Farmers in England have been given licences to cull ravens on farmland to protect newborn lambs.
Natural England has confirmed it has issued licences for ravens to be culled in five English counties – Derbyshire, Lancashire, Berkshire, Wiltshire and Dorset.
The licences have only been granted to a small number of farmers in areas where the landowner has exhausted all other options to protect their livestock.
The move has been welcomed by farmers, who have been campaigning for a cull to be introduced for months. But it has angered conservationists, including the RSPB, because ravens (Corvus corax) are a protected species.
Last month, the National Sheep Association (NSA) called for the cull of ravens to be widened from Scotland, where it is routine, to other areas to counter high lamb losses.
Figures from Scottish National Heritage (SNH) show more than 1,000 of the animals have been culled each year since 2016.
NSA welcomes move
NSA chief executive Phil Stocker said the association has received reports of up to 100 lambs killed by ravens in Scotland this year.
But responsible culling under licence “will allow farmers to keep on top of the numbers and protect stock when they are at their most defenceless”.
Mr Stocker said: “We think this is a really positive move and recognition of some of the problems that ravens can cause.
“Culling is a way to stamp out the nasty behavioural traits that can develop in these birds. They are very intelligent birds and the ability for them to communicate within a group is massive.
“One of our members in south Wiltshire said 80 of his ewes and lambs were lost, or had to be put down last year, because of raven attacks.”
He added: “Ravens can peck out the eyes and tongues of lambs. We have also received reports of lambs’ stomachs being ripped out before they are able to stand. They can be really vicious birds.”
According to the RSPB, the UK’s raven population is estimated at 7,400 pairs (RSPB, 2016).
An RSPB spokesman said: “We are concerned because raven populations are recovering well after a period in which their population suffered significant declines, in part driven by widespread historic persecution.
“We understand farmers’ concerns over ravens, however we need NE to be very clear on the licensing process and we seek assurances that the continued recovery of raven populations in England will not be compromised.”
Ravens are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, but licences can be issued to cull a “small number of birds”.