapwing have suffered large population declines in recent years. The negative factors affecting these populations of birds are well understood, and include changes in habitat as a result of some modern farming practices; afforestation of important open landscapes; as well as increasing impacts of ground predators, especially red foxes.  It is worth noting though that every year we host more than 4,200 pairs of breeding waders on RSPB Scotland land at 27 sites, a major contribution to wading bird conservation. We also support the work of others to conserve these species on privately owned farms and crofts, and find encouraging enthusiasm from sympathetic land managers in these areas. We would like to acknowledge in particular the efforts of farmers in the Upper Clyde Valley, Strathspey and in Caithness, as well as many others who are now taking wader conservation to heart.  On our own land we employ both effective habitat management and also legal predator control where necessary to conserve these important wading bird populations, and they often occur alongside healthy breeding populations of a wide variety of protected predatory birds such as raptors and ravens. 

Now – to this research licence. In the first instance, we doubt very much that the proposal in this case has anything to do with the given reason for the research licence request – ostensibly to ‘improve understanding of factors affecting key wader species’. In light of previous loud complaints by estates in this and other grouse shooting areas about raven predation of red grouse, we and many others see this raven research proposal as simply a rather transparent mechanism whereby a perceived pest species can be removed to benefit red grouse, with the conservation of wading birds as a by-product.

We would have hoped that, on receipt of such an application, the location for the study would have set some alarm bells ringing amongst SNH staff, since this area has been clearly identified by the Scottish Government, the police and other authoritative commentators for many years as a raptor persecution “black hole”, where golden eagles and other protected raptors suspiciously disappear without trace or explanation. Indeed, most recently SNH’s own Commissioned Report 982 published in May 2017 Analysis of the Fate of Satellite Tracked Golden Eagles in Scotland clearly identified Strathbraan as one of several areas of concern across Scotland for missing golden eagles. Only last month a satellite tagged white-tailed eagle disappeared in this very location in the same circumstances to those which are identified in the above report as ‘suspicious’, and indicative of a further wildlife crime incident. Typical moorland raptor species that used to breed in the area, such as the hen harrier, have now disappeared. Red kites breed and thrive close to this area of Perthshire, they however are notoriously unsuccessful when they try to establish as breeding pairs in the central Strathbraan area, and despite birds being regularly and easily seen here. In addition, our Investigations team have also encountered a number of other confirmed and suspected raptor persecution incidents in this area recent years, all of which have been reported to the police and are documented.   It worries us a good deal that SNH apparently do not seem to have taken any of this contextual information into account as part of this licensing decision.

The link between increases in raven populations and declines in breeding wading species across the British uplands is weak. This has already been demonstrated by an authoritative study also commissioned by SNH and produced by Aberdeen University and RSPB and published in 2010. This report also recommended that robust evidence of a predatory impact of ravens on a prey species would be needed before considering any experimental studies to test the potential impacts of raven removal. As far as we know, no such evidence has been provided, and if it has, this has not been shared with stakeholders such as ourselves.

Finally, this licence seems to have been granted without enough consideration for collaboration and partnership, and with what appears to be some effort to exclude local organisations and individuals that could have provided expert advice and monitoring data to inform the decision in the first place. The Tayside members of the Scottish Raptor Study Group (SRSG), who have been monitoring ravens in Perthshire for decades, were excluded from consultation. This is reflected across other collaborative forums, where this application was only recently shared in spite of the fact that it has clearly been in development for some time with the assistance of SNH.

No one is denying that waders are experiencing complex conservation problems right now. But any help they are given to arrest their decline, especially where it might involve the lethal control of other predatory species, needs to be founded on an extremely robust evidence base before such intervention is considered. It also needs to be deliberated in the wider context of the history, especially relating to illegal persecution or justifiable suspicions, about those location where such intervention is being considered.

  • Like many others I am appalled at this blatant encouraging of the bad practices of the estates in that area. Im sure RSPB and others Will mount the strongest protest possible which should stop this travesty before the first thousand ravens are killed, nominally only to protect waders, as SNH are well aware. The government needs to sort out the hierarchy at SNH, who are clearly not doing their jobs correctly.