SNH confirm shake-up to general licenses

After pressure from Wild Justice and campaigners, a range of common bird species will be given greater protection following a shake-up of a weak and abused licensing system in Scotland that allowed gamekeepers and farmers to kill otherwise-protected wild birds under a ‘General Licence’.

The list of eleven species, which includes European Herring Gull (a declining species of conservation concern), Magpie, Collared Dove and Rook – regarded by some agricultural lobbyists as a risk to livestock, crops and public health – will receive stronger protection from 1st April this year. The change of rules means birds can no longer be killed without special permission. It also means action to kill birds that may pose a potential health risk in city and town centres, such as Woodpigeons, certain gulls and Jackdaws, will have to be approved first.

Although intended as a last resort for dealing with problem birds, the General Licence has long been used as a ‘licence to kill’, with campaigners showing that hundreds of wild birds are being slaughtered with no official oversight (contrary to existing legislation), no need to keep records of the numbers killed and with no need for explanation. The move by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH – ‘Connecting Nature and People in Scotland’ apparently) to rethink the General Licence system came after a similar system in England was subjected to a legal challenge led by Wild Justice (listen to a podcast with Wild Justice’s Mark Avery here).

Natural England went on to revoke licences for controlling sixteen species of birds – including pigeons and corvids. The move sparked an online backlash from so-called ‘countryside groups’ who argued (without evidence) that farmers’ hands were tied when it came to protecting crops and livestock, particularly young lambs. There were also complaints that the licences had been altered without prior consultation with farmers and gamekeepers.

While Scottish Natural Heritage maintains the General Licences system in Scotland is slightly different, campaigners called for a full review. A 12-week consultation received more than 700 responses.

According to SNH, a further review looked at the latest available evidence and found that while many wild bird populations are in a healthy condition, a range of pressures, including climate change, has led to birds requiring greater protection.

However, while additional protection has been given to certain birds, the licence review has extended the rights to control Greylag Geese, which are particularly disliked by farmers in Orkney and the Western Isles. From April, the birds will be open to year-round control, instead of being limited to just July and August. The move is said to be aimed at helping to minimise “widespread agricultural damage to grass pasture and emerging crops”. Yet again, birds are sacrificed to agri-business and lobbying…

Speaking about the changes, Robbie Kernahan, SNH’s head of wildlife management, said: “We want to make sure our licences remain relevant, evidence-based and fit for purpose and our new General Licences will better balance current conservation research with the needs of licence users.

“Our role is to help wild birds thrive, but we must also safeguard the public from health and safety risks, as well as make sure farmers can protect their crops.”

SNH said it had also introduced greater transparency around the use of traps, which require individual users to register to increase understanding of how General Licences are used. Some traps have been found to use decoy birds to attract healthy birds which are then trapped and left to die or are bludgeoned to death. Other methods of culling include oiling eggs with paraffin to prevent hatching.

Scottish Green MSP Mark Ruskell, who has previously described the SNH General Licences system as a “free pass to kill wildlife with no oversight”, said: “While I welcome any small improvements in conservation, General licensing has had its day. SNH claims all birds are protected in law, but a general licence is effectively a carte blanche to kill a species indiscriminately.

“SNH’s conservation role needs to be re-focused to ensure vested interests in hunting and shooting are not put above Scotland’s ecosystem and wildlife.”

Keith Morton, RSPB Scotland senior species policy officer, said: “There are certainly some improvements, such as the removal of declining gull species and a better system for tagging traps and identifying who is using them. But there are still species listed that may be killed in unlimited and unrecorded numbers for potentially opaque reasons.”

According to the highly-influential blog Raptor Persecution UK, while Ravens are now excluded from the General Licence in Scotland, “we are hearing rumours that the so-called Strathbraan Community Collaboration for Waders (basically a load of gamekeepers) and GWCT might be preparing another application for a specific licence to kill ravens in Strathbraan. Freedom of Information requests have been submitted and we’ll keep you posted.”