To a surprising extent, to know the crow is to know ourselves,” says John Marzluff in the preface to In the Company of Crows and Ravens. After all, “crows and people share similar traits and social strategies”. Crows and their relatives have captured human imaginations since the paleolithic period, when they were depicted in cave paintings. They are the doomed messenger in the story of Noah’s ark; the vain cheese-squanderers in the fable of Aesop; and the dark redeemer in Ted Hughes’s Crow, “Flying the black flag of himself”.
Recently, though, crows have been cast in a new role: as feral death squadrons, terrorising rural Britain like a Hitchcockian nightmare come to life. “The savage cruelty of a law that lets crows torture and kill lambs,” screamed one headline last month, accompanied by gruesome pictures of livestock maimed and blinded by carrion crows and ravens. “These birds are hungry predators,” said one farmer. “We find sheep half-blinded all the time.”
The distress is real. Crows are among the most intelligent birds, capable of fashioning tools, recognising human faces and (according to one study) understanding cause and effect.
But they also attack livestock, viciously and ingeniously. Farmers usually hate them. Magpies also prey on young songbirds, although their effect on the populations is negligible compared with that of domestic cats.
In any case, the recent anti-corvid screeds in the Daily Mail have a curiously hysterical tone, one usually reserved for remainers.
“The idea that carrion crows are rampaging around the countryside, ripping out the eyes of newborn lambs left, right and centre is … somewhat exaggerated,” says Mark Avery, the co-founder of the conservation pressure group Wild Justice, which is at the centre of what has turned into a full-on culture war – or agriculture war, if you will.
The reason for all the anti-crow propaganda was the abrupt decision by Natural England (the public body that advises the government on environmental affairs) to revoke the general licence to shoot 16 species of birds, including corvidae such as crows, rooks, jackdaws, magpies and jays, as well as wood pigeons, herring gulls and black-backed gulls.
As of midnight on 24 April, anyone who wanted to shoot these birds was required to fill in a form on the Natural England website – which promptly crashed.
The ruling was inspired by a campaign by Wild Justice, which Avery co-founded with the conservationist and BBC presenter Chris Packham – who awoke the next morning to find the gate of his home in Hampshire glued shut and crow carcasses dangling beside it. (According to rural legend, dead crows should be strung up prominently, pour encourager les autres).
He has also received death threats and faced calls to be sacked. It was reported on Monday that such threats led to his appearance at a festival being cancelled when the organisers said they were concerned about public safety. “In a very sad and perverse way, this ghastly action indicates that I’m making progress,” he told the BBC.
Farmers and landowners had complained that the ruling, which came down in the middle of lambing season, would have severe consequences for livestock and crops – and several endangered bird species that are preyed upon by crows.
The crow population has risen consistently since the 60s and stands at more than 1m breeding pairs, according to the British Trust for Ornithology, with “steep increases” in England since the turn of the century.
Gamekeepers point to evidence that crows threaten rare curlews as well as gamebirds – and must, regrettably, be kept under control. “Evidence from the ground has shown that there has been a significant increase in predation of eggs and chicks of vulnerable and important ground-nesting birds,” says Amanda Anderson of the Moorland Association, which manages land across England and Wales for grouse shooting.
Indeed, the wildlife charity RSPB, which manages about 150,000 hectares of land, shoots around 500 crows annually to protect vulnerable species, such as the ground-nesting lapwing.
Since tempers have frayed, Michael Gove, the environment secretary, has taken control of the issue – and when you are relying on Gove to be Mr Reasonable, something has gone seriously awry. But it is the involvement of Packham that seems most to have inflamed things. Critics feel Packham has alienated many would-be allies and undermined the incremental progress they have made in winning over landowners. He has been a hate figure for the Countryside Alliance since he called people involved in hunting and shooting “the nasty brigade”. George Monbiot has written about an “almost Sicilian” omertà in the countryside, where a small landowning minority claim to speak for the whole community, and anyone who disputes their right to shoot whatever they please is “frightened into silence or forced to move houses”. But Packham won’t be silenced.
When I interviewed him last autumn, he argued that Britain was heading for “ecological apocalypse”. “I have a duty to try to inform people,” he said. “Sometimes it’s in frank terms and they buckle a little bit. That’s not my problem.” Since we spoke, he has set up Wild Justice. As Avery, a former head of conservation at the RSPB, puts it: “There are opportunities to use the law for the benefit of wildlife. Threatened wildlife can’t speak to journalists and they can’t take legal cases on their own behalf, so they need people to stand up for them.”
Avery says he and Packham “fell upon” Wild Justice’s first campaign accidentally. The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 bans the shooting of wild birds except in special circumstances, once all other means of control have failed. But Natural England had been issuing blanket permits to kill crows (and other birds) regardless. “We realised there was a mismatch between what the law said you can do and how it was being interpreted.”
Avery also cautions against the idea that farmers are the sole custodians of countryside knowledge. “I’ve heard farmers complaining about rooks pecking lambs when it was almost certainly crows, and others complaining about crows eating seeds when it was almost certainly rooks. The idea that someone who drives a tractor is a great expert on wildlife is miles from the truth.”
He recognises that farmers need to protect their crops and livestock. “But that isn’t what has been happening. People have been seeing magpies, crows, jackdaws etc as fair game – and that’s not what the law says. We just pointed this out to Natural England. It’s the first case we’ve taken on … and we’ve kind of won pretty spectacularly.”
If you were to draw up a list of things that farmers do not like, it might include: unplanned sudden changes of policy; filling in forms; bureaucrats; “keyboard warriors”; and, of course, crows – which makes Natural England’s decision a perfect storm. “It’s not all Animals of Farthing Wood out here,” says Guy Smith of the National Farmers’ Union. He believes farmers should be trusted to manage their own land – and hopes Gove will eventually come round to that view.
“We know crows are predatory and attack small nesting birds and vulnerable livestock. This isn’t about farmers amusing themselves; it’s about food production, something that we all benefit from in the long run. There isn’t a farmer I know who doesn’t struggle with pigeons and crows. And these species have done remarkably well in the past 40 years – just look at the graphs.”
You certainly don’t have to go far to find tales of crow carnage. Philip Kemp, a smallholder in Suffolk, sees them as a “constant threat … just in the past 12 months I’ve had two chickens eaten, leaving a skeletal carcass, on successive days. One of our free-ranging hens was eaten and picked to the bones.” Crows are clever, too. “They perch on our stock fencing almost constantly, looking for opportunities. I have not had a lamb attacked, but I’m always alert to the possibility because I’ve seen how opportunistic and deadly crows can be.” That said, he has never felt the urge to shoot them.
But Smith is not right to say that every farmer is anti-corvid. “We have a local rook population that comes and rakes over the cow muck to get at the grubs underneath,” says a Pembrokeshire dairy farmer, who declined to be named for fear of reprisals. “That’s what turns the field back to grass again. You’d need a tractor otherwise. And when a calf is born in the field, the foxes will nip around picking up pieces of afterbirth. So-called pests can form a useful service.”
I also speak to the manager of an estate in Lancashire who confesses to pro-crow sympathies: “Gorgeous scavengers, much like ourselves.” But he warns against oversimplification. “The reality is that any farmed environment is out of balance and the human has to play the role of predator in supressing numbers. The public does need to stop obsessing about how animals die and start focusing more on how they live.”
There are hi-tech solutions to crows (drones and lasers) as well as relatively lo-tech ones (gas-bangers and scarecrows). Smith uses a gas-banger, but he says the pigeons that prey on his pea and rape crops get used to it – occasionally, he has to retreat to his hide and pick a few off with his shotgun. “Then they are more scared of the bangs. You have to mix it up; simple as.” He stresses that stringing up dead crow carcasses as a deterrent is a “bit of countryside lore” that has little evidence behind it.
Yet, despite the heat of the argument, I find much less disagreement between farmers and the conservationists than you might imagine – it is certainly not a simple case of city meddlers versus farmers. Even Wild Justice agrees that Natural England and Defra have handled the case badly. While the farmers I speak to lament bureaucracy, many concede that some form of licensing is appropriate. “Perhaps there should be a test to ensure shooters can tell a rook from a blackbird before they go blasting away at anything that moves,” suggests one.
It may be better to ask why there are so many crows. Ecosystems are complicated. Any intervention humans make is liable to have unintended consequences – and crow and human populations are intimately linked.
But there is one human activity that has boomed in recent years and has been linked to the increase in crows: game shooting. “Pheasant and partridge shooting puts a lot of unnecessary grain on the land, which drives up the corvine and rodent population and also spreads disease,” says the Lancashire estate manager. “As with everything ‘luxury’ in the past 10 years, shooting has rapidly expanded, and it’s having a large impact.”
There is evidence that game management benefits the natural environment in some ways. But while its representatives present themselves as part of an age-old tradition, this is far from the truth, argues Avery. Driven grouse shooting is a French import, while pheasant shooting occurs on an industrial scale. “There has been a tenfold increase in the number of released pheasants in the UK over the past 40 years – and it’s a non-native species,” says Avery. “There’s nothing traditional about releasing 43m pheasants into the British countryside each year and using them for target practice.”
Those 43m pheasants represent, in terms of biomass, the most abundant “wild” species in Britain. Many farmers have started rearing pheasants, as it is more profitable than food production. Only about one-third are killed by guns and a smaller percentage are eaten by humans. The rest end up as roadkill, die of cold or disease, or are picked off by crows and foxes (whose numbers are also booming). Crows benefit further from the grain laid down for the pheasants and the virtual elimination of apex predators. In 2016, Natural England controversially issued licences to gamekeepers to shoot buzzards – a protected species – in order to “prevent serious damage” to young pheasants. Gamekeepers have been accused of killing and disrupting the nests of birds of prey that may otherwise make life harder for the crows. Goshawks, for example, were virtually eliminated from Britain in the 19th century after persecution by gamekeepers.
While fox hunting has always been the more emotive issue, Lee Moon of the Hunt Saboteurs Association is increasingly focused on bird shooting. “What we’d like to draw attention to is the vast, vast scale of it. It’s wealthy people going out to shoot large numbers of birds purely for their own gratification. It has nothing to do with the food chain. It has nothing to do with conservation. And large numbers of the birds are dumped – we found one estate where they were using an industrial digger to bury all the dead pheasants.”
His groups has disrupted numerous shoots – and, as you might imagine, confronting people with shotguns who have paid as much as £1,000 a head to shoot up to 400 pheasants a day is not for the faint-hearted. “I’ve had shots fired right past me on a number of occasions,” he says.
He counters my suggestion that urban types like me and him don’t appreciate the delicate ecological and economic balance of the countryside. The grouse industry, for example, argues that heather moors would turn into wasteland without it. “Gamekeepers provide conservation services for a number of threatened birds including curlew, golden plover, lapwing, merlin and black grouse for free,” says Anderson of the Moorland Association. “These have played a significant role in improving the fortunes of these species. It is vital, therefore, that we have a licensing system that is fit for purpose.”
Moon says: “They use that argument that you’ve just given a lot: ‘How dare you question me? You don’t understand!’ I’m not a country dweller, but I think I have a right to comment on this, just as I have a right to comment on big-game shooting in Africa. If you visit a grouse moor, it’s a wasteland except for grouse. You don’t see birds of prey, you don’t see corvids, you don’t see stoats, weasels, rats, anything – they’re all wiped out. The gamekeepers see any other creature as competition. This is nothing to do with being guardians of the countryside.”
As for the crows – gorgeous scavengers that they are – perhaps we shouldn’t judge them so harshly. Crows have been shown to mourn their dead, to punish selfishness in their peers, to play and to hold grudges. Just like us. Ted Hughes again: “Crow realized God loved him / Otherwise, he would have dropped dead.”
This article was first published by The Guardian on 14 May 2019.