HUNTERS and bird lovers are locked in battle over claims Scotland’s ravens are responsible for killing newborn lambs.
A petition to be allowed to cull the birds has so far attracted 2,500 signatures following a reported increase in lambs found dead with their eyes and tongues pecked out.
But opponents of the proposed cull have gathered 28,000 signatures on a counter-petition.
The debate has spiralled into a feud - with the would-be hunters accusing the conservationists of being “bird botherers” and “back garden ornithologists”.
The raven population of Scotland went into rapid decline between 1970 and 1990 as they were hunted to near extinction and their forest habitats were destroyed.
The 6,000 breeding pairs of the highly intelligent birds north of the border are protected by environmental law and hunting the animals is only allowed in very special circumstances.
Daniel Bisset , a hunter from Reay in the Highlands, last month petitioned Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), the quango responsible for issuing hunting licenses in Scotland.
He wrote: “Increasing attacks this year on ‘in lamb’ ewes and newborn lambs have lead to an untold amount of sheep deaths, emotional upset and huge financial losses throughout the sheep farming community in rural Scotland.”
This - he says - is “due to a lack of natural predators for the common raven and the species holding a protected status.”
His campaign has drawn considerable support from the farming community, been spread over social media and even backed by the Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association (SGA).
And some farmers and rural workers have also pitched in with their own horror stories regarding the birds.
Martin Crosby from Clochan, Moray, said: “I’m signing this because it is sickening to see young lambs harassed and half eaten. It’s not like they kill one and eat it all - they injure the lambs and make them suffer for hours before death.
Alexander Sutherland from Helmsdale, the Highlands, added: “I have witnessed first hand the cruel damage and how they work in flocks.
“I intervened on a lamb who was being pecked at the tail while asleep in the little sun we do get. Only when he had the protection of his mother did they leave him.”
Others have come forward, claiming that the highly intelligent ravens work in groups to herd lambs into the corners of fields before feeding on them.
But now their campaign has sparked a huge backlash, with a counter-petition gathering over 28,000 signatures.
Sophie Barrell, an ecologist from Loughborough, Leicestershire, launched the petition, titled “Maintain the protected status of the Raven in Scotland” three weeks ago.
In it she writes: “Ravens are a beautiful, intelligent bird - comprising a true conservation success story. They play an important role in our ecosystem by removing carcasses and returning nutrients to the soil.
“Ravens are recovering in Scotland, though this recovery is by no means complete and the species remains absent from many areas. Should widespread slaughter under the general license be allowed, this recovery will surely fail.”
But Mr Bisset - the author of the original petition - has now hit back at the counter-campaigners - targeting Ms Barrell in a personal attack.
Describing her, he said: “The globetrotting bird botherer is pictured throughout social media with a broad manner of species, none of which look to be particularly comfortable being held for photos with this ill-informed young lady.
“Having reviewed all comments on Sophie’s petition, it can be easily be seen that the larger percentage of support is being offered from the un-appraised back garden ornithologists who are un-read on and geographically far removed from the situation.“
A spokeswoman for SNH said: “The list of species which can be controlled in this way is something we regularly review. We are due to hold a consultation on general licences later this year.
“We already regularly issue specific licences to shoot ravens to prevent damage to livestock where there is no other satisfactory solution. So, If anyone is suffering serious damage to livestock, then of course they can apply - but any licence we issue to shoot ravens is done so as part of an overall scaring programme - and is not intended to cull the population.”