His previous guests blogs here all focus on the management, or mismanagement of upland areas such as the Peak District, Walshaw Moor and the North York Moors.
After Natural England’s sudden announcement on 23 April 2019 of the withdrawal of General Licences on 25 April 2019 I really did think this was the start of a new era for the preservation of all wildlife especially in the uplands. Grouse-shooting moors had been littered with piles of dead corvids – killed and then used to attract more animals and birds to be trapped and shot. The implication of these changes was gamekeepers would not be able to kill any wild birds on their moors (other than game birds) and therefore had no justification for carrying weapons or using traps.
There was immediate panic from grouse moor owners such as this on 24 April 2019 – an email from a grouse moor owner to a Natural England Adviser:
“I was horrified to see the news re General Licences last night but would hope that we can at least renew our gas gun licence as a non lethal deterrent to protect both livestock and nesting birds as per last year, see below. Xxxx has been out and done the survey and files the locations as per last year with NE.
I would also be grateful if you could let me know how I apply to control corvids via lethal control. We had xxxx out last week and have got our most impressive numbers of waders nesting on the low ground for many years. I am concerned that even a couple of days without any control would devastate the area.”
Of course it’s nothing to do with killing corvids to increase grouse numbers. My involvement here started on 2 June 2019 when I came across dead Crows used as bait on a snare line found on a protected site (Special Protected Area for birds):
I reported this to the police on 6 June, pointing out that no General Licence was in force for conservation of flora and fauna. I received a reply a few days later:
“However my understanding is, that if they have applied for a licence and it has been granted, (Of which I know from speaking at the Moorlands Association a few weeks ago, 99% had already been granted for those land owners present) then there will be no offences, as it’s a licenced activity and they have been granted.”
Which is police speak telling me that pretty much every grouse moor owner at the meeting (presumably the annual Chatsworth get together) had applied for and received an individual corvid control licence, so they could all carry on as before. And the police wouldn’t be following up on any reports of the killing of corvids on grouse moors.
What I see all the time is examples like this of how the establishment works: changes in the law? – no problem we’ll get around it and the police won’t be investigating anyway.
But I wanted to know more and check for myself, so on 12 June I sent the following Freedom of Information request:
“Dear NE FOI team
In light of recent changes to the General Licences associated with the Wildlife and Countryside Act I would like to clarify if individual licences for control (including lethal control/killing using traps or guns) of corvids or other bird or mammal species have been granted at the following grouse shooting estates in the Peak District, which I have identified by Agri Environment scheme numbers:”
(I then listed 6 privately-owned Peak District grouse moors).
The reply arrived on 10 July:
“Thank you for your request for details of any individual lethal control licences issued to the land covered by the below agreement numbers following the revocation of the General Licences which we received on 12 June 2019.
Your request has been considered under the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (“EIR’s”). Please attached copies of all lethal individual licences (including supporting documentation) issued to these areas during 2019.”
There was just one licence for killing 10 Herring Gulls and 5 Great Black-backed Gulls at an undisclosed South Yorks location. And zero corvid control licences. The gull licence was a model of “good” practice with a detailed Habitat Regulations Assessment looking at potential damage to the protected site and requiring extensive mitigation and detailed reporting. And by the way the purpose of killing the gulls was to increase grouse numbers. This is the licence Natural England wanted me to see.
I understand that FOI responses sometimes need to be redacted to protect individual identities. However in this case with a licence, the location was also redacted. The whole point of trying to find out about these licences was to give me some idea if unlawful activity was taking place. So I asked for an internal review.
Then in August a friend sent me an FOI about Midhope Estate, listing an email thread about the issue of corvid control licence 19020225, but not the licence itself. Midhope was one of the estates on my enquiry list and the landowner was concerned he wasn’t allowed to control corvids on a SSSI (and SPA/SAC protected site). The NE Adviser replied:
“The operation where it is lawful (ie under the auspices of a valid licence) is consented by the existing Moorland Management Plan.
4.11 Pest Control
The lawful control of all legitimate ‘pest’ species may be carried out e.g. fox, carrion crow, stoat, magpie, mink, rabbit and weasel.”
And to be clear:
Landowner: “Thank you very much for coming back to me. Just for the sake of clarification am I to take it that we are, as a result of having a license and an agreed moorland management plan, permitted to control corvids on the SSSI?”.
NE Adviser: “Yes the licence you hold is covered by the existing consent for lawful predator control within the Moorland Management Plan for Midhope, within the Dark Peak SSSI. Just for interest do you find that jays and jackdaws are a problem?”
Landowner: “Thanks for the clarification. I don’t think they are too much of a problem at Midhope but because I was unsure of how the Licence would work and as it appears to be non site specific I needed this for Wakefield where they are a problem.”
The Wakefield referred to here is the Wakefield Lodge Estate, Northants and is almost exactly 100 miles away, as the crow flies (or doesn’t) from Midhope. Wakefield Lodge is a prime pheasant shooting venue with an annual tour arranged with GWCT.
I tried to give Natural England the benefit of the doubt about their “mistake” in failing to disclose any information about licence 19020225 and wrote to NE on 27 August – no reply. The outcome of the internal review did not support my request for the location of any given licence but told me I could find out if a licence was in force by phoning “our Wildlife Licensing team on 020 8026 1089 to ask if a licence has been issued for a specific site”. When I tried this, staff in the relevant section refused to pick up the phone and admin staff told me to email. I emailed and received no response. Finally I made a complaint (Ref 7426 20/9/19) and received the following later the same day:
“Please accept my apologies this complaint was raised in error, and you need to complain to the Information Commissioner’s Office”.
In terms of public access to information, the democratic process and my legal rights, even after I presented clear details of a licence issued at the beginning of May, Natural England refused to acknowledge or supply any details of this licence and told me to go to the Information Commissioner.
I did raise a complaint at the ICO. They took several months to start an investigation and in February I was informed they’d written to Natural England requesting a significant amount of information. Just as I was due to receive this, the country was gripped by CV19 and I was told information cases would be delayed.
Finally in June 2020, Natural England did send me Licence 19020225
“Following additional searches we have undertaken in relation to your response RFI 4693 I can confirm we have located one additional licence that was in scope of your request that we unfortunately did not provide you with last year. May I offer my apologies that we did not provide this when we provided the other licences to you. Please find attached the outstanding licence.”
Given the detailed information I passed to Natural England I can reach no other conclusion than this licence was withheld deliberately. The question is why?
Find out more in Part 2 on Thursday.