I am writing to you to ask that you carry out an urgent, independent review of the functioning of Natural England’s wildlife licensing work. I believe that is clearly underperforming and in some very serious ways. Since the bits of your licensing system that I can see are only a few, and since even those insights can only be achieved with considerable difficulty as an outsider, I can only wonder what a mess an independent review would find. Wildlife licensing is one of your statutory functions and I believe Natural England is falling down badly in carrying out those duties.
I feel I can probably predict your initial response as I’ve seen it used several times by Natural England recently, and that is that wildlife licensing is a contentious area. And so it is, but there is a difference between a contentious area of work which is carried out efficiently, openly, with due regard to the science and without fear or favour and one which is carried out inefficiently, in great secrecy, without regard to the science and which is too heavily influenced by powerful lobby groups (and government).
Let me give you some examples of my concerns.
The 2019 Natural England licensing scandal
I have featured this case on my blog over recent weeks and months (by Bob Berzins 16 June, by Bob Berzins 18 June, 21 July, 7 August, 21 September here and here, today). This example seems to me to contain all of the faults that I suggest apply at least occasionally to Natural England’s licensing work.
Bob Berzins (to whom we, the public and taxpayer owe a huge debt of gratitude) asked Natural England to see licences that had been issued for killing birds in his local area. He was told that there was only one and was sent it. He later discovered that there was another one and learned enough of its details to ask to see it specifically. He was refused by your staff and only because of his amazing staying power did he finally receive it after a complaint to the Information Commissioner. This looks to me like a clear example of Natural England being shockingly obstructive and secretive. It is difficult not to think that this was in an attempt to hide the true scandal of which this licence was simply an example.
I discovered that the licence that Bob was shown was one of over 1100 similar licences issued by Natural England last year. All were licences to kill named species anywhere in England above the high water mark (and save on designated sites). They were, in effect, general licences. Further we know from your staff that only a small proportion of licences were refused so most applicants were given licences. We further know that those who did get licences were practically always (on the random sample of licences seen by me) authorised to kill every species they asked to kill. And we know that the evidence for conservation benefit provided by the applicants varied between absent and wholly inadequate.
I do not know what involvement, if any, your Chief Scientist and Scientific Advisory Committee had in any overview of this process (potentially none), but if they did have any, then they were not carrying out their roles properly as no scientist could argue that the evidence accepted by Natural England as good enough to authorise killing of wildlife (which would otherwise be unlawful) was scientifically justified or even approached it. Whatever the details, on the science, your internal systems were hopelessly inadequate.
It is pure, perhaps impure, conjecture on my part but I cannot but think that the totally scandalous issuing of so many licences, so widely unconstrained, so scientifically unwarranted, so quickly was because Natural England yielded to pressure from shooting interests to get these licences done.
These licences authorised unlimited killing of many species – certainly of thousands of birds (1100 licences, mostly naming over five species) but realistically tens of thousands of birds and quite possibly hundreds of thousands of birds. Wild Justice has criticised general licences as resulting in casual killing of millions of birds, this insight into Natural England’s licensing last year demonstrates casual licensing of casual killing of thousands of birds.
I have not seen Natural England comment on this scandal as yet. I believe it is a sufficiently serious well-documented failure of Natural England to carry out one of its statutory functions that it alone demands a thorough, independent investigation.
This matter has also featured on my blog several times (see Dominic Woodfield’s guest blogs 9 July 2018 and 24 September 2018, 20 July, 22 July, and again on 22 July, 24 July, and again on 24 July, 16 September.
The issue here is very simply of Natural England being secretive about a scientific report concerning impacts of Badgers on bird numbers, which formed part of the basis for Natural England’s advice to their own staff and on which Natural England relied upon in court when Badger culls, licensed by Natural England, were challenged. The report is being reworked and I will be interested to see the future, different, report when it is ready but I, and others, wish to see the report which BTO did for Natural England and for which Natural England paid a few days after being invoiced back in July 2018.
You, Natural England, are refusing to release this report. It is difficult not to think that you are trying to hide something. It’s a report – not the keys to the UK’s nuclear warheads. It’s a study, based on data collected by volunteers like myself. You are withholding the evidence on which court statements and public policy decisions have been made. It is beyond belief that you hide this report away and do not allow the BTO to disclose it. It is also unfortunate that the CEO of the BTO is the head of your Science Advisory Group which makes the whole matter even more contentious.
Hen Harrier Brood meddling
This is certainly a contentious issue – so contentious that the RSPB and I challenged it by way of judicial review, lost and decided that the matter was so contentious that we should press on to the Appeal Court (where a renewed hearing is still awaited). But whether or not brood meddling is legal, Natural England’s handling of it has been secretive and misleading. This is a live issue right now see RPUK blogs 15 September and 21 September, RSPB blog 11 September, Natural England blog by Dave Salter 17 September, my blogs 19 September , 13 September and 3 September.
The issue here is that Natural England published misleading and partial information about this contentious activity and that where there is any doubt, Natural England always puts the project in a good light rather than admitting that it is a shambles. Your organisation is not meeting the scientific or openness standards that should be expected of a statutory body.
Licensing of species reintroductions
This is a general point that any review should look at. Natural England treats reintroductions of native wildlife as a major issue which requires huge amounts of justification and paperwork – and delay. Take the example of Beavers as just one case study. This is in complete contrast to the ease with which it is possible to be authorised to kill our wildlife. This is partly an issue for your bosses in DEFRA but there is much that Natural England could do to even up the playing field and make it easier to do good and more difficult to do harm.
Licences to study or monitor
As immediately above, the impediments that Natural England puts in the way of those who have benign intentions are out of all proportion to the ease with which killing wildlife is licensed. There should, of course, be a system to protect wildlife from accidental harm from thos who mean it well but that system surely cannot be so out of kilter with the ridiculous ease with which uncapped, unregulated, unjustified killing is aloowed by your staff. There is something considerably awry here, and it is a thing of Natural England’s making, not of the law as it stands (as I understand it).
I could mention Bowland Gull culls (see the last blog in a series published on 16 August 2018), licensing of taking Peregrine chicks from the wild (see here) and the revelations about the licensing system made by Jason Endfield’s enquiries but those might fall into the simply controversial category, but they do add to the picture that Natural England’s licensing regime is friendly towards those who harm nature and uncooperative with those who wish to protect it.
So, my request is that you mount an independent thorough review of Natural England’s performance in wildlife licensing over the past five years and publish the findings by next Easter at the very latest. We, the public, can have no confidence in this aspect of Natural England’s work at the moment and at a time when you are recruiting more staff it is important that they are working in the right way and with the right outcomes in mind.
I’m sure that Natural England’s reputation and its ability to carry out its statutory functions would be enhanced by such a review.