Executions are back at Tower with secret cull to prevent a legendary fall

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The Independent Online

Legend has it that the presence of ravens at the Tower of London will guarantee the continuation of the monarchy. If the birds ever leave, the Tower will fall.

Legend has it that the presence of ravens at the Tower of London will guarantee the continuation of the monarchy. If the birds ever leave, the Tower will fall.

But their future - and possibly that of the Royal Family - is under threat from the predatory instincts of their common cousin - the carrion crow. So numerous are the scavengers, that the Tower's raven master - the beefeater in charge of feeding the ravens - has launched a secret culling operation to keep crow numbers down. As many of 12 crows a week are being shot each Sunday as they perch in the trees around the Tower.

The secret culling operation, disclosed to The Independent under the Freedom of Information Act, takes place early in the morning, before the tourists arrive when a Tower sharp shooter picks off crows with his rifle.

Both crows and ravens feed on meat and the smaller wild birds are said to be "competing" with the six ravens.

The weekly cull of sick or predatory crows is to stop them vying for food and spreading disease to their cousins.

Recently, hundreds of crows have been flying to the Tower at raven feeding time and flocking in trees in the hope of picking up scraps.

A spokeswoman for Historic Royal Palaces, which runs the Tower of London, defended the cull and said it was used on a "selective" basis to protect the ravens. "The crows are scavengers and they will eat and compete for food with the ravens which is stressful for them. There are about 200 which fly in every morning across the river to the Tower. If we don't keep them at a certain level there is concern about the multiplication of numbers.

"There are more and more crows coming. Every Sunday morning, the raven master goes out at 6am and spends a couple of hours. He has a .22 air rifle. The most he has ever got in one day is 12."

The raven master, Yeoman Warder Derrick Coyle, shoots birds which look ill, with dull eyes and lank ruffled feathers, because he fears they could spread disease to the ravens.

He also targets the alpha birds which lead the flock, to try to persuade them to disperse.

Crows which look as though they have eaten poisoned rats are also shot because if they die they would be devoured by their larger carnivorous cousins. The raven master collects their bodies as they fall out of the trees.

The ravens live a life of relative luxury at the Tower. They have their own raven hotel where they sleep at night. They are also fed fresh meat including chicken hearts, bought each morning by the raven master at Smithfields market, and can live for up to 40 years.

They are allowed to live free around the Tower during the day. The raven master calls the ravens to eat with a distinctive whistle, and the birds march in line as if on military parade. The six birds - Branwen, Hugine, Munin, Gwyllum, Bran and Cedric - include an avian couple which sleep together in the hotel.

But the Tower guardians, which range from age two to 27, are treated not as pets but as military personnel. They are "enlisted" and can be "dismissed" like soldiers for unbecoming behaviour. In 1986, Raven George "enlisted in 1975" was dismissed for "conduct unsatisfactory" and sent to the Welsh Mountain Zoo. He "received his marching orders" after demolishing television aerials.

A raven named Grog found the discipline too much and escaped after 21 years service. He was last spotted outside the Rose and Punchbowl pub in London's East End in1981.

According to legend, the ravens have been at the Tower since time immemorial. Charles II is said to have decreed that there must always be at least six to assure the future of the Crown.

But recently, a historian scouring 1,000 years of records, found no reference to the ravens before 1895. An article in an RSPCA journal, The Animal World, found a reference to the Victorian tower cat being tormented by ravens. Some now believe the legend is a Victorian hoax.

Ravens are a protected species in the UK, where 7,000 pairs live in the wild. They are far outnumbered by the one million pairs of carrion crows, many of which live as scavengers in cities.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds said it was legal to shoot urban crows to protect the ravens, since they were practically domesticated. But it would be illegal to shoot crows to protect ravens in the wild.

But the cull may not be legal for long - putting the ravens' future in jeopardy. Ministers in the Department for the Environment have ordered a review of the law under which wild birds - including crows - can be shot.

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