Raven cull – hopeless SNH

Many of us have had this standard letter from the chair of SNH:


Thank you for your recent correspondence on the subject of the issue of a research licence to the Strathbraan Community Collaboration for Waders.

I welcome that so many people in this country care passionately about the welfare of all our wildlife species.  This has been shown in the volume of correspondence we have received, both positive and negative. In response, I have offered to facilitate a meeting between the RSPB and the local community group in Strathbraan.

The laws in place to protect birds, plants and animals recognise that in some situations their control can be permitted as long as we can ensure that this won’t affect their wider populations. Under this legislation SNH regularly grant licences to control species, including a range of birds and mammals. This includes the control of corvids. These activities are widespread and are carried out by farmers, gamekeepers and conservationist organisations alike in order to protect bird populations that are at risk.

Curlew and lapwing are listed as Red status in the birds of Conservation Concern (BOCC) review, with declines in abundance of over 50% in the past 20 years. They are also listed as Vulnerable at a European level. Ravens are currently on the Green list with no indication that licenced control is having any impact on the population of this species. This trial will help us and others to better understand the impact of ravens on species in grave danger. It permits the control of 69 ravens this year.

Strict conditions apply to all licences issued by SNH. This includes the means by which birds are controlled, and in this instance, also ensuring that all of the appropriate monitoring is set and records kept of what is taking place.

Thank you for taking time to write to me about this matter,

Yours sincerely

Mike Cantlay


In the many copies of this letter to have been forwarded to me (for which, many thanks all!) I have yet to see anyone who has been mightily impressed by SNH’s response.  And nor am I!

A few initial comments:

  • the first sentence uses the word ‘welfare‘ – this is not incorrect use but I see this as a conservation and welfare issue, not a welfare issue.
  • the volume of correspondence we have received, both positive and negative’ – I wonder what the balance of positive and negative comments was? I’d be surprised if they were equal.
  • ‘In response, I have offered to facilitate a meeting between the RSPB and the local community group in Strathbraan’  – that’s a poor response, you’re the government agency responsible for this daft decision; getting some other people to talk about your daft decision somewhere else isn’t what anyone asked for.  This is a mere displacement activity.  Please go back and revoke the licence!
  • ‘The laws in place to protect birds, plants and animals recognise that in some situations their control can be permitted as long as we can ensure that this won’t affect their wider populations.’ – true, but not wholly clear. ‘In some situations‘ yes, but you do not justify that this is one of those situations, and don’t even try to do so. This case arguably falls well short of what SNH should require of anyone who wants to go around killing wildlife under licence.  And this is a research licence – you haven’t mentioned the research element yet.
  • ‘This includes the control of corvids.’ – well obviously it does if you mean Hooded and Carrion Crows!  We look forward to the Chough Extermination Plan which could be badly justified using the same words!
  • ‘These activities are widespread and are carried out by farmers, gamekeepers and conservationist organisations alike in order to protect bird populations that are at risk.’ – first, because words matter, note the use of the phrase ‘conservationist organisations’. Not ‘conservation’ but ‘conservationist’. It’s an interesting choice of word. I am a conservationist, but which are the organisations that would call themselves conservationist ones rather than conservation organisations? Conservationist is usually used in this way by people who don’t like conservation organisations and its use here is quite revealing.  Second, because words matter, ‘alike’. The use of this word is revealing too. If Mr Cantlay really believes that there is a great deal of similarity in how and why gamekeepers and conservation organisations carry out predator control then he is not fit to be in the position that he holds in SNH. He can’t really believe that and so the use of the word ‘alike’ is an attempt to bundle all forms of predator control and all organisations who ever carry it out into the same category – which they are not and which is why so many oppose this unwarranted and unscientific cull. And there is a bit more to do in this sentence yet: ‘in order to protect bird populations that are at risk’. Gamekeepers operating a cage trap are doing so to protect bird populations that are at risk are they? Which bird populations are they? Pheasant? Red Grouse? Red-legged Partridge? So this sentence is a classic in conflation: it attempts to pretend that what gamekeepers do and what conservation organisations do in terms of predator control are pretty much the same and for pretty much the same motives and that this Raven cull is nothing very different from what everyone else is doing. Cobblers! And, you still haven’t, Mr Cantlay, justified the research element of this licence.
  • ‘Curlew and lapwing are listed as Red status in the birds of Conservation Concern (BOCC) review, with declines in abundance of over 50% in the past 20 years.’ – true. Are those declines primarily due to Raven predation or might it just be that agricultural change and habitat loss have rather more to do with them? Sorry, when I say ‘rather more’ I do, of course, mean ‘vastly more’.  This letter does not address the evidence for any need for Raven control and does not justify the research element of it.
  • ‘Ravens are currently on the Green list with no indication that licenced control is having any impact on the population of this species.’ – true, but you mean that the national Raven population will not be affected by this Raven cull. If your licence were extended to the whole range of the Raven in Scotland then it would have an impact wouldn’t it? And in any case, the impact of this cull even if it succeeded beyond the wildest alleged dreams of the Raven cullers would not lift the Lapwing or Curlew off the Red list, would it? So you are using the national and international status of the Raven badly to justify this local cull (because the large scale population of the Raven won’t be affected by this local cull) and yet you will not use the national and international status of the Lapwing or Curlew to measure the success of the cull on its intended beneficiaries.  Your argument is ‘We can kill Ravens because they are common in the world in order to benefit waders (allegedly) even though they won’t be commoner in the world as a result’.
  • licenced‘? You mean ‘licensed’.  Just saying!

This is a terribly poor response and we should all go back and tell Mr Cantlay that he has not justified SNH’s decision he has simply talked around the issue in a misleading manner. He appears to have attempted to justify SNH’s daft decision on the grounds that ‘Everyone’s doing this type of thing, nothing to see here’ which is, in fact, false.  We should say that our objection to SNH’s licensing decision remains and we await a proper response which actually explains how the cull was licensed as a research project .  What is the justification for licensing and what are the research results that SNH expects to see from this licensing?

Still, SNH is doing its very best to make Natural England look good in the race to the bottom between our statutory nature conservation (certainly not conservationist) agencies.


24 Replies to “Raven cull – hopeless SNH”

    1. In principal I don’t have a problem with the inclusion of people from a business background or a background in other areas of public life being appointed into the boards of our statutory conservation bodies. They can potentially bring useful skills and perspectives to the role that can help these organisations fulfill their mission of protecting the country’s wildlife more effectively. What is a major concern however, and what we appear to be witnessing, is that the appointment of these people is increasingly not with a view to harnessing valuable skills to the mission of protecting wildlife but rather as a means of not-so-subtly shifting the emphasis of that mission to one of promoting business and helping it to wriggle around the protections we cherish. This is a highly disturbing trend. Business has many champions and enormous resources to promote and protect its interests and does not need to subvert the conservation bodies to its aims. Wildlife has no voice of its own and the role of SNH, CCW and Natural England should be to stand up unequivocally for wildlife and not to provide yet more support for business.

      1. In principle I’ve nothing against, but when one scrutinises that against the reality of delivery from these candidates it might seem to indicate that they’ve been parachuted in to deliver agendas as Kevin Rush suggests? But then I too herald from an area not known for understanding the science, ecology or people let alone ‘officials’ who posses any sympathy for nature/natural processes or wildlife.

        Strange that I remain an agnostic ….

        1. “I only do things where I can make a difference and I hope I can provide something helpful,” he [Mike Cantlay] says.

          Depends what section of the debate he supports?

      2. People with business degrees should only be allowed senior roles in all industries once they have retrained and gained a relevant industry qualification in addition to their moneymoneymoney background. That is a decision I came to in the wake of the Beeching disaster, and I’ve yet to see anything that will change my mind.

  1. Thanks Mark. Have already done it.
    What I’m wondering is how long we are going to have to wait for the outcome of the review by SNH’s ‘Scientific Advisory Committee’. Do we know who sits on this group? No doubt this year’s damage will have been done by the time it decides that the cull was not a good idea. In the meantime, how many parent birds will have been taken out and young left to starve in nests, thereby effectively increasing this year’s quota beyond the licensed figure?

    If they refuse to rescind the licence, is a judicial review the next step? I’ve no doubt that funding would flood in if this was the case and someone with the necessary knowledge and expertise agreed to take it forward.

    1. Its possible that a judgment was made as to where the legal challenge was more likely to come, the shooting lot, or the conservation(ist) lot.

  2. Thank you, Mark, for such a clear, concise response! My reply will refer to yours, as I can’t find the words to do it a fraction as well!

  3. On Wednesday evening BBC’s “Reporting Scotland” had an item on the cull, and because they couldn’t find any Ravens they filmed a flock of Rooks.

    1. Aye, its the same flock of rooks that the BBC reckon cause all the angst for sheep farmers.

      They (BBC researchers) are beyond help! We can still help the ravens.

  4. This was my letter to him – Iceland’s Waders + upland chemicals
    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!

    I re sent this back to the chairman as he had not read my letter or answered my question.

  5. Mark, you do such a good tear-down of the BS that comes in these “palm-off” letters. I know several people forward the letters they receive and probably the letters they send too. is there somewhere that such things could be gathered or available for display so that everyone can learn to improve their writing techniques and critiques so that we get better answers and service from the people who purport to be working on our behalf for our benefit.

  6. I would assume that a rather lowly subordinate cobbled together your reply and Mr Cantley just added his signature. If not, then it doesn’t say much for the intellectual quality of SNH leadership, which would, of course, explain the original misguided descision making.

  7. I can’t praise Mark’s analysis of this shabby response, enough. It saves me the bother of doing it. It really is quite a shocking response, and self-evidently Mike Cantlay is not a fit person to do this job. Conflating predator control for game bird driven shooting, with predator control for conservation purposes is jaw droopingly ignorant of what conservation means. Nevertheless, this response is very illuminating, in that it gives us some insight into the mindset behind this stupid decision.

    As I suspected when I looked up Mike Cantlay’s biography, he has no relevant qualifications or real experience in the life sciences, or conservation. Why do people get appointed to senior positions in these statutory conservation bodies when they have no relevant qualifications, experience or expertise?

  8. Mark Avery’s response is detailed, analytical and absolutely spot on. It reveals the shallow, cunning and devious “whitewash” attempt by Mike Cantlay to justify a raven cull which has no scientific backing.

  9. It strikes me that it might be helpful if each of our follow-up letters picked on just a single question, there are quite a few to choose from! For example, my wife has just responded on the correspondence volumes point, adding a request that it be treated as an FOI enquiry. If we each pick our own in that way, it makes it harder to fob everyone off again with a standard response. Which in turn means that they have to think a little harder than they evidently did first time around.

    1. FoI is a good tack. I wonder if this falls under EIR but find its scope surprisingly elusive and murky:
      “Appendix 2: The definition of environmental information …
      (a) the state of the elements of the environment, such as air and atmosphere, water, soil, land, landscape and natural sites including wetlands, coastal and marine areas, biological diversity and its components, including genetically modified organisms, and the interaction among these elements”

      I’m linguistically intrigued that on one hand SNH says “control” when it means kill, and on the other the Environmental Information Regulations (EIR) definition of environmental information refers to living creatures (presumably) as “biological diversity and its components”. What sophisticated devices we use to perpetuate our dominionism delusion.

  10. Mark – it is good to see that readers of your blog (hopefully many of them, the more the better) are complementing the points that have been made and continue to be made by, for instance, the Scottish Raptor Study Group and its members. That organisation has made it very clear to SNH that there will have to be a lot of hard work put in if confidence in SNH is to be restored. As we are all well aware, that confidence has been given a severe jolt due to the thoroughly inept way in which SNH has handled the Strathbraan raven licensing issue.

  11. Absolutely right! This man appears to believe we are all stupid enough to believe this nonsense, it is both arrogant and patronising and has made me even more angry than I was before. Of course there are occasions when control of a species is necessary in special circumstances but not wholesale, uncontrolled and unmonitored slaughter as invited by this licence!

  12. I batted off an angry response within minutes of receiving his patronising letter yesterday – it made my blood boil and I think that I managed to convey that whilst making some of the points you cover.

  13. I’ve just sent a reply to SNH’s reply. I’m hoping that I receive something more meaningful next time but I not holding my breath.

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