Anne McCall, our Director, gives us an update on the licence Scottish Natural Heritage have issued to cull ravens.

Raven research licence: an update

Earlier this week we published this blog expressing our deep concern about SNH having granted a licence to cull ravens in the Strathbraan area of Highland Perthshire. Our unease at what we believe is a surprising decision is founded especially on the context and history surrounding the area this mass cull is to be conducted in, as well as the scientific evidence base on which it is established. Given the level of response to this issue it is clear that many others share our anxiety and have written to SNH’s Chairman, Mike Cantlay, requesting that the licence be withdrawn.

We are therefore pleased that SNH has now announced that it will be conducting a review of the proposal ‘as speedily as possible’ – as detailed in An article in the Times yesterday morning.  Specifically, they have asked their Scientific Advisory Committee (SAC) to scrutinise the cull and examine how it fits into its wider work intended to boost numbers of waders such as curlew and lapwing. Welcome news, we thought; some scientific examination of the underlying justification for this action will go some way to easing our concerns, particularly if it can consider whether what is being proposed is scientifically robust and open to scrutiny, even more so if it can recognise the worrying history of this area in relation to wildlife crime. However, there was no information on withdrawing the licence.

Pressure continued to mount yesterday, and SNH then issued a further statement in the afternoon, detailing their next steps in relation to this rather unfortunate saga. It was disappointing in that it provided very little by way of explanations and wider considerations that we view are essential – especially relating to wildlife crime, for which this very area has been identified as a hotspot in SNH’s own Commissioned Report 982 published in May 2017 Analysis of the Fate of Satellite Tracked Golden Eagles in Scotland . We believe this is a critical omission: if SNH are determined to grant a licence to undertake a raven cull in an area with a very long and difficult history of persecution it has to recognise that many interested parties will need be able to scrutinise the science, be able to see what is being done and be convinced that this work is genuinely being undertaken to assist waders – open, transparent and accountable, or not at all.

Whilst we recognise the value of requesting the SAC to consider the proposal, and of course welcome this step, we do wonder why this wasn’t done in the first place. Perhaps it is because, whilst SNH correctly assert that research tells us one of the many “important factors in (wader) declines (is)…predation”, no such research identifies ravens as the culprits. Indeed, the most recent and relevant piece of peer-reviewed science examining any such relationship between wader declines and ravens found  “no significant negative associations between raven abundance and population changes in upland waders, and so does not provide support to justify granting of licences for the lethal control of ravens in the interest of population‐level conservation of these upland wader species.” That’s pretty emphatic. Why has SNH ignored this?

This science did identify a “weak” negative relationship between the change in raven abundance and trends of curlew and lapwing, and suggested that this relationship “may warrant further investigation.” But it also emphasized – in our view quite rightly – the importance of “making a thorough evaluation of the evidence base before making decisions regarding predator control”.

In this case, it appears that SNH has done the opposite. We have yet to see anything approaching a robust scientific evidence base justifying the cull, nor have SNH allowed their SAC to consider the proposal prior to issuing a licence, instead directly proceeding to permit the killing ravens to see what happens. What’s more, from the information currently available, this cull may not take the form of a legitimate scientific experiment as currently proposed – as far as we understand there is no ‘control’ on which to monitor and properly evaluate the efficacy of this lethal act.

Considering all of the above, RSPB Scotland maintains that there is no justification for this extreme course of action, and will continue to pursue that SNH withdraw this licence. Alternatively, the option is always open for those who have sought the licence to voluntarily pause any culling in order to allow time and space for the SNH Scientific Advisory Committee to conduct a thorough and meaningful analysis. Choosing not to pause a cull in order to make sure the science is in order has to beg the question why on earth is this being done at all?

  • I live in an area where Curlew still seem relatively abundant, so it's worrying to hear of them declining very rapidly country-wide.  I certainly do not support the Raven cull, but would like to know more about what RSPB believe is the right way forward - how do you think the Curlew can best be protected and helped to recover?  

  • It is hard to credit that any supposedly science-led organisation could come up with such a ham-fisted and insensitive proposal. As someone has pointed out elsewhere, the UK's Raven breeding population is less than 5% of that of the wader species their culling is supposed to help.

    It just adds to the idea that SNH, like Natural England south of the border, has changed from being an organisation to promote and protect the Scottish natural heritage through the application of science and conservation into an organisation dedicated to protecting the hunting and shooting lobbies.

  • It is almost impossible to see as you so rightly say that there is even an iota of scientific thinking behind the proposal. What is abundantly clear is that those who will be carrying out the cull will be from an area where culls of ravens and raptors proceeded without justification in the past. What has changed is that SNH have complied with a request from an invented group whose major interest is definitely not in waders. To sink so low, one might think they were Natural England.