Killing birds – the NRW case

There has been quite a lot of recent media interest in the data that have come to light through Freedom of Information Act requests to statutory nature consevation agencies in England, Scotland and Wales and published on the blog of Jason Endfield. He and others have done a good job in throwing some light on this area.

All birds are protected by law – but not to the same extent.  For example, gamebirds (eg Pheasant) are protected in the close season but can be shot in the open season. Some other species can be killed for various reasons, by various methods, throughout the year (eg Carrion Crows). Some species are high conservation priorities and it would be difficult to get permission to kill them at any time (eg Hen Harrier). But then there are the majority of species which are protected but can be killed, again for specific reasons, if a specific licence is issued.  These are the species mostly, about which this blog post is concerened and about which Jason Endfield has written.

Jason publishes a list of species for which licences have been issued by Natural Resources Wales in 2017 through to September this year which allow killing.  It’s quite a long list of species, 20 of them, including some interesting examples (eg Skylark, Curlew, Linnet, Kestrel).

Now, this list raises quite a lot of questions, many of which cannot be answered with the information we have, so here are some general thoughts.

I don’t have a problem with the principle of issuing licences to kill protected birds. That may surprise you, but I don’t. And that is because you have to think back to when the legislation came in (presumably the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981).  If you are drafting legislation which gives full protection to a bunch of bird species, over three decades ago, then you are going to think ‘But there might be some cases, and I’m not sure what they are right now, when rare exceptions should be made to this general rule of protection’. That seems prudent. And the legislators then thought ‘Well if there are exceptions they might be for this range of reasons’ and then attempted to write down those exceptions which cover things like damage to livestock, impacts on human health, impacts on air safety etc. That list exists and it’s quite a sensible list. And the legislators then thought that the way to maintain protection, but to allow some exceptions where appropriate, was that anyone who thought they had a genuine reason for killing a protected species must apply for a licence where their case can be judged. 

The list of species published are the species that have come through that process and where NRW has licensed some killing. (And when I wrote that sentence it occurred to me that it would be interesting to learn how many applications were turned down by NRW so I’ve asked).

This seems to me to be a perfectly good system in principle, and it may be a perfectly good one in practice too.  My bet would be that it works reasonably well most of the time – but that is a guess.

What would working well look like? A good licensing system would require applicants to describe the problem and what steps they have taken to deal with the problem with non-lethal means (eg scaring the birds away or catching them and releasing them alive). I think a good licensing system would reject frivolous or unwarranted applications and that is an area which I reckon it would be worth exploring in these days when landowners and farmers appear to be the key stakeholders of our statutory conservation agencies. The licences would be issued proportionate to the problem so that mass culls wouldn’t be allowed for a problem caused by an individual or small number of birds. There would be checks on the compliance of the licensee with the conditions of the licence and licencees would have to report on what they had done and how many birds had actually been killed.

We don’t really know how many of these things could be ticked as being present and being operated properly under the current circumstances but we also have little reason to believe that they are not.

I suggest that rather than these issues being revealed through FoIs the statutory agencies should publish this information annually in the interests of openness. Why not?

And should there not be a fee involved in applying for such a licence in these days of reduced budgets? I have to pay for a new passport, why don’t landowners have to pay for the costs of processing a licence to kill Linnets?  And why should the applicants’ names be withheld?

There aren’t many airports in Wales – I wonder which ones feel the need to kill Curlews rather than scaring them off runway areas?

And who killed a couple of Skylarks for what reason, I wonder? 

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11 Replies to “Killing birds – the NRW case”

  1. I've long thought our reaction to the killing of animals depends primarily on how unusual it is for that species to be killed in this country. On animal welfare grounds and in terms of impacts on the population, the killing of a few Buzzards is trivial and yet it generates widespread outrage. Why is it worse that killing Cormorants or Herring Gulls or Wigeon? I don't see much difference other than tradition and the fact that we have got rather more used to these species being killed, so we tend to become a bit more relaxed about it. On animal welfare grounds snaring and trapping Foxes would be towards the top of my list of concern, especially as it can be done legally when the adults have dependent cubs, yet this is something carried out by the same conservation bodies who complain vociferously about Buzzards being killed. 'England's Eagle' an RSPB spokesperson once said to help drum up opposition. And if so, the Fox must be 'England's Wolf'.

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    1. The license was indeed granted for "Falconry". However, the same licence, issued to the same applicant, also included permission to kill 2 Great Black-backed Gulls, 2 LBB Gulls, 2 Herring Gulls, 2 lapwings as well as a variety of smaller passerines. NRW declined to provide any other the details of this application - presumably on the grounds of confidentiality - so it leaves one to speculate on exactly what kind of falconry is going on here

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  2. I'm very much in agreement with Ian Carter on this. We are still predisposed (by culture) towards seeing some species as vermin (how I hate that word) and therefore able to be killed without any compunction. That cultural predisposition comes primarily (in my opinion) from hunting and farming of the last century or so. I think we need to examine it and change it. I have a "guest blog" on predator control - it's ready in my head but not yet typed up!

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    1. I totally agree, Ian and Andy.

      Basically, for possibly the majority of people, the desire to protect a species comes down to whether these animals can be useful for our own ends - as beavers might be - , whether we find them cute and/or beautiful, or we consider them rare and interesting.

      All the rest, let's label them vermin or pests and push them off the planet.
      A bit of respect for all sentient beings would not go amiss.

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      1. I agree that respect for all sentient beings is important yet often missing from the way in which we humans interact with the rest of the animal kingdom. I don't think that this means it is always wrong to kill other animals however.
        Whether or not you choose to use the words 'pest' or 'vermin' there are circumstances where we find the presence of one species or another intolerable and have to take measures to displace or eliminate them. Personally, I approve of the elimination of rats from the Shiants, for example, where an introduced species, the rat, was preventing seabirds from breeding and killing the rats was the only practical way of achieving this elimination. If rats or cockroaches or bedbugs were to take up residence in my house I would certainly take steps to get rid of them and it is hard to see how these 'steps' would not involve lethal methods. If we are to feed, clothe and house ourselves then we necessarily displace and often kill other species and even an organically grown, vegan diet will involve some kind of pest control which at the very least will displace other species from the land used.

        I think a pragmatic approach is needed. We should certainly be sensitive and respectful and should not leap to lethal control as the automatic response to every conflict with other wildlife but should accept that sometimes it is necessary in which case it should be performed as humanely as possible and limited to the minimum necessary. Sometimes this may mean the killing of a bird is justified but a robust and well managed licencing system should seek to ensure that the justification is clearly demonstrated and that alternative remedies have been demonstrated as not suitable. The argument that the details of licences, including who holds them, what they are for and why they were issued, should be publicly available seems very reasonable to me. This would allow us to see whether or not the licences are really justified and not simply undermining the legal protection of animals.

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  3. How many licences are issued contrary to advice? What are the standards of evidence that are accepted for licence applications? How many licences are issued for a lower number than that applied for.....and why?

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    1. From the info supplied by NRW, there are numerous questions unanswered. For example, a licence to kill 100 Herring and 100 LBB Gulls on "food premises" because - apparently - the birds are "fouling on staff food consumption areas". It raises all sorts of questions about the quality of the food emerging from that premises if it is allowing large numbers of gulls into wherever its staff have to eat!

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      1. "100 Herring and 100 LBB Gulls" Why 100 of each not 98 or 102; who counted the miscreants? Too many questions indeed.

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  4. I agree annual publication would be good. It would not be over-taxing on the agencies.

    The wider issue, and it is only this that slightly surprises me in your blog, is that given the Andrew Sells belief in 'discussion', NE (and I would add SNH) seem to have lost sight of the law that they themselves are meant to abide by. If that is true on major issues such as interfering with hen harriers , it may also be true for killing skylarks and robins. I don't think that presently there should be a presumption that they abide by their own law, though I accept that there is not much evidence either way.

    Going beyond that, even with current law which is quite tightly defined, there are clearly still interpretations of the terms that could be made public by way of guidance. The RSPB has a clear hierarchy of decision-making before lethal control is introduced. It would be entirely possible for NE and SNH to introduce a similar scheme.

    Transparency good, scrutiny good.

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