Licensed to kill

Yesterday’s Guardian story about the scale of licenses given out by Natural England for killing otherwise protected birds builds on the earlier revelations in the blog of Jason Endfield.

The number of birds, eggs and nests involved (170,000) does look eye-wateringly large and the public reaction has been similarly large.

My view, as expressed here back in December, is that

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.


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.


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?

The last part, about transparency, is important to me. It seems strange that the licensing of an otherwise illegal activity on such a scale is not reported upon by the public body responsible for the licensing system and responsible for nature conservation, that is why I was quoted in the Guardian article as saying;

Avery called for Natural England to be more transparent and publish all its licences every year. “Why don’t they tell us what they’ve done each year, or are they ashamed of it?” he said.
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16 Replies to “Licensed to kill”

  1. Hello Mark, below is a letter that i recently wrote to Natural England regarding licences to kill Buzzards: –
    Dear Natural England and to whom it may concern,
    I have emailed you on several occasions without reply so now I write by letter to bring to your attention that since you issued a licence in July 2016 for persons to kill up to ten buzzards “to prevent serious damage to young pheasants” (a species that is not indigenous in this country) that the numbers of buzzards in my area of York appears to have crashed dramatically.
    In October 2017 we had on many occasions up to 6 buzzards circling above our house in Woodthorpe & had sightings throughout summer, but in 2018 we didn’t see any over Woodthorpe or on our travels around York.
    It is heart-breaking that you issued the licence in the first place therefore I ask, has a licence been issued in the York district to cull buzzards because due to the lack of sightings & the fact that we regularly hear shooting on the surrounding land I suspect that the buzzard population has been eliminated.
    I would also like to add that since you gave the green light to the shooting community do you seriously think that the land owners / farmers would bother to apply for a licence to kill raptors or any other kind of bird when it can be done indiscriminately without risk of being caught and prosecuted?
    I’m sure that you are well aware that North Yorkshire is the worst area in the country for persecution of all birds of prey, so again I ask why would you issue licences on an action that you can’t police.
    Just a few words about myself, I am now in my 70’s & I was brought up in the small mining town of Castleford West Yorkshire in the days of very poor air quality, pesticides & DDT etc. & I travelled the length & breadth of our country in order to catch a glimpse of Buzzards & any other raptor that I was lucky enough to see. So imagine my delight when they started to appear over my own house in Woodthorpe all to be potentially brought to an end by the stroke of a pen from Natural England. You should all hang your heads in shame!
    I would appreciate your response at the earliest convenience & hopefully a revoking of any licences that may be in place.

    Yours faithfully, Roy Hicks.

  2. The problem with the Guardian story is that it focusses on the wildlife killing that we should probably be least concerned about. Licenced killing is highly regulated to ensure that populations are not adversely affected. It does sound like a lot of birds, especially if you add them all up over five years and include eggs as well as birds (including non-native species that will often have been controlled by conservation organisations such as the RSPB and Wildlife Trusts). But it’s the unregulated killing that we really need to worry about. Species including Mallard, Wigeon, Teal, Pintail, Golden Plover, Snipe, Woodcock, Pink-footed Goose etc, etc can be killed in limitless, unrecorded numbers. Take the two species at the top of the Guardian list, Mallard and Greylag. Both can be killed in the shooting season by any landowner and this will involve many more birds than were killed under licence. Overall, the unregulated killing of all species will add up to countless millions every year, including birds from SSSIs and SPAs. I thought it was a bit of a non-story really – or at least I struggled to work out what, specifically, what they were complaining about.

    1. Ian – it is notable that NE did not tell the Guardian how many licence applications were refused. I’d like to know, as that might tell us whether any are rejected and on what grounds. It would be a very different story depending on whether 99% of licence applications are approved or 1%. You might have an idea of the answer but NE haven’t revealed it. Greater transparency needed.

      1. I don’t know the figures but licence applications are regularly rejected. I agree about transparency, though when you see the fuss generated by this sort of article you can understand why there may be a certain reticence! For people whose primary concern is wildlife conservation and potential impacts on populations this is not much of a story. And for people who object to killing of any kind this is very small beer when compared to unregulated killing.

        1. Ian – but for people whjo are interested in both or either, and interested in how the system serves the objectives set out in law, it is interesting.

        2. Ian – they are NOT regularly rejected unless you consider 10 rejections in 10 years regular!

          1. I think this is because people generally know what licences are likely to be issued based on previous experience or discussions with licensing folk before they apply (especially for more contentious applications). If 100 farmers applied for a licence to kill Red Kites or Goshawks in order to protect livestock that would result in 100 rejections, but unsurprisingly they tend not to bother. The Guardian article could have been headlined ‘Natural England continues to do its job as required by the wildlife legislation.’ This type of story takes a little of the impact away from times when criticism of Natural England is really merited. And it makes NE staff think that whatever they do they will be judged as failing and hopeless – which is a shame, and not helpful.

        3. Ian – Scottish Natural Heritage rejected 10 license applications to kill birds since 2014. That’s hardly regular, is it? I have no reason to believe Natural England will have performed any better.

  3. I think the key to all this, as Mark says, is transparency. It is only through such transparency that we will see a full picture and independent experts be able to say whether this is reasonable or not.
    My own view on licences to kill predators to protect non-native game birds is that I don’t believe that all non-lethal deterrent methods have been tried and tested as required by law and such licences should not be granted. Many feel there should be no licences under any circumstances for this (protection of none indigenous living targets). Once captive pheasants (and partridges) are out of the release pens they are legally classed as wild and therefore no licences should be granted against predation at this stage, despite most of the birds being about as wild as domestic poultry.
    I agree with Mr Hicks the knowledge licences have been granted to kill buzzards amongst some blood sports and pleasure killing folk has encouraged the unscrupulous and criminal elements amongst them into even further persecution of our beleaguered raptors.

  4. where / why are greylags so frequently the target? and what had all those mallards done? You conservation gurus out there presumably could make a good guess. Anyone?

    1. m – my guess is that they are near airports and large flocks of geese are a potential hazard. But may be agricultural. Mallards – again, air safety?

  5. The old nature Conservancy council did its job too well it was by no means perfect but it had some integrity and backbone ( with people like Derek Ratcliffe in its ranks) It had far to much backbone for the government so what did they do? they did what they always do with some thing or somebody that tells the truth and fights for a just cause, they got rid of it, split it up and gave us three useless governmental lapdogs which would come to heel easily and do the bidding of the rich powerful and privileged.

  6. Mark

    The killing is out of control – whether it’s Natural England or Scottish Natural Heritage.

    This is a reply I received about how many licenses were rejected over the last five years (the same period) to prevent serious damage to livestock, foodstuffs for livestock or fisheries.

    Dear Liz,

    Since 2014 there have been 10 bird licences refused for preventing serious damage to livestock, foodstuffs for livestock or fisheries. These were not then reapplied for by the original applicant.

    I have not been able to find any other bird licences refused for the other purposes.

    Many thanks,

    Kieren Jones | Licensing Officer – Wildlife Management Scottish Natural Heritage |Great Glen House | Inverness | IV3 8NW | 01463 725060

  7. Transparency is important. But included in that is transparency of process. The issue of a licence is a process governed by law. If the stautory authority becomes slipshod, it is vulnerable to judicial review. That, unfortunately in the wrong way, became manifest here:

    I strongly suspect, though, that the majority of cases have been slipshod to the advantage of those who wish to kill wild creatures, and review would reverse that. But judicial review is expensive for everyone, whether as plaintiffs or as taxpayers funding the defence. A clear explanation of decisions would help all round. It’s simple and cost-free, because they have to do it and document it anyway. Or should, I wonder how rigorous they are in that.

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