Understanding Crows and their role in the UK
Crows and the crow family is a controversial figure amongst the UK’s wildlife. While they’re adored at the Tower of London, they’re a nuisance in the countryside. The black silhouette is often in stark contrast to the sky and looked on as a bad omen. For livestock farmers, the sight of a mob of crows is bad news. However, while you may not want them around your cattle they do play a role in managing the land around it.
What do we mean by crows?
We know that the term “crows” is a very vague and broad statement. However, for the sake of simplicity going forward, we will use it as an umbrella term. The Raven and Cough may be related but in nature, they are two very different birds. They share a similar set of traits but are distinct in a few ways. Some are residential and some migrate but the ones listed below tend to stick around throughout the year. By in large all species of crows are Omnivorous. Below, we will break down the nuances and distinctions in the species across the UK.
The Carrion Crow is the smartest one of the bunch. Medium in size in an all black hue the carrion crow is a rather ominous bird. Their wingspan is just under a meter and weighs just over half a kilo on average. Their population number is roughly 1.1 million breeding pairs. The Carrion Crow is a solitary bird but may form part of a breeding pair and stick with its partner.
The Rook’s distinctive greyish beak is its main distinction from other members of the crow umbrella. Smaller in body but similar in wingspan to the Carrion Crow the Rook is still a large bird. Their main distinction is that they are much more likely to form flocks than a Carrion Crow. They’re rather predatory and while they’ll flock with Jackdaws they will eat almost anything else.
The Hooded Crow was defined as a separate species to the Carrion Crow in 2002. They show a mixed black and grey plumage and are of a similar size to their Carrion Crow forebearers. Like the Rook, they are more sociable birds and will often form groups. Due to their recent recognition, their populations are low but still growing. Since 2002 the Hooded Crow population has shown a steady rise of roughly 6% YoY. Populations currently sit at just under 300,000 breeding pairs.
The Jackdaw is a much smaller bird than the other crows on this list. They nest in small spaces like chimneys and nooks in trees. At half the weight with a wingspan about 30% smaller than the other birds on this list. However, they are more plentiful with roughly 1.4 million breeding pairs. Colour wise they have a silver shimmer on their head with pale eyes.
The Jay is by far the most colourful of the Crow family. They are naturally wary and won’t often stray far from cover. They have a distinctive call so you’ll know whenever there is a Jay on the move. Jays are also roughly half the size of a Carrion Crow and hardly look related at all. Their colours include a vivid blue, purple and a soft cream colour. There are close to 200,000 breeding pairs and are often touted as some of the worst egg thieves.
The Raven is by far the biggest and largest bird in the crow family. Weighing as much as a kilo and a half with a wingspan up to a meter and a half the Raven is a large bird. While often seen at the Tower of London Ravens are actually much more prevalent in the North and West of England. The Raven is all black and has a distinctive diamond shaped tail. Due to their size, they eat mammals, birds and eggs with ease. Their breeding numbers are far fewer than other crows with 7,400 breeding pairs.
Another member of the crow family but the magpie might be one of the most easily recognised birds in the UK. Their white and black colours and distinctive call make them an easy bird to recognise wherever you are. Quite a small bird in the context of the crow family but certainly smart and capable. Their fame for spotting shiny things extends to their dietary requirements. They’re fantastic scavengers but more than capable of being predatorial. Equally, non breeding pairs will form groups and flocks and are famously sociable.
Victims of their own success
Crows are incredibly smart and have used this to their advantage. They regularly use these smarts to find ways of making their lives easier. If you’ve ever seen one in the road waiting to jump out of the way this is for a reason. Crows can’t break nuts by themselves but a car can so by leaving them on the road just repurposes your car as their nutcracker. This is only one example of their smarts but it’s clear that crows have adapted to modern life very well.
Science suggests that the crow’s intelligence is only second to primates but tops the bird chart by far. In fact, when completing complex tasks a crow’s intelligence is comparable to that of a 7 year old child. They can share knowledge, complete complex tasks and make tools. This makes them incredibly adaptable to different lifestyles and ecosystems. They seem to be just as successful in either rural or urban settings, in pairs or groups.
However, when these skills are focused on birds nests and livestock the issue becomes rather apparent. Recognising cars and daily patterns allow crows to show up as soon as landowners leave. This puts their livestock at significant risk. They look upon young lambs and bird’s nests as easy picking and get their food as and when they want. However, the new rules now create a series of hurdles standing between balanced ecosystems and letting nature take its course.
The battle in the countryside
The problem here is the battle between farmers and this incredibly effective predator. While they may not damage physical property they have a habit of damaging livestock and wildlife. All the crows we listed earlier are omnivorous and this really doesn’t have any boundaries. Any bird’s nest or young livestock can quickly draw the attention of any of the listed crows.
All’s fair in love and war but this isn’t being fought on an even playing field. The new General License we were dealt last year are woefully short sighted. The new Gl (40,41,42) licences only allow for very stringent applications of lethal force against crows. Considering a lamb can be blinded in any second of daylight it’s unreasonable to expect any farmer to wait for these direct attacks to occur. As we mentioned, crows are smart and they will pick up on trends as to where and when farmers will be waiting for them.
Should we let nature take its course?
While in an ideal world this would be the answer, we don’t live in an ideal world. The UK is devoid of natural predators that can keep up with the growth of its pests. As rural areas shrink as populations grow, wild populations are forced together. This puts all these species in direct competition with one another for the same resources. Equally, this offers predators like crows easy access to food and pray in more risk.
Without the natural processes in place to keep checks on predators and prey something needs to be done. As we mentioned, crows are incredibly smart and this applies across the board amongst the species. However, the same doesn’t apply to other species found in the UK. These charts below show population trends over the course of 51 years. The allows us to see how far populations have grown up to current levels. The British Trust for Ornithology have two summaries available, now showing population growth and the other showing population decline.
In these summary documents, we see species like lapwing, snipe and meadow pipit (All ground nesters) declining by over 50% in this time frame. On the other hand, we see Carrion crows, Hooded crows and Jackdaws up 138%, 138% and 139% respectively. As habitats merge these statistics will only get worse until we reach a point of no return. We’ve already seen what this looks like for Scotlands Capercaillie and it’s a long uphill battle from there.
Do we need crows?
Absolutely, Crows form an important part of our ecosystems and provide part of the balance we’ve mentioned. They feed on small creatures like rats, mice and pigeons which have their own population issues. Without Crows, we’d be writing a similar article about one of these aforementioned species. Crows certainly need to be a part of our ecosystem but not in the number they’re in.
This is the sticking point between where we are and where we need to be. The growing number of crows is bad news for ground nesting birds. More competition with thinning numbers of prey only ends in one way. Equally, once this food source runs dry crows will work and adapt to chase something else. We don’t know which species will land in the reticle but this will happen at some point.
What does the future look like
The future requires some give and take across the board. We can’t just shut our eyes and hope that things resolve themselves. This is the way things are going at the moment and is proving to be rather fruitless. Instead, we need to be pragmatic about what the future looks like on our current trajectory. This includes being honest about what the new legislation being forced upon countryside farmers will result in. This future is fairly devoid of diversity and is closer than we think.
Ecosystems are all about a balance between habitat, resources, predators and prey. In perfect harmony, populations should reach levels healthy enough for sustainable generations. This ecosystem should promote the healthiest/best of the species to propagate. It’s quite Darwinian but we see how this fares with truly wild populations where predators and prey exist in a healthy balance. We see that the opposite is true with our own Deer population in the UK.
Crows are an incredible species that are capable of brilliant things. They’re hardy, aloof and precise all at the same time. While all this works in a balanced ecosystem the balance is disappearing rapidly. Tie this in with a dysfunctional legal backing for pest control makes finding this balance incredibly difficult. While we want crows to be part of the ecosystem this shouldn’t be at the expense of the rare ground nesting birds and wildlife.
The scientific trends are already pointing towards crow populations phasing out other species. This trend will continue unless things change and the playfield is evened. We aren’t expecting lambs or nesting birds to suddenly evolve to do this for themselves. We do however expect policy to reflect this and allow farmers to be able to manage and look after their land the right way. Untill this happens we know that people will be sticking to the current guidance but we hope in time that their work is respected. We know that there will be a point where their skills will be required and asked for.