Licensed killing of birds

When Wild Justice challenged the general licences issued by Natural England last year all hell broke loose. A year later we are seeing new licences being issued by public bodies in Scotland and Wales, and are awaiting the new DEFRA licensing regime for England.

There’s a lot going on on this subject and, as one of the three directors of Wild Justice, I’m never far away from an email on the subject, as it were.

So, let’s take a step back for a moment.

All wild birds are protected by law – that’s a starting point. It’s a very good starting point and one that quite a lot of people seem to forget.

Under certain circumstances (for example, to protect human health or to prevent serious damage to crops), and if non-lethal methods don’t work (‘don’t work’ is shorthand for something quite technical and complex) then public bodies can authorise, by licensing, lethal control. You see, it’s already getting a bit complicated but it is worth noting that there is no ‘pest’ or ‘vermin’ list of ‘bad’ birds that can be killed on sight at any time of year just because someone feels like it. There isn’t, although a large number of people who appear to be killing birds seem to think that there is. No, it’s only under certain circumstances and conditions that lethal control is allowed, by law.

Public bodies can issue licences to allow killing of birds under specified circumstances and conditions. You can get a licence to kill just about any bird species under the specified circumstances and conditions but for almost all species you will need to apply for a licence. That’s fair enough as all birds are protected by law, and it’s only under certain circumstances and conditions that public bodies can authorise the exceptions. So, normally, you would have to fill in a form to be granted a licence, and the licence would specify the location, the species and the number of birds that could be killed. To get a licence you would have to make the case for the human health issue or whatever it was and also have to report on your activities after using the licence. Jason Endfield has explored these cases very usefully.

But for a small number of species, many of them corvids, public bodies have chosen to issue general licences instead of requiring people to apply for specific licences on a case by case basis. This is a bureaucratic decision, there is no necessity in law to issue general licences for bird killing, it’s just that governments have chosen to use this route.

General licences aren’t bits of paper – they are all published on the web these days. And individuals don’t apply for them but they can operate under their protection. But the onus is still on licensing authorities, such as Natural England and DEFRA in England, to limit killing to specific circumstances, with certain conditions and only after non-lethal methods don’t work. To do that they need to get the wording right – and that is admittedly difficult. It may be difficult, but for the licensing system to be lawful then it has to be done. Wild Justice is some way down the road of forcing public bodies to do this job properly.

Again, it’s a difficult job, but it is the job that public bodies have chosen themselves. If they did away with general licences for lethal control of birds then they wouldn’t have to think so hard about getting it right, instead they could, for example, require everyone to apply for specific licences whichever species of bird they wanted to kill. This is an option for any or all of the circumstances under which lethal control is legally possible. It may not be a perfect solution for all of DEFRA’s problems, and it might not be popular, but an existing alternative to general licenses is a system of specific licences. The alternative to general licences is not ‘no lethal killing at all’.

Public bodies are loathe to do away with general licences because, I guess, they think they can get them right and there are lots of people who have operated under the former general licences for years who don’t want anything to change and so are giving the public bodies a right earful on the subject. I can understand this.

To simplify things again, a bit, there are three general circumstances under which lethal control is possible: to protect people’s health or safety, to protect people’s crops or livestock and to protect wildlife.

For me, as a person, the least controversial of these is to protect human health and safety. For example, although I don’t fly much these days, hardly at all, I’d rather my friends and relatives weren’t killed in a plane crash and so, sometimes, and properly regulated, lethal control of birds will be a regrettable necessity. You may disagree, but that’s my view.

In the middle ground is the need to protect crops and livestock (from serious damage). I can completely see the need for this too and sympathise with particular farmers. But what is serious damage to crops and which species cause that damage at what times of year? And why are Pheasants even once released into the countryside, and essentially wild birds, classed by licensing authorities, through choice not necessity, as livestock? And can you shoot a Wood Pigeon anywhere in the country, at any time of year, and claim that you are protecting Oil Seed Rape from serious damage when all the Oil Seed Rape has been harvested and there isn’t any within miles of where you are?

As a nature conservationist, by far the most contentious area is killing birds for nature conservation purposes, particularly some species such as Rook, Jackdaw and Jay (and Magpie actually, but less so Carrion or Hooded Crows). I haven’t seen any nature conservation organisation complaining about a tightening up of general licences. Take the RSPB, it would be happy to see Jackdaw, Rook and Jay removed from the general licences that permit (wrongly) the killing of these species for nature conservation purposes. The RSPB doesn’t kill these species on its nature reserves and nor, to the best of my knowledge, do the WildlIfe Trusts or National Trust. Nature conservation organisations would be happy to see those species, and maybe some others, removed from the general licences pertaining to protecting flora and fauna altogether. So why is this issue contentious? Because gamekeepers and shooting organisations and their magazines are making a very loud noise about it.

The firmly common ground between many nature conservationists and many land managers is that there are some circumstances, such as to protect rare and declining species of conservation concern, such as the Curlew, where some lethal control of Carrion Crows is helpful. Killing Foxes is much more important than killing Carrion Crows, and killing Carrion Crows to protect Curlew only helps in places where Curlews are nesting, and only at times of year when Curlew are nesting. So you have to wonder whether a general licence which gives the impression of authorising lethal control of Carrion Crows at all times of the year, in all places, for so-called nature conservation benefits is the best way to give some help to the Curlew. You can see that it has a number of disadvantages and its main advantage is that it is simple. It is simple; it is both simple to administer and simply wrong, in my opinion.

These are the types of issue with which DEFRA has been wrestling for nearly a year. I have no regrets over being one of the three people in Wild Justice who have stirred up this issue. It’s a mess and it needs sorting out. DEFRA told us on Friday that the Secretary of State, presumably Theresa Villiers (but you can never be sure) will be deciding on options on Friday and then the world may hear fairly soon what the proposed new licensing regime will be. We will see how DEFRA has dealt with these complex issues of science and law. Wild Justice stands ready to take legal action if DEFRA hasn’t done a good enough job

It’s hardly the job of Wild Justice to write the licences that are needed but over the months, in writing and in person, we have made several points to DEFRA and others to help them get it right, and to lessen the chances of legal action in future. Here are some tips:

  • the starting point is that all wild birds are protected by law – the licensing system needs to allow carefully regulated exceptions to that overriding position
  • general licences are not a necessity to license lethal control of birds and if they were all removed then lethal control could be licensed by applying for specific licences just as is done for most species at the moment
  • class licences – could they play any role here?
  • having damage to crops by Wood Pigeons and attacks on livestock by Carrion Crows covered by a single general licence is bound to make the drafting of that licence very difficult
  • treating released non-native gamebirds as livestock is bound to attract attention to that licence
  • licensing lethal control for conservation purposes of a bunch of species that are rarely, if ever, killed by conservation bodies is ridiculous, brings the whole licence into disrepute and is bound to draw attention to any such licence
  • which species of conservation concern does DEFRA think that it is protecting through general licences?
  • general licences do not have to be so general that they allow anyone, anywhere at any time of year to use lethal control
  • monitoring of the numbers of birds killed under general licences is absent – that surely needs to be remedied
  • enforcement of the conditions of general licences needs to be brought in
  • to put this issue to bed, at least for a while, any general licences will have to be scientifically sound and lawful
  • there is no necessity to issue general licences – not rolling forward the current general licence covering nature conservation would be a good start
  • all wild birds are protected by law and any licensing sytem must strictly limit the exceptions to that overriding position
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36 Replies to “Licensed killing of birds”

  1. Lots of people seem to need to be reminded of these things. But then they probably think they should be able to kill whatever they want, when they want, for any reason.
    Related: I came across the case of the man who claimed the general licences covered him to shoot starlings with an air rifle in his garden, just because he felt like it, despite attracting them with feeders. RSPCA challenged his acquittal in the high court and won according to Birds magazine Spring 2002.

    1. m - yes, i remember that case. And now Starlings and House Sparrows are not on the general licences. the agricultural productivity of the UK hasd not plaummetted and rather few licences are sought.

  2. Could a possible solution at least in the interim be to have seasonal general licenses?

    If certain birds can only be killed at those times of year when they are likely to have the greatest impact on agreculture or on the conservation of other species then it may reduce unnecessary year round killing just because the licence permits it.

    Risk here though being that people may try to kill far more in season than they normally would.

    1. That sounds like an extension of the current shooting seasons and an extension of the species permitted to be shot.

      How would you monitor the killing of these birds?
      How would you be able to assess whether the killing was justified and that the killing was humane?

      Personally, I believe that there are many farmers, shooters, gamekeepers etc who believe they can routinely kill 'pest' birds. This casual, illegal slaughter of birds needs to be stopped and the whole licensing system properly reviewed and changed. Thank you Wild Justice for taking on this challenge. You bring hope to so many of us.

      Thank you Mark for explaining the licensing system so clearly.

      1. "That sounds like an extension of the current shooting seasons and an extension of the species permitted to be shot."

        No, I'm not saying that those species currently listed on the general licence scheme should be re-classified as gamebirds- although that might not be a bad idea as it may create a commercial interest in maintaining populations as opposed to wiping them out altogether.
        What I'm suggesting is that, perhaps for the interim, the general licences should only be valid at those times when the species listed pose a direct risk to whatever the particular general licence intends to protect so to end the ability to shoot those species listed at any time under the guise of doing so to protect X, Y, Z.

        "How would you monitor the killing of these birds?"
        Short answer:- it's impossible.
        Long answer:- Only way it could be done with general licences is through voluntary reporting, but being voluntary it's up to the induvidual licence user to submit reports. Mandatory reporting would only be possible with class/ induvidual licences, which, is what we should aim for in the long term. But even then, the user may under-report on their activities. I would suggest that in the interim licence users are encouraged to submit voluntary reports in preparation for mandatory reporting when general licences are scrapped.

        "How would you be able to assess whether the killing was justified and that the killing was humane?"
        You will have to ask a general licence user how they justify the use of the licence, and you would also have to hope they are a good shot/ only shoot those they can be sure of getting a kill shot on where shooting free flying birds.
        Perhaps long term when general licences are scrapped a requirement of gaining a class/ induvidual licence for a particular purpose could be a requirement to submit an ecologists report as part of the application

        1. Hi AnthonyB

          I think the only way of controlling the killing spree is to require all killing of sentient animals and birds to be carried out under an individual license with strict terms and conditions. This would ensure that the applicants would have to demonstrate the need for the lethal control, the methods already used and the scale of the problem. It would also ensure that the feedback would assist Natural England in assessing whether it was complying with its stated legal purposes.

          How can NE determine whether biodiversity is being improved when it doesn't know how many individuals of particular species are being wiped out?

          I would suggest that one new requirement of an individual license would be the need for the authorised person to be a shooter with verifiable qualifications demonstrating that the authorised person is a very skilled, accurate shooter of moving objects.

          I would also suggest that all applicants should be required to demonstrate the number of animals or birds they have killed through the use of waste transfer notes handed which, legally, businesses are supposed to obtain for the legal disposal of waste such as the carcasses of the target animals or birds. This would be one way to more accurately monitor the number of animals and birds being killed. It would also enable NE to determine whether the risk of damage to crops was serious.

          I don't see how NE could reclassify corvids as game birds - not after the huge outcry about the review of the General Licenses and the claimed scale of destruction caused by corvids and other 'pest' birds. It would be irrational and therefore open to Judicial Review.

  3. I'd like to see the shooting industry proactively engaging in this debate rather than just campaigning to maintain the status quo. It would be interesting to see their bullet point suggestions on how to sort this out but then I read a quote on a shooting website that pretty much tells you what attitude to expect. "Together with the woodcock, the snipe is classified as a wader but enjoys gamebird status...". I'm sure the jay "enjoys" being on the general licence as a bird harvested for its feathers too.

  4. I've never questioned the human health or serious crop damage aspects of the GL although I still think the Woody problem could be solved by it being classed as a gamebird with no close season ( helps the food argument as long as they are lead free). My problem as always been the Conservation clause and why released pheasants and Red legs are livestock when in law they are quite clearly not. However even without that what damage do crows and magpies do to released or unreleased pheasant poults, rarely any I would suspect. Thus any killing of corvids to protect them is a breach of the law.
    I think the point that needs spelling out to the "Game lobby" is that ALL birds are protected there are no "Vermin birds" and those that can be killed can only be killed in very specific circumstances. Recording of numbers killed is imperative of course and there is no justification scientifically for Jay or Jackdaw, almost none for Magpie and even that for Crow is equivocal except in specific circumstances.
    I noted the other day that GWCT were asking for views because " its not just about the science but the views of those on the ground" Do they want their prejudices taking into account, it would seem so!
    ANSWER to that is it can only be legal if it is scientifically justified and very little of it is.

    1. We have swallows nesting on our property every summer in the rafters of our outbuildings. Every year about 10 arrive and upwards of 50 to 60 leave at the end of Summer. This year 10 arrived and only 15 survived the onslaught of Magpies to fly away this September. Should I just let the Magpies wipe out the swallows?

      In addition, we have a large flock of chickens and are losing about 20 eggs a day to 2 crows and 5 magpies. How can I stop my property from being stolen by these birds.

  5. The starting point is that all birds are protected in law. Spot on.

    Another issue is the purpose of Natural England - which, in my opinion, it seems to have forgotten. In my view Natural England seems to consider that its role is to find ways of enabling businesses to circumvent legislation protecting the very flora and fauna they are supposed to be promoting and implementing or at least to find and support the easiest ways for business to carry as normal with minimum legal control or accountability.

    This is Natural England's legal duty.

    Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006, Part 1, Chapter 1, S2
    "(1) Natural England's general purpose is to ensure that the natural environment is conserved, enhanced and managed for the benefit of present and future generations, thereby contributing to sustainable development.
    (2) Natural England's general purpose includes—
    (a) promoting nature conservation and protecting biodiversity
    (b) conserving and enhancing the landscape"

  6. I've always wondered how much general license killing has no effect on the 'problem' whatsoever.
    I stopped Grey Squirrel shooting in the New Forest despite the fact that they do damage trees and may be a conservation problem, possibly predating threatened species like Hawfinch. The reason was that the number of squirrels being shot was so small compared to the size & productivity of the population that it could have no impact on the problems whatsoever.

    And the effect can be not just neutral but negative - lots of farmers in Scotland shoot dispersing foxes, mostly young, in the autumn without realising that every fox they remove from the population gives another fox a better chance of coming through the winter alive and fitter.

  7. I have long believed in killing something where / when it is doing the damage.
    Decoying 'Crows' on cut silage fields, and shooting half a sack of Rooks particularly annoys me, but, to some, they have to take their
    sport when they can, an opportunity to fire a few shots,which is really all it amounts to.
    I suppose it will be down to individual cases, as to what extent that damage, and attempted scaring methods, will be tolerated before
    lethal control will be employed ?.
    However, I think that where Corvids and breeding Waders are concerned, presumption of damage occurring should allow Larsen traps to be employed from say, mid March.
    This would not only be of obvious benefit to the waders, but more humane, in that, hopefully the target species will be prevented from breeding, and having dependant young in the nest.

    1. 'Killing something' - these are sentient beings! Maybe it makes people feel better if they consider them things.

      Fourth para - 'presumption of damage occurring' - is this all that is necessary to be allowed to catch them in traps?

      1. Hi Marian

        I think Trapit is mixing some General Licenses up or making a suggestion for bringing in a new license or for changing the terms of a current license. I am not sure.

        Trapit says:

        "I think that where Corvids and breeding Waders are concerned, presumption of damage occurring should allow Larsen traps to be employed from say, mid March."

        An 'authorised person' (such as a land owner or occupier) can kill certain species of corvids using, amongst other methods, larsen traps if all reasonable non-lethal means of controlling them have been applied unsuccessfully and you want to kill them to PREVENT SERIOUS damage to livestock and reared game birds or PREVENT SERIOUS damage to livestock, foodstuffs for livestock, crops, vegetables, fruit and timber growing. (You must also continue to apply the non-lethal methods of control when killing the specified species of birds under license.)

        You can also obtain a General License to kill certain species of birds for conservation purposes.

        These are the licenses I think he is amalgamating or referring to.

        The thing is the conservation license can’t be used to ‘PREVENT DAMAGE’ being caused by the species of bird being sought to be killed under license. There must be a conservation purpose.

        Equally, waders would not be classed as livestock since they are free ranging so a wildlife license could not be used to prevent serious damage to livestock.

        In addition, Trapit is simply referring to ‘damage’ not ’serious damage’. Therefore, even if the intention of the user of a license to kill certain corvids was to prevent damage it would still be an illegal use because the purpose was not to PREVENT SERIOUS damage.

        Look up "Wildlife Licences UK" and the search will take you to the Government website listing all the different types of Wildlife Licenses you can sometimes use and the terms of use.

        I hope that helps.

      2. I agree Marian, birds are sentient beings, and any right thinking
        person should consider this, when undertaking their control.
        However landowners having vulnerable wader populations under their care, and probably past experience to guide them, cannot afford to lose valuable clutches, and more importantly broods of chicks, whilst they wait to see what happens.

        I greatly admire the Carrion Crow (as others would confirm ), but to give it the benefit of the doubt in these circumstances is,to my mind, sheer folly.

  8. I am firmly against the issue of General Licences. There is no reason why they should exist: specific licences for specific species for specific purposes, with reporting of numbers, reviews and change control on a regular basis, should be the only option.

    Many of the claimed reasons for general licences just do not stack up. If farmers and estate managers don't want Corvids on their land then remove the carrion from the fields. Generalist predators have increased precisely because the shoots are leaving tonnes of carrion in the fields to sustain them over winter. Spend some of the money you get charging for shooting on cleaning up after your hobby.

    There has never been any scientific justification for the culling of Magpies, Jays, Jackdaws or Ravens: lot's of anecdote from those who want to kill them but every independent study (sorry, GWCT are not independent and Songbird Survival have no credibility) has rated the impact of Corvids on breeding songbirds as negligible. Grey Squirrels are far more effective nest predators than any Corvid. In fact, it is highly likely that the burgeoning Great Spotted Woodpecker population is more of a threat than Jays or Magpies.

    General licences are issued to save costs, simple as that. Therefore, make anyone applying for a licence, General or Specific, pay the full cost of the issue and management of the licence. This would establish whether there is a genuine economic case for issuing a licence or a purely habitual / traditional one. While they are at it: charge full cost for gun licences as well.

  9. The licence needs to take into account the positive contributions these alleged pests make. The licence needs to take into account the ecological and population impacts of culling.

    A pair of crows spend most of the year clearing up agricultural pests. Kill them and you have more pests, you also clear the territory and make it attractive to other crows...another pair or juvenile birds.

  10. Circus, Carrion Crows are indeed beneficial for much of the year,however the effect they can have on struggling species is surely not in doubt.
    Trapping, for say three months of the year, when non breeding flocks of over a hundred are
    commonplace, can have little bearing on consumption of agricultural pests.
    The theory behind Larsens, is to try to keep an area clear of settled birds, and any incomers too
    busy trying to stake a claim, rather than hunting for vulnerable wader eggs or chicks, that's the
    theory anyway.
    Lizzy, I am always impressed, by your ability to pluck some reference to a particular study, seemingly out of thin air, both on this blog, and RPUK.
    Yes, I should have prefixed any talk of damage ,with the word serious, my mistake, however, I was not confusing the different types of licence, or trying to create a new one, God forbid.
    My point was ( I think), that to 'activate' the lethal clause, in a general licence to protect growing crops for instance, the landowner has to try
    non lethal methods, before deciding these have not worked and the damage is severe enough to warrant killing the species concerned,
    supposedly. At least he still has a crop to protect.
    If the protection of breeding Waders is a prime concern, who is to decide when to use lethal means ?, with one clutch lost ? the possible replacement ? or worse still the brood of chicks ,and the entire season wasted ?.
    That's why I believe prevention is the best course of action, where this
    particular use of the general licences are concerned.

  11. I am in a quandary. I have five pairs of swallows returning annually to my barns and stables. In the years when our local magpie population is reduced (but not eliminated) they bring off at least two clutches each. However, when there is no control, the magpies invade the yard and devour both eggs and young resulting in no young swallows. So what to do? Control the magpies or have no swallows. As the barns and stables are in regular use I cannot think of a way to seal the swallow nests to allow the parents access but not the predators. What do the noble readers recommend?

    1. Nature, red in tooth and claw. Do nothing, let it take its course and appreciate the beauty in the good years and the brutality of it in its bad years. Above all, do not force human ideas of niceness or anthropomorphisation onto the natural process of predator and prey.

      But you can lock up any barn cats, that will do far more to help than any magpie control. Remember, cats are a non native invasive species.

      1. I don't have any cats; I am not a fan. They kill millions of small birds every year and hybridise with our native wild cat in Scotland. We should have the same law as Australia which forbids their uncontrolled liberty.
        On the subject of nature taking its course; I can tell you that the magpie population would stabilise (almost no predators locally) and the swallows would stop using my barns which would be a shame.
        It is all about finding the balance as I said in my original posting. Although I am most amused by the comments on blackbirds etc. Have you ever eaten a worm? Delicious.

        1. It's interesting that those who desire "balance" (nature isn't actually in balance. All populations are in a permanent state of flux around a central tendency), conveniently forget that human structures such as barns are, in truth, artificial nest sites, which distort any percieved equilibrium.
          Could it be that "balance" simply refers to the personal ideal of the individual in question?

    2. Perhaps the best response would be to acknowledge the complete absence of published, scientific evidence linking predation by Magpies to real (or percieved) changes in nationwide, long-term Swallow populations, and that nature isn't there to suit you. Or perhaps we should simply kill any naturally occurring predators under the excuse of protecting their prey? How many important pollinating insects are slaughtered by those nasty Swallows every summer? And how many of them are of rare or declining species? Alternatively, maybe I should be permitted to knock off any Blackbird in my garden, because I like earthworms better?

        1. Indeed, Mark.

          I'm thinking of starting my own campaign group, entitled "Butterfly Survival" (B.S.), demanding a change in the law to allow "control" of Spotted Flycatchers! 🙂

          1. Coop - you might get support from DEFRA and GWCT for that, and not a murmur of dissent from Natural England.

        2. I know a song about that:

          Where be that blackbird be?

  12. Nick, in your situation eliminating the magpies by the most humane method is a 'no-brainer'. Many of these problems with some members of the crow family probably arise from a combination of too much food, i.e. dead game birds, road kill and lack of natural predators. If shooting interests allowed more of their natural predators, particularly goshawks, to survive and spread I'm sure many a crow would be more cautious in its activities.

  13. So to begin with, I'm a farmer, who is a great lover of our wonderfully diverse flora and fauna. We have recorded over 100 different species of birds on our farm, from Osprey to White Stork, and even a Bittern! Right in the middle of Yorkshire.
    As a farmer we seem to be suffering from a lot of bad press, saying we murder anything that even looks at our crops, this is simply not true. Farming is not just a way of life, it is a business, and as such we have to protect our investments. If we have a 1000 pigeons grazing our OSR, then flapping our arms about and yelling profanities does not have any effect. Lethal control is absolutely necessary, without this the lovely green field of OSR would be brown in a matter of hours.
    It's not just pigeons that do the damage, rooks and jackdaws are very clever birds, after drilling wheat or barley, they are very adept at following the line of the drill, and picking out the seed, so again unfortunately we have to do something about it.
    In response to another comment about having seasonal licences, how broad a timescale are we looking at? We are still trying to drill wheat now, after a very challenging autumn, and if the weather allows, another couple of weeks we will be thinking about drilling spring barley, and then another month after that peas.
    To summarise we really need to have a system that allows us to be flexible, and continue to supply our nation with wholesome cheap food!

    1. Angus - I take your points and I (and Wild Justice) have no complaint against lethal control under lawful circumstances. Let’s hope DEFRA has used the last year to think through these issues properly. We’ll have to wait and see.

      I have less sympathy for Pheasant rearers as theor need is nothing like as convincing as yours. Farmers should maybe ask DEFRA for separate licensing systems for gamebirds and proper livestock - that might make life easier foe you. Just a thought.

    2. Angus as someone who once had a hill farm in Wales, I totally agree with everything you say.
      It is an immutable fact facing all farmers that somehow they have to juggle three things: producing food for us, conserving the countryside and its flora and fauna, and making a living to support their families and re-invest for the future. Experience will tell you that this is far from simple. Everyone lobbies for one, the other, but rarely all three.


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