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Wednesday 21 August 2019

Wildlife

The murder of crows

A new protest group has risen to the defence of unloved birds. Farmers and shooting enthusiasts are outraged

By Simon Barnes

Crows! Collective noun: a murder of crows. Black, bastard killers. Crows are the reason why we have no songbirds left in the country. And when they’re not killing songbirds, they are pecking the eyes out of living lambs – lambs, of all creatures, identified with Our Lord Himself, Jesus the “Lamb of God that taketh away the sins of the world”.

Crows are putting the sins right back. They’ve been doing it for millennia, and suddenly, out of the blue, Natural England said that it was no longer okay to kill them. It was as if the Home Office had let the Dementors loose on the decent law-abiding God-fearing people of England (and their lambs): for how can we build Jerusalem in this green and pleasant land if there are bloody great crows all over the place?

If I seem to be suggesting that the response to Natural England’s decision to revoke the General Licences for the shooting of 16 species of birds was not entirely rational, then I am getting my point across.

The Daily Mail summed it all up to perfection, as is its wont, in a piece illustrated with a dead lamb and crow apparently dancing in triumph: “The savage cruelty of a law that lets crows torture and kill lambs.” After all, if anyone is going to torture and kill lambs, it’s us humans: lambs are bred for the table and the way to the oven leads via the slaughterhouse.

The Mail continued its anti-crow campaign with a picture story about a crow that predated a baby rabbit: natural behaviour, you might say, but apparently the crow was merciless and ruthless. They also reported a story about Mirella, a ewe blinded by crows in “a savage attack”, who was being moved to an animal sanctuary. What will happen to the ewe’s two lambs was not stated, but it’s possible that a certain ruthless and merciless predator may bring about their premature demise and serve them with mint sauce.

It all came about because of a new not-for-profit organisation called Wild Justice, which was set up by three conservationists: Chris Packham, Mark Avery and Ruth Tingay. “Crows can’t hire clever lawyers, so we do it for them – when we can get public support,” said Avery, who is former conservation director of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

A carrion crow feeding on dead rabbit

Their target was the General Licences, under which land-owners and others could shoot 16 species of birds that they consider pests. These include carrion crows, rooks, jackdaws, jays, wood pigeons, feral pigeons, collared doves, lesser black-backed gulls, Canada geese, Egyptian geese, ring-necked parakeets, monk parakeets and, of all things sacred, ibis. The parakeets were presumably there because they’re a non-native species. We mustn’t have any of them, must we? Apart from pheasants, of course. Every year we release 40 million pheasants – that’s not a typo – and they’re birds that in natural circumstances would be no closer to Britain than the Black Sea.

The legal challenge was about the way these licences are used: whether all the species listed pose serious threats to the agricultural economy or to human health, and whether they are sometimes shot for more frivolous reasons, i.e. the simple pleasure of shooting. Under the General Licences, the tradition of a free-for-all was established. It was widely accepted that any species on the list could be shot at any time – especially when the pheasant-shooting season ended on 31 January.

The idea of the challenge was to force Natural England to have a good hard think about this, and so come up with a better system for the spring of 2020. But, instead, Natural England revoked all General Licences overnight. This seems to have been the result of a panicked realisation that they were operating these licences in an illegal way.

Many people in agriculture were furious. But it was perhaps the people involved in shooting who were most deeply outraged. Packham, as the presenter of the BBC’s Springwatch and many other programmes, was the obvious public face of Wild Justice. There was a petition launched to get him sacked by the BBC for his “lack of impartiality”.

His address was published online. Dead crows were hung from his gate, which was glued shut. He was sent death threats. He received parcels of excrement through the post. Someone tweeted the wish that he would wake the following morning “and find Packham hanging on my gate”. His partner, Charlotte Corney, had to close down the Facebook page of the zoo she runs because it was comprehensively trolled.

Another person sent Packham an image of an erect penis on a block of wood. He put up a video of himself with this object, asking why the artist “didn’t have the balls to sign it” and speculating that it represented a rare species of double-headed tadpole. He put this up for auction on eBay, where it raised £2,500 – for Wild Justice.

The extraordinary level of hatred stirred up at this intersection of crows’ rights and gun rights is intriguing. Perhaps it was indignation inspired by sympathy for the poor old farmer. And perhaps it was the loss of the pleasure of killing creatures categorised as “vermin”. Evil crows could no longer be shot just for fun.

“Screaming for Blood

Grubs, crusts

Anything

Trembling featherless elbows in the nest’s filth”

This from Ted Hughes’s long poem Crow, and if it’s not intended as a literal depiction of corvine life, it is an allegory of evil and death based around the figure of the crow: a hate-figure more or less universally recognised. It’s widely believed that Van Gogh’s last painting was ‘Wheat Field with Crows’, a picture of doom that anticipates his suicide. In strict fact this wasn’t his final work, and though he wanted it to express “sadness and loneliness”, he also wanted it to show what was “healthy and fortifying about the countryside”.

We are normally deeply respectful of intelligence when we find it in non-human species. The apes who master sign-language, solve problems and make tools inspire admiration and fellow-feeling; the cultural lives of whales and dolphins provoke something close to religious awe in some people.

Nicky Clayton is Professor of Comparative Cognition at Cambridge University, and she works with several species of crow. (There are about 120 species of crow – Corvidae – worldwide, and they are found on every continent except Antarctica. Of these, 40 are in the genus Corvus, including carrion crow.) These corvids have consistently shown so much creative intelligence that Clayton refers to them as feathered apes: “Anything an ape can do, so can a crow.”

I have seen a jay at her lab in Madingley recreate the fable of Aesop. A tasty waxworm is placed in water, in a jar too narrow for the bird’s beak. So the jay fills the jar with pebbles until the waxworm floats within range. Clayton has also put a New Caledonian crow – same Corvus genus – through an eight-stage test: use a tool to fetch a tool, use that tool to reach another tool, and so on. (She called this crow 007.) “Anything we put them at, they are amazingly good at it. They show memory, they plan for the future, they use imagination.” And all this has been proved in laboratory conditions.

An illustration of a crow dropping stones into a pitcher to raise the water level and quench its thirst

David Attenborough, in his series Planet Earth II, showed crows in Japan deliberately dropping nuts on the road so that passing cars would crack them open. They refined this by dropping the nuts on a pedestrian crossing, where it is safer to collect the food the cars had prepared for them. If we revere chimpanzees and dolphins for their intelligence, we must extend the same reverence to crows.

The National Farmers Union was appalled by the timing of the withdrawal of the General Licences “with the growing season and the lambing season underway”. The sudden revocation of these general licences “couldn’t have come at a worse time in the farming calendar”.

Jack Knott, campaign manager of the pro-shooting Countryside Alliance, called the General Licences “a necessary tool to prevent serious damage to agriculture and for the purposes of conservation”.

The dispute has been portrayed as bunny-hugging townie idealists against the lovable, practical farmers who put the food on our table. But this is deliberately naive: conservationists are as hard-nosed (and country-aware) as any farmer. And, what’s more, they are prepared to kill crows (and foxes) when it is necessary to protect rare and declining breeding birds.

Martin Harper of the RSPB said that lethal control of crows was acceptable “as a last resort”. It was acceptable when there was a serious problem, when non-lethal methods were no good, and when lethal measures really would solve the problem. The RSPB occasionally kills crows on its reserves. (It does not, as some gamekeepers still do, hang them in plain view as a dreadful warning to other crows.)

It is a fact that there are a great many more crows around than there used to be. But it’s time to be specific. There are three species of large black corvids routinely seen in the agricultural countryside: rooks, jackdaws and carrion crows. The first two pose little threat to agriculture but were still on the General Licences, and I wonder just how many practical gun-carrying country folk can reliably distinguish between them – or want to.

Carrion crows have increased massively: up by 135 per cent between 1967 and 2016, despite an estimated 100,000 being shot each year. It is recognised – by Wild Justice, by the law, by the RSPB, by everyone committed to the principles of scientific conservation – that carrion crows can cause problems for humans, and that lethal control is at times a solution.

Beaters, accompanied by their Springer Spaniels, carry shot birds as they walk to the next pheasant drive

What has been challenged is the idea that all 16 species covered by the General Licences are fair game at any season, to be shot on sight as vermin, even when they are causing no immediate problem. That is the tradition that has been established – and it is against the law. Hence the rational response from Natural England. Hence the irrational response from elsewhere.

It is worth considering why carrion crows have increased so considerably. The answer is carrion. It’s an unsurprising fact that carrion crows eat carrion, so it follows that the more carrion there is available, the more crows we are likely to have around. And the fact is that there are increasing quantities of carrion in our countryside. Not lambs – pheasants. Only one third of the aforementioned 40 million get shot every year. The rest die, often on the roads – free food for carrion crows. The people involved in pheasant-shooting can blame their own activities for the crows they hate so much.

One of the reasons why crows are so widely hated is that they kill songbirds. That, at any rate, is the popular belief. A few years ago, a local gamekeeper shot up a neighbouring rookery to oblige a neighbour who was worried about her lambs, wrongly believing that the rooks offered a threat. When another neighbour complained, he was told he was stupid townie: “If we don’t kill crows we wouldn’t have any songbirds”.

Two important points here. The first is that it has been shown, in study after study, that corvid predation is not a factor in songbird decline. More relevant is habitat destruction, brought about by expanding towns and hyper-intense agriculture, and by the heavy use of pesticides and herbicides, both of which destroy the food songbirds need. That is fact. But it doesn’t satisfy our irrational need for a visible enemy.

The second fact is that a far more significant predator of small birds is the domestic cat. A survey by the Mammal Society showed that cats kill 275 million creatures a year and, of these, 27 million are birds. No one has suggested that cats need to be shot on sight. The RSPB has studied this phenomenon, and reports that domestic cats pose no threat to songbird populations; that such predation is sustainable. What is not sustainable is the destruction of the places where they live.

We are fully modern humans but we still have hunter-gatherer minds. We still take the atavistic view that nature is against us; that we must fight a continuing war against nature or we are done for. Crows represent the enemy, big loud and ominous: the lamb-torturing, songbird-killing threat to our fragile way of life.

The human victory in the war on nature has become a rout. There are 40 million fewer birds in Britain than there were in 1970. But we can’t rid ourselves of the notion that nature is coming to get us, which is why we have mistaken a discussion about a misused law for a pretext for the murder of crows.

Photographs by Getty Images

P.S. Another Mail piece about crows brought this response from Packham on Twitter:

Further reading