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?