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