If you think this is bad…

Jason Endfield has done a great job in unearthing more information about Natural England issuing licences for bird killing – this time the culling of Starlings – see here.

People are up in arms on social media about why Natural England has continued to issue licences to a farmer when the conditions of the original licence were not, apparently, upheld. Additionally, the Starling is a UK Red List species (it has declined lots in numbers) and the continued issuing of a licence appears to turn this into a decade-long gamekeeping action against this species on this farm. Surely by now some non-lethal solution should have been found, and, quite honestly, how is killing the birds any better than scaring them with loud noises?

It was while I was RSPB Conservation Director, probably over 20 years ago, that we persuaded DEFRA (although they weren’t called that then) to remove Starling and House Sparrow from the General Licences of the time. If we had not succeeded then this type of thing would have been happening much more widely, with no attempt at regulation. So if you think that the example that Jason Endfield produces is awful, just remember that this is at the ‘relatively good’ end of things.

Natural England has been stung into some sort of explanation of their behaviour – read it in full here and even Tony Juniper has been wheeled out to tweet about how NE is doing a great job – click here.

In the Natural England blog their Director for Wildlife Licensing & Enforcement Cases, Dave Slater, says that Natural England has five policy tests which must be checked before they issue a licence, and they are;

  • actual damage or a problem is occurring;
  • the species is actually causing the damage or problem;
  • other reasonable and practical non-lethal alternatives have been considered and tried (such as scaring, trapping or proofing);
  • the action is proportionate; and,
  • the conservation status of the species will not be negatively affected.

Those are the type of tests which are necessary to make the licences legal. It is also interesting that the blog mentions humaneness of control – I don’t recall much mention of that in previous discussions (maybe the Wild Justice Badger challenge is already having an impact?).

The five policy tests above are simply what the law requires. They are what the law requires for any killing of wild bird species to be lawful.

The Wild Justice legal challenges of General Licences in England and in Wales are based on the fact (we claim that it is a fact) that you cannot possibly ensure these tests are passed by the General Licences currently issued.

We await the results of the DEFRA General Licence review with interest and we are waiting to find out whether we will be granted permission for judicial review of NRW’s General Licences.

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19 Replies to “If you think this is bad…”

  1. The poor starling always take the rap.

    Plenty of bird species like to be where the cattle are - finches, buntings, swallows, ring ouzels (on passage), skylarks, wagtails, corvids, cattle egrets and more.

    Imagine the furore if these, too, were culled.

    NE’s Dave Slater has failed to come up with specifics - either a) about the number of cows alleged to have died because of birds or b) the science linking starlings with salmonella in cattle.

    It seems his decision to allow culling was based solely on speculation, hearsay and the special pleading of the farmer

    It is true that large numbers of starlings migrate here from Siberia and Russia but that doesn’t make them disposable. Some doubtless stay in the UK.

    With our own population under threat, it is reassuring to know they still flourish in some parts of the world.

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  2. I struggle to see why this case is causing so much fuss given all the other issues that we face. As you say, starling is no longer on the GL and so a small number of individual licences are inevitable. Much the same thing will happen if other species are (rightly) removed from the GLs. I don’t see ANY conservation issue here and I don’t think there are significant issues over welfare (though it’s never nice when birds are killed). Killing small numbers of birds is known to make non lethal scaring more effective, which is what this case is all about.

    I can see why people opposed to killing birds under any circumstance are cross about this. But I’m staggered that it is causing such widespread outrage among those whose normal focus is on genuine conservation or animal welfare issues.

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    1. The reason people object Ian is because it is symptomatic of a very poor attitude of mind on the part of both the farmer and NE.

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  3. Starlings do create a bit of a mess, particularly where cattle are kept indoors. It's impossible to starling proof cattle sheds. It's nice and warm inside with plenty of food so who can blame the birds.

    Shooting is probably the only "practical" solution for busy farmers and farm hands but it's probably a waste of time. There's likely to be a pool of birds visiting the farm so unless you kill absolutely everything there's little chance of solving the problem.

    When I was in Caithness we had a good relationship with local farmers. They let us put up nets in the sheds (this was in the days before we discovered clap nets) and ringing sufficiently "traumatised" the birds that they weren't so keen on returning. I know this brings ringing into a degree of disrepute but it's a possible humane solution, though a rather labour intensive one.

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  4. Steady, Stuart - you’ve opened a bit of a can of worms there!

    Ringing “traumatises” birds. The BTO won’t be very keen on that.

    I have to say I’ve always had my suspicions - especially if it’s preceded by mistnetting where stress is surely inevitable.

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  5. Worth pointing out that the starling and house sparrow are still listed on the DAERA General Licences for Northern Ireland. And I can assure you that a LOT of starlings are killed in cattle sheds around NI under the GL. Something to bear in mind given the furore over a few individual licences in England...?

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  6. The irony here is Natural England's promotion of the starling roosts on the Avalon Marshes whilst covertly assisting their destruction on the surrounding farms. It's a familiar tale of the general public being largely uneducated about what goes on behind the scenes!

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    1. I don’t think it’s simply poor education. It’s lack of consultation, involvement and transparency. The Wildlife and Countryside Act is the statute than governs the protection and licensed killing of birds, But it confers no obligation on the regulator, NE, to inform or consult. Hence the opacity.

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  7. Specific Licences are granted for a single season and will only be re-issued if the same problem arises the following year and the five conditions have been met. In some cases, the licences are issued year after year after year. Where this happens there can only be two reasons; either the problem cannot be resolved by conventional means (scaring, exclusion, etc) or there has been no effort or investment to resolve the problem. It’s not clear.

    The open-ended killing of any animal that is causing a ‘problem’ of some sort or another is a failure. All such interventions need an exit strategy or a periodic ethical and scientific review otherwise it’s just game keeping. Mark mentions the badger cull. There’s no exit strategy here and like the starlings if there is no proper transparency and consultation involving other than a small number of interested parties both are destined to go on indefinitely.

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    1. I think think this is an unusual case due to the proximity of a huge roost. I've yet to hear how cattle feed could realistically be made inaccessible to Starlings but accessible to cows.

      I think this is just NE bashing for the sake of of it and threatens to weaken support for other issues where the bashing is far more appropriate. Much loved English Nature oversaw the unregulated annual slaughter of tens of thousands of red-list Starlings and House Sparrows. We have moved on since then and I suspect (but don't know) that numbers are now in the 100s, reflecting particularly difficult and unusual situations. That surely is massive progress.

      As I've said, I do understand that people who think any killing of wildlife is wrong are going to be upset by this. But for it to be sparking more general outrage among conservationists just takes the focus away from bigger, more important issues. And it makes me fear for where we are heading when (hopefully) the GLs are amended. Are we going to see individual licence applications hunted down through FoIs and challenged in a blaze of publicity just at a time when the licensing situation has been changed for the better? It seems that as the numbers of birds killed reduces so the shouting about each case gets louder. Species killed in vast numbers each year seem to get rather little attention. Surely it should be the other way around?

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  8. I think there is a tremendous irony in the fact that NE are blowing the trumpet of "Natural Capital" and "Ecosystem Services" so loudly, yet they do not apply any consideration of this when they issue a licence.

    What service do the Starlings (or any other "pest species") provide when they are not being a pest? The licence system seems to assume that a pest species does nothing other than be a pest 24/7....365. Clearly this is nonsense, Its a bit like Tony Juniper saying he writes blogs in defence of his licensing system 365.

    Surely the positive benefits of these species should be taken into account?

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  9. Ian, I hope it is isolated. Bear in mind there are other large starling roosts around the country. Who knows what goes on in their vicinity?

    The shouting has got louder. Perhaps is mainly to do with better access to information. Forty years ago these activities went on without any reporting. Social media and camera phones has changed a great deal and there is no going back. Society is changing and organisations need to change accordingly. However,
    we ought not to bash the regulator if it is simply the legal framework that constrains it.

    Despite the improvements which you mention, NE does seem, despite some recent efforts, to be rather too opaque for my liking. I can understand the nervousness given the risk of exposing persons granted licences to criticism or worse.

    In my experience shining a light on the activities of a regulator generally is a positive thing in that confidence in their activity and objectives improves. For example, when the regulation of the food industry moved from the then MAFF to the FSA, an organisation wedded to transparency and public engagement, confidence in food rose steadily.

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    1. All good points Alick. I don’t disagree, though these days being open about any case where things are killed can result in a social media frenzy it seems. Cost cutting is no doubt also a factor in how these things are dealt with, both in terms of the staff to work on licence applications and in dealing with any fallout.

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  10. Typical Natural England and Defra and this Tory Government, their philosophy keeps emerging time and time again, and that philosophy is, if it gets in the way bash it and kill it. Little or no thought as to how to avoid the killings.
    What a double dealing lot they are. How Juniper and Spain have the cheek to remain in their posts defies credibility.

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    1. Though there is a lot less killing than there used to be under English Nature and (at times) a labour government. This hostility loses all its when criticisms are thrown around without thought and with no context as to how practices have changed over the years.

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  11. Making a realistic charge for a licence, based on the costs to the regulator in providing the licence would create an economic cist which may make the applicant consider alternatives. Making killing potentially the cheapest option I suggest leads to annual licenses in perpetuity.

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    1. That’s a good point. If applicants had to pay the full economic cost of processing the application and the associated monitoring one wonders how that might affect the numbers that apply. It’s not as if there is no precedent: Zoos, Driving, keeping Dangerous Wild Animals, Gangmaster, TV, Houses in Multiple Occupancy, etc, etc.

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      1. Quite right, make the cost a deterrent.

        Killing 'things', as somebody above calls living creatures, is far too easy.

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  12. I am reminded of the conversation between the Duke of Wellington and Queen Victoria regarding sparrows in the Crystal Palace: “Try sparrowhawks ma’am.”
    What all farmers with nuisance birds need is a competent falconer. There are plenty about doing a sterling job. Good argument for some NE funding.

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