The Natural England decision to revoke the long-standing General Licences came out of the blue for Chris Packham, Ruth Tingay and me (the three co-directors of the not for profit company, Wild Justice) as it did for everyone else. We had no warning of what they were going to announce beforehand (which I think was a bit rude of them really considering how tenderly we have treated them, but that’s a small thing).
Since Tuesday at 4pm, the three of us have been responding to media enquiries, talking to our lawyers, monitoring events as best we can and trying to understand what Natural England is doing.
We aren’t the only ones trying hard to figure out what the changes mean and when they will arrive. And I guess that because of the confusion surrounding much of this issue Wild Justice’s views and actions have often been misrepresented and misconstrued.
So this blog post is a bit of a resource to which we can refer commenters in the general public, the media and in land-managing organisations to correct some common misapprehensions. In particular it provides the links to the broadcast media where in our own words, and largely unedited, we speak our minds and lay out our own views.
Here is a FAQ:
Q: Why have you forced NE to change the law?
A: the law hasn’t changed. The law today is the same as it was on Tuesday morning and the same as it was 10 and 20 years ago. But NE and its predecessors (and perhaps statutory agencies in other UK countries – we haven’t got into that yet) have been operating an unlawful licensing system. That’s why Marian Spain, Interim Chief Exec of Natural England, said ‘the licences were unlawful’ on Farming Today on Friday morning. Anyone complaining about the changes to the licensing system that are being brought in needs to appreciate that they may have ‘benefited’ from decades of lack of clarity over what the law says and they may have been committing unlawful acts unknowingly (or perhaps knowingly).
Q: Why did you make Natural England revoke the licences so abruptly and cause so much chaos?
A: we didn’t. Our legal case for judicial review called for Natural England to admit the illegality of the (now former) licensing system and to undertake not to introduce a similarly unlawful system on 1 January 2020 when the current (now former) licensing ran out.
Q: But you knew that this was all going to blow up at this inconvenient time of year for land managers.
A: no we didn’t. The legal process required us to do various things before 1 April (three months after NE issued the General Licences (now revoked) for 2019. We sent the first formal legal papers to NE on 13 February. After that, the timing was determined by the (slow) pace of NE’s responses and their (ultra-rapid and sudden) announcement of the revocation of the licences. None of that was under our control. See a previous blog which lays out the chronology.
NE could have admitted that things had to change on 14 February or any time after that, or they could have decided to fight us all the way through the judicial process in which case we might have ended in court in the autumn. And we might have won or lost the challenge.
So, no we didn’t know when this would all play out. And to be perfectly frank, whenever it had come there would be the same howls of protest from those affected, particularly because NE chose the ultra-rapid revocation route and then have been poor to communicate what is actually happening.
Q: why are you seeking to end all pest control when farmers and landowners need it?
A: we aren’t.
We don’t like the term ‘pest’ because it is often used to denigrate a whole species, eg Carrion Crows, when the law allows some Carrion Crows to be killed under specific circumstances not because they are ‘vermin’, ‘pests’ or have any less protection than other species. But, moving on from that matter of nomenclature…
We recognise that it is reasonable, as a last resort, and under some specific circumstances, to carry out ‘pest’ control – that’s what the law says (and it hasn’t changed) and we aren’t seeking to change it and we accept it.
We expect, though, the licensing system to be fit for the purpose of allowing lawful ‘pest’ control and not allowing casual killing of species that somebody somewhere has decided they don’t like or which can be ‘pests’ under some circumstances but not under all circumstances.
Q: You lot are just anti-field sports, anti-shooting and anti-country people aren’t you?
A: no. the General Licences apply to many aspects of life not just shooting and are exercised in towns as well as the countryside. And the views of the three Wild Justice co-directors on shooting of gamebirds are not exactly identical. But whatever our views are that doesn’t affect the legal outcome of this case – we pointed out that the statutory wildlife agency for England was operating an unlawful wildlife-killing licensing system and we were right.
Q: you must be ashamed of what you have done.
A: no, we are pleased to have won our first legal challenge and shown that a statutory body was operating an unlawful bird-killing licensing system. This challenge will, we hope, make statutory bodies more careful about how they administer wildlife laws. We are grateful to over 1100 supporters for voluntarily funding this legal challenge and we are grateful for all the messages of congratulation we have received.
Q: what’s next for Wild Justice?
A: don’t worry, we’ll let you know.
We will monitor and assess Natural England’s response to this challenge as it unfolds. We expect they will be quite careful but we cannot rule out further legal action on this subject (though none is planned at the moment). We will be looking particularly carefully at issues around killing Woodpigeons, or indeed Rooks, not for any of the lawful reasons allowed under the legislation but for food consumption (see here) and at the scientific basis of any new licenses which purport to license bird killing for the protection of fauna or flora (see here for some thoughts).
We have had discussions with senior police officers about hare coursing and we are planning meetings with other organisations on this subject – indeed, one was planned for Thursday but was postponed because of changes to plans caused partly by the NE General licence announcement. We can already see that our view on hare coursing is rather similar to that of many other countryside organisations – we might well end up working together on it.
Wednesday 25 April – Statement by Wild Justice on winning their legal challenge.
Wednesday 25 April – the chronology of the Wild Justice legal challenge.
Wednesday 25 April – Mark Avery talks on the Today programme about the General Licence legal challenge (last 10 minutes of programme)
Thursday 26 April – Pigeon Pie and the General Licences
Friday 27 April – Songbird Science
Friday 27 April – Mark Avery talks on Steven Nolan show Radio 5Live about General Licences about an hour and 25 minutes into programme