Some thoughts on SNH and the Strathbraan raven licence

I don’t normally post about controversial or political subjects on this blog. Firstly, because it is a blog about celebrating and appreciating our natural world; secondly, because my PhD is controversial and political enough. I study the conflict between grouse shooting interests and raptor conservation interests in Scotland – at best, a highly charged, heavily political subject. And, just like any scientist, I have to remain objective about what I see and hear. I can have my own personal opinions (of which I am always open and honest about with the stakeholders I work with) but it is not my job to say what is right or wrong. I simply study the narratives of, and the relationships between, the people involved.

I do this to present different voices, and highlight the variety of issues and arguments that are entangled with the high-profile dispute over raptor persecution. And I do this in the hopes that someone in power will listen, and realise that it is not as simple as passing a law, or throwing out a technical solution (like a predator cull) out there to placate the argument of one party. But, something has happened that I felt I couldn’t ignore. And having worked in this field for close to four years now, with papers due to be published, I feel comfortable enough that I have gained the knowledge to comment on it.

I am, of course, talking about the licence that Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) have issued to a group in highland Perthshire, which allows the cull of 300 ravens over a 5-year period. This announcement sent shockwaves through the conservation community, and sparked feelings of anger, sadness, and outrage. As a conservationist myself, I also felt surprise and confusion, and my first thought was “Why?!” It seemed completely out-of-the-blue. And, over a week down the line, there are still a tonne of questions up in the air. The only information we have to go off is a very feeble statement from SNH, and some very well-informed blog posts (which weirdly, have more info than the SNH one). So, I wanted to do some investigating, to try and answer some of the questions I (and I’m sure many others) have about this new license. I felt by now, with the understanding I’ve built over the years, I was in a good position to do so.

Before we get started, I’d just like to make my stance clear: I am not saying the beliefs and values of one party or another is wrong, and I am not angry about them. I am frustrated with SNH for several reasons, of which I will explain in this blog. And I write this in the hope that someone in that position of power listens, and learns.

Where has the raven license come from?

This was the first question that sprung to my mind when I learnt of the raven cull. It seemed to me like the licence had come out of nowhere, and slapped us in the face with the same surprise element as a football kicked by an errant teenager. None of us were expecting it, and it stung a little, too. Of course, there has always been discussion about predation – one of the main arguments of those with grouse-shooting interests is that they strongly believe the numbers of predators, such as ravens, to be on the rise, and that they are concerned this is impacting upland wading birds. We are all agreed wading birds are in decline, but there is disagreement over whether predation is actually to blame. And there has always been a call for a cull of ravens from certain groups. But to my knowledge, there had been no specific discussion about a trial to cull ravens. For the last four years, I’ve been in a position where I would hear that – I’ve spent much of that time travelling the country, speaking to landowners, gamekeepers, raptor monitors and members of relevant organisations. I’ve certainly heard of people wanting ravens to be added to the general licence (at the moment, you have to apply to get a licence to kill ravens, and you may only receive one under very specific circumstances – adding them to the general licence would mean it is easier to control them on an annual basis, like foxes and crows).

I’d never heard discussions that this might happen, and of a licence being granted on this scale, however. And it seems like many others felt the same – RSPB and the Scottish Raptor Study Group (SRSG) included, which is odd, as they are normally included in decision making processes. It seems especially strange when you consider that this decision regards the killing of a protected species of raptor, which is monitored by them.

In their statement, released on April 26th, SNH state:

“Research tells us that the important factors in these declines are loss of habitat to provide food and cover for nesting, and predation. The evidence for this was comprehensively compiled and analysed by the Understanding Predation project in 2016 and set out in their report.  While further research and studies are always welcome and will continue to inform this work, we consider that we have sufficient evidence to take practical action now and to initiate trials on the ground.”

 I will come to the ‘evidence’ later, but to my understanding, the outcome of ‘Understanding Predation’ was not a conclusion that there was sufficient evidence to initiate culls, but that there was a lack of consensus over what actually caused the decline of waders. The project aimed to review the evidence and compare local knowledge and scientific knowledge. It found that whilst there was some agreement (e.g. that waders were in decline), those who predominantly preferred local knowledge believed predation to be the cause, whilst those who preferred scientific knowledge thought habitat was the main driver. You can read the whole report here, but this is one of the concluding statements:

We should be linking robust science together with local knowledge holders from the outset, in agreeing the questions, designing the research, collecting the data and interpreting the results. Such knowledge co-production is a way of overcoming the potential biases and building new knowledge that is accepted on both sides, especially in those areas where there is disagreement. In addition to research, the divergent objectives around achieving “healthy populations” appeared at the heart of this project and will need to be discussed further to see if a common goal can be agreed and pursued.”

 

It does not refer specifically to trialling a mass cull of ravens, nor does it suggest that this is the way to go. It identifies it as a concern of some stakeholders, yes, but instead suggests we incorporate the concerns of all stakeholders involved. And this is where I take issue with SNH stating this was one of the reasons behind the raven cull, because  the licence goes against the ‘collaborative’ aspect of UP. All stakeholders should have been consulted, and it appears they were not. So then, another issue I have with SNH is that they are being misleading about where this came from.

Last week, I managed to get another part of the jigsaw while I was interviewing a keeper for my PhD. Obviously for confidentiality, I can’t state their name or where they work. But we did chat about the raven cull, and they mentioned it had been discussed at ‘Working for Waders’ last year – in fact, they were surprised I didn’t know about it already. ‘Working for Waders’ was a series of workshops that came off the back of ‘Understanding Predation’ and was meant to be the “next step”. However, some organisations chose not to be part of it – RSPB, SRSG, and both my supervisors decided not to continue, for various reasons. These included a lack of government buy-in, and adequate resources to continue collaborative work. I knew this, and I wondered if it had indeed been discussed at these sessions and, if so, whether that was the reason why it appears these bodies were not consulted.

The summary report is freely available here and if you read carefully, there are some parts that discuss the experimental cull of predator species. I’ve highlighted some bits:

e.g. pg. 20 (action/theme: large scale habitat management and predator control)

– Overarching aim(s): To develop and implement a targeted scheme for large scale habitat management and predator control for the benefit of waders and the wider environment

pg.21 (action/theme: outcome-based management)

Overarching aim(s):

–              To assess whether a predator control project designed by land managers can be effective as judged by its effect on wader populations. This would involve applying best practice in legal control of predators plus licensed control of protected predators (e.g. ravens)

–              Achieve landscape scale coordinated management of predators. Make use of the possibility that control of ravens can be licenced if certain criteria are met (i.e. testing whether raven control will provide benefits to waders needs a landscape scale approach not a field or farm scale)

Actions for Delivery:

  • Chose the right areas: where there is already a will or initiatives to collaborate and where there are waders e.g. strathspey, Caithness, Clyde Valley.

 

  • Need baseline on wader population and then monitor wader breeding success (key indicator) and quantify this to provide evidence for the effect that protected predator control is having

 

 

  • Need baseline on protected predator population (e.g. ravens) so that monitoring can be used to determine effect of quota on population viability

 

  • Need to quantify and record existing predator control effort

 

  • Devise a quota for protected predator e.g. raven.

 

  • Action needs to be long term: e.g. apply quota over 5-10 years to account for the odd year of bad weather which may make it difficult to detect the effect of the action over shorter time frames.

 

  • Continuation of licensing would be dependent on evidence for improvement in wader breeding success

And this last point, on page 19 which regards “influencing government policy”:

Actions for delivery: Consensus among the landed/gamekeepers in group that interventions to promote waders can be privately funded. They just require permissions/licenses from SNH to do so. So, will not cost Scots. Govt.

It’s important to note that these were just the summary points of discussions had at these workshops, and not real action points to be put in place. But the information points to the fact that these discussions were had. And it seems like what has happened is exactly what is stated in that paragraph I’ve highlighted on page 19 – an independent group got together, got some funding off the ground, and applied to SNH. All SNH had to do was grant the licence. I fully encourage you to read the full report here and draw your own conclusions – it’s an interesting read. I just wonder why SNH didn’t refer to it in their statement, and I am frustrated they are referencing another report incorrectly.

The evidence

Now, as I mentioned earlier, my problems are not with the fact that this group applied. As it states on the SNH website, you can apply for a license to cull ravens on your land if you can supply sufficient evidence they are causing serious damage to livestock. But, this is a licence to cull ravens on a large scale, for a longer time period, and for experimental purposes. There has not been sufficient evidence, to my knowledge, to suggest that ravens are damaging wading bird populations enough to justify granting a license of this magnitude, without any prior, fully collaborative discussion.

So, on what grounds have SNH granted this licence? They state that “…we consider that we have sufficient evidence to take practical action now and to initiate trails on the ground” but…what is this evidence? Where has it come from? It certainly did not, as they say, come from Understanding Predation, which in fact says:

Raven and Buzzard were more controversial, partly due to a lack of scientific evidence to measure the extent of their impact on ground-nesting birds and partly because of their protected status. Ravens were considered to be a significant predator of ground-nesting birds but their nomadic behaviour and variations in population size across Scotland made it challenging to accurately assess their impact.”

Indeed, there are few papers that look specifically at the impacts of ravens on wading birds. There is Amar et al., 2010, who investigated the associations between wading birds and ravens in the uplands. They conclude that:

“Our study 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. However, the near significant negative associations with lapwing and curlew merit further investigation. This study emphasizes the importance of making a thorough evaluation of the evidence base before making decisions regarding predator control.”

The other paper that is cited frequently in these kind of discussions is Fletcher et al., (2010), who conclude that the abundance of golden plover, red grouse, curlew and meadow pipit increased when predator control was applied. But, this is not a specific study aimed at looking at the impacts of ravens specifically. Predator control is already carried out on moors, and we know that it can help some ground nesting birds. So again, it doesn’t really justify the mass cull of a protected species.

I do know that many gamekeepers strongly believe that ravens are a problem, and are impacting wading birds, and they feel great frustration that science is needed to justify this. And I do feel it is important to acknowledge that this may be the case; they work that land every day, and we can’t deny that they probably know the wildlife on that specific patch better than any of us. So it would be wrong to say this is incorrect straight off the bat. But I always explain to the keepers I speak to, we all need to respect all types of knowledge – that includes local knowledge, and scientific. And that is why we need not only experiential proof, but also scientific proof, before we allow a species to be killed not just on a small scale, but on a large scale. This was the basis behind UP, which as I’ve already said, concluded the evidence was undecided. So again, I ask the question – if the evidence still does not reach consensus, and the collaborative efforts with this very aim could not find sufficient evidence (even including all knowledge types)…why has this license been okayed? Where is the justification? Why has this not been clearly stated, instead of a couple of very vague sentences?

This leads me onto my next questions…

Who is going to monitor and assess this experiment?

As with any experiment, but especially one that involves the killing of a protected species, you need constant feedback and monitoring from independent, objective researchers and managers. To my knowledge, this role falls to the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust. My worry here is the potential for bias – true “independence” is hard to come by, but this is also an organisation who state that wildlife management is “an essential part of conservation” – which, in experiment which possibly has ravens on the general license as a potential follow-through if it proves they are predating on waders, maybe isn’t such a good idea. I don’t want to question GWCT’s credibility or integrity, but the importance of independence isn’t just for that reason – it’s also important for the level of trust others have in the experiment. For example, if this was the RSPB in this role, those with shooting interests may not necessarily trust the outcome. So it’s best to stick with a completely neutral and independent institution.

How will the cull be monitored? How will the impacts be measured?

In other words…what is the experimental design? This is something I can’t provide any insight to, but that is also my issue with this. There is no information about this whatsoever. We should be able to see the experimental design, the actual licence itself. And this should have all been worked on and described together, before the license was even allowed.

My concerns

As a conflict researcher and mediator, I am really frustrated with how SNH have gone about this.

  • Firstly, for their lack of transparency. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve written or advised that being open, honest and fully transparent about the whole decision-making process is vitally important. I should have had to dig as much as I did to find this information, and attempted to piece together scattered pieces of a jigsaw. It should have been put together in one clear, detailed document, alongside the full experimental design and a breakdown of the licence itself. All I have seen are statements – only one released on SNH’s website officially – and others only in response to the outrage that followed this announcement. An announcement of such an important decision, without any prior information, creates an impression of collusion and secrecy. Which, for the statutory conservation agency for the whole of Scotland, is not a good persona to have.

 

  • Secondly, the lack of inclusiveness. One of the first lessons you learn in conflict is that if all stakeholders aren’t included in the process, it results in those marginalised groups feeling frustrated and angry at the decision. At the very least, groups like RSPB and SRSG should have been consulted on the license, too, and involved in its experimental design (alongside the land owners and game keepers). Even if it will be more difficult, it is important to have discussion over disagreements, as that is how we move forwards. If not, people feel left out, and out of control of proceedings. And then you get outcry in the media, things get misconstrued, and anger builds. It achieves nothing, other than making people wonder how you have got to this decision, and questioning the grounds for doing so.

 

  • Thirdly, the lack of evidence, or any sort of information as to how this will be valuable. Okay, so SNH have issued this licence. My own personal values are that I don’t believe anything should be lethally controlled for the sake of ‘seeing what happens’. But even still, I can respect that some of the shooting community have a very real concern, and SNH are attempting to address this. Yes, the purpose is to understand the impact – but they should be clear about how they are attempting to do this. Surely, it’s questionable to kill 300 individuals of a protected species without showing how you will learn anything? As far as I am concerned, there is nowhere near enough evidence or data to justify a Why not conduct a behavioural survey first, going out and monitoring ravens, with keepers, and get them to demonstrate what they have seen (increases trust, incorporates local knowledge and promotes real, honest discussion)? Or a non-lethal removal experiment??

I have emailed SNH asking for further clarity, and hopefully we eventually get a response (although I understand they’ll be inundated).

I apologise for the lengthy blog, but there was much to be said. And I hope this helps in some way, shape or form. But I feel the damage has already been done. SNH state that this is a trust exercise, but I think instead it’s just reduced trust in them.

 

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16 Comments Add yours

  1. David Holden says:

    A good read and I agree with some of your points . The whole mess could have been avoided by ravens being put on the general license . Those keepered areas would cull ravens and in the other less managed areas they could go about their buisness in peace. The last time we had a large flock of non breeding birds in this area the license was to shoot two birds. A neighbouring farm had a group of three birds that had developed into specialist killers of free range pullets and after over 15 point of lay birds a license was granted again for two birds so the third bird could go and breed and pass on its expertise. The argument of the raptor lobby is that if ravens go on GL they will be wiped out which is nonsense as the victorians failed to do this using a large workforce ,traps , poison and god knows what else so it is unlikely to happen this time around. Also the hooded crow is on GL and continues to increase in number as we speak. I have a lot of time for ravens and am watching a couple of nests this year but in my opinion they need to be managed to keep their numbers down . Anyway enjoyed your blog and if a few more grown ups could get round a table and ditch the self serving celebs on both sides there is a fair chance of progress.

    Like

  2. anandprasad says:

    Couldn’t get your link to work
    This did. i made it tiny as it is long
    https://tinyurl.com/y94et524

    Like

  3. Mr T says:

    One of the best blog posts I have ever read. Thank you for writing it and still managing to remain impartial. Quite a challenge. I struggle to come to terms with what SNH are doing with this, and, in the last 48 hours seeing that the cull trial area is 75% grouse moor, sadly it doesn’t reflect well on any of the stakeholders at all. The usual suspects are all in place, roaring their terrible roars and showing their terrible claws. Me, I’m sick of the patchwork of muirburn that covers Scotland on Google Maps. Good luck with your PhD, I don’t envy your studies but I know that Scotland needs you and so do our ravens and raptors.

    Like

  4. Kenny Campbell says:

    Thank you, really helpful to an amateur conservationist with a very interested and concerned 11 year old wannabe ornithologist. I particularly appreciate your balance and empathic approach.

    Like

  5. Bill Cove says:

    Thanks for such a complete and thorough blog on the subject. Your points all stack up to show the lack of competence on the part of SNH over this. I am so surprised at them trying to do this and then not expecting the outcry that is now settling around them. I don’t deny that Ravens can be an issue when it comes to predation but to go all out with this licence was not the way forwards

    Like

  6. Carol Wilson-Green says:

    Brilliant, keep going. SNH seems to be against Scottish wildlife.

    Like

  7. Steve says:

    Bravo! I’d not heard of your work before (sorry) but I’ll follow it with interest now (arrived via Mark Avery’s facebook).
    I’ve sent a couple of email to SNH but heard nothing back, which is a shame.
    Looking forward to the next updates.

    Like

  8. Fantastically useful and clarifying. A cock-up in SNH, the licence granted perhaps at a level in the organisation which did not understand its PR impact.

    Like

  9. Ron Bury says:

    Thank you for your balanced, rational summary. If only all those involved could do the same instead of following agendas based on vested interests.

    Collusion and secrecy are precisely the impressions one is left with here and zero faith in SNH to honestly follow its remit.

    Like

  10. Simon Tucker says:

    Brilliant: clear, concise and balanced. Your doctorate must be pretty well nailed on if that is the quality of your work.

    Like

  11. John Miles says:

    This was my reply – Iceland has a small population of people but a large population of Ravens. There are believed to be about 2,500 nesting pairs in Iceland with more non breeding birds often seen in flocks of over 100.

    It also has one of the top wader populations in the WORLD. Recent work has shown that the highest densities of waders are found in an area of volcanic activity where nutrients have been spread over the breeding wader areas.

    As you know our uplands are now becoming an area of acidification.

    Once lime was used to spread over the upland fields. This increased wader numbers and also lead to more fish in the rivers and streams especially Salmon,Brown and Sea Trout.

    An test of upland areas MUST look at history of land use and how it effected species. Sure Ravens were culled but if one country like Iceland has no problem with Ravens why should a small country like Scotland?

    Our use of chemicals now has devastated our wader populations removing not only the birds but the insects they once depended on. Ivermectin [part of the anthelmintic drugs used today] is alive in dung 143 days after coming out of the stock. Studies on the Solway show 80% of wader food is found in dung which could be translated of saying 80% of wader food is destroyed by this chemicals. [Newton – Farming and Birds 2017]

    The once government body Nature Conservancy Council was respected around the WORLD. Now it looks like its run down mini government agency is lost in politics and has not got a clue what to do!
    Will you be looking at the chemicals?

    No mention of the lack of food for adults and chicks! Beetle grubs wwer once common food for waders and Ravens!!

    Like

  12. Craig Nash says:

    Is there a BTO square in the area the cull is going to take place. Or monitored by an independent (if there is such a thing) bird monitor.

    Like

  13. Naturalist at Large says:

    An excellent post. This was not a controversy I was aware of, but I’m glad to have been led to it by someone who appears to be taking so balanced and rational an approach, and who raises such important fundamental issues in how we go about managing our wildlife. A quick internet search indicates that ravens were culled in Strathbraan this year and that the Scottish Raptor Study Group is seeking judicial review. If you are continuing to keep abreast of this saga, it would be good to have an update post at some stage.

    Like

    1. isladawn92 says:

      Thank you Hugh for your kind words. I aim to be as balanced as I can be! I’ve been taking a break since the end of my PhD to give myself some breathing space, but an update would indeed be interesting – I must confess I’ve been a bit out of the loop! But i’ve popped it down on my list of things to cover 🙂

      Like

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