Having waited for six weeks, I was delighted to receive an e-mail on my iPhone telling me that my application for a personal General License to control birds ‘Preventing Serious Damage’ had been approved and the License was attached. It was issued by Natural England and signed by James Diamond, their Operational Director. The same James Diamond who put up a blog about hen harriers on the NE website this week and attached a picture of a sea-eagle … but there we go. A cursory scan of the tiny PDF file on my mobile had me quite excited. The front page of the License carried a number of positives. Being at work in the ‘day job’ I didn’t have time to peruse it carefully so I waited until this evening to read it thoroughly. Only to find that Natural England had taken two steps forward and one step backwards. Please allow me to walk you through the document from a shooters perspective.
The License is issued under section 16 (1) of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and entitles me to kill or take certain species of wild birds; to take, damage or destroy their nests; or to take or destroy their eggs. Though only for the purpose of ‘Preventing Serious Damage’ as opposed to the separately required License to ‘Conserve Flora and Fauna’. Which I declined to apply for due the ridiculous requirements of the application form. I do wonder though, is there an argument under law that ‘Serious Damage’ could include the destruction of eggs and chicks of red-listed species and gamebirds? The reason I mention this is because Natural England at no point on this 5 page License define the meaning of ‘Serious Damage’. It does notrefer to crops, food stores, livestock, poultry or game. The interpretation is wide open and if that was the intention, then that is a big step forward. Yet I remain suspicious as to my protection under law.
Another positive aspect part of this License is that it covers nearly all corvids except ravens and choughs. Astonishingly it omits carrion / hooded crows. To shoot a crow I must still rely on GL26 (which we all know is unfit for purpose). It also covers all three doves (woodpigeon, feral pigeon and collared dove). Which begs a question. If the woodpigeon (covered by GL31, also unfit for purpose) is included here, why wasn’t the carrion crow? I’ll tell you why. Because Natural England, at the moment, doesn’t know its arse from its elbow. That’s why. Which is why we were told that Defra were stepping in … who have done nothing to change the status quo thus far.
Yet another positive (re the purpose and species nominated) is that I can control them anywhere in England where the landowner has given me permission. That’s better, NE. But sadly, although I’m allowed to delegate prevention of damage to ‘servants and named agents’ they must be over the age of 18 unless I have sought ‘specific written permission from Natural England’. I kid you not. So if my farmer calls tonight and says, “Ian, the pigeons are on the clover. Get over there tomorrow please!” I will not be able to take my 16 year old (shotgun license holding) nephew or niece along to help behind the net. How ridiculous and for what reason? Surely this is age discrimination?
Then, as always, there is the License Condition 7 that states ‘killing must only be used in conjunction with, and to reinforce, non-lethal scaring measures’. Absolute claptrap. This continuation of the nonsense bred somewhere in Brussels shows a complete naivety about pest control. The insistence that we must only cull any bird ‘caught in the act’ and only after trying to scare it off will do nothing to either defend crops or to protect vulnerable species. Forgive me repeating a short statement I put up on my Twitter timeline last week … “If you wait until they predate, you’re too late!” Conservation of vulnerable species is a war of attrition against predation. In any war, pre-emptive strikes are more effective than retaliation. Any woodpigeons showing interest in the drill should be culled before the seeds take root. Any corvid standing sentinel over all it can survey is a threat to every nest in its territory and should therefore be shot on sight. That is not ‘casual’ shooting. That is effective control and protection.
Condition 8 is dreadfully worded … ‘only undertake lethal control of birds during the breeding season if lethal control at other times or use of other licensed methods (e.g. egg destruction) would not provide a satisfactory solution’. What the hell does that mean? Whose breeding season, predator or prey? Whose eggs? Predator or prey? They’re not very clued up on legal definition at NE, obviously. Which is why they should have submitted all this documentation, for review, to our representative organisations before publication. Excuse the pun but they are being left with eggs over their faces … but at our expense.
If we in the shooting / conservation sector think these licenses are diabolical and restrictive, spare a thought for the charitable conservation organisations. Almost 30% of this License is dedicated to imposing special conditions (further applications etc) on those trying to control predatory birds on SSSI’s and wildlife reserves. It makes fascinating reading. They will need to jump through hoops to satisfy the terms. Meaning, of course, that many of the species they have been set up to protect will have been decimated before this nesting season finishes; because they answer directly to Natural England. That will include the RSPB. So Wild Justice (the three sponsors are directly linked to the bird charity) have done nothing but protect a host of nest predators and avian bandits simply to make a stance against legitimate shooting and pest control.
So where are we now? Tony Juniper, Head of Natural England wrote to Michael Gove, Secretary of State, asking him to take the poisoned chalice. He did … and has now missed three deadlines to deliver a decision on the way forward. Now, of course, he is immersed in a Tory leadership challenge. The General License debacle will be low on his agenda. Yesterday, Defra posted this announcement:
“We intend to announce shortly how we will proceed on general licensing, following an evidence-gathering exercise undertaken by Defra over the course of the last month. We received more than 4,000 responses to the call for evidence, and we have since been carefully considering all the evidence received in order to determine next steps, alongside additional evidence. As part of our evidence gathering we have sought the views of user groups on the usability of different potential licensing options. We appreciate the urgency of getting a working licensing system in place as quickly as possible. A final decision has not yet been taken on the way forward, but we will be setting out next steps shortly.”
We would be naïve to think that there will be a U-turn on the revoked Licenses. Nor is Gove likely to remain in post after the leadership election so we shooters and farmers must hope that Defra’s direction is not reliant on Michael Gove’s sponsorship.
The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 was a wonderful piece of legislation for Britain’s fauna. Exemptions under the General Licenses have been crucial to farming and conservation and worked well. The interference of Wild Justice was unnecessary. Pure mischief. Hopefully that mischief will be undone shortly and we can get on with legitimate and wholly necessary species control.
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, June 2019