Wild Justice | Shooting’s “ecological assault”

Just days after their first birthday (which you can read about here), Wild Justice – the campaign group made up of Dr Mark Avery, Dr Ruth Tingay, and Chris Packham CBE – have launched an action seeking judicial review of so-called ‘gamebird’ releases.

The action essentially says that Defra (the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs) could be in breach of the EU Habitats Directive (which ensures the conservation of a wide range of rare, threatened or endemic animal and plant species) by allowing the release of up to 47 million Pheasants and 10 million Red-legged Partridges without taking into account the ecological impact these (non-native) birds could have on protected sites. While ‘gamebirds’ are not allowed to be directly released onto Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) or Special Protection Areas (SPAs), they are allowed to be released nearby. Once released the birds will naturally wander of course, and there is nothing then stopping them from entering and remaining within protected sites (which are likely to provide better feeding opportunities than less biologically rich surrounding areas). Wild Justice believes this may indirectly affect the rare and protected wildlife that the sites were designated for, and it is this threat that Defra has (illegally) failed to properly consider.

The action is not calling for a total ban on all ‘gamebird’ releases, but in practice it would be close to it. As they explain on their blog today, on Monday afternoon Wild Justice’s lawyers “lodged court papers calling for a ban of releases of Pheasants and Red-legged Partridges into the English countryside this year except where DEFRA has ruled out any impacts on the ecology of Natura 2000 sites. This is the latest stage in a legal challenge which began in November 2018. DEFRA admitted last year that it was required to assess the impacts of the vast numbers of non-native gamebirds on Special Protection Areas for birds and Special Areas of Conservation for wildlife and yet has recently admitted that its progress is so slow that nothing will be in place to limit releases this year. DEFRA has therefore not taken the necessary steps quickly enough to avoid further unlawfulness and we are seeking an expedited hearing for judicial review of their decision.”

The three directors are also quoted on the blog, explaining why they have initiated this review:

Chris Packham CBE: DEFRA has been dragging its feet on this issue since we first raised it. It is time to sort this out and Wild Justice is fully prepared for a court battle on behalf of UK wildlife. Our challenge relates to Natura 2000 sites in England but the impacts will be felt right across the UK countryside.

Dr Ruth Tingay: The lack of monitoring and regulation of gamebird releases is staggering. The Government doesn’t seem to know or care how many are released each year and even the figure of 60 million gamebirds may well be an underestimate. Incredibly, there is nothing to stop the shooting industry releasing twice as many gamebirds next year. This has to stop and proper regulation brought in.

Dr Mark Avery: These non-native gamebirds go around gobbling up insects, other invertebrates and even snakes and lizards, they peck at vegetation, their droppings fertilise sensitive habitats which no farmer would be allowed to fertilise and they provide prey and carrion that swell the populations of predators that then go on to prey on other threatened species. And the biomass of Pheasants and Red-legged Partridges exceeds that of all native UK birds put together. This is a very serious ecological assault on the countryside which government is failing to assess and regulate.

Without being lawyers ourselves, presumably if the court agrees with Wild Justice an enormous amount of data will have to be gathered to rule out “any impacts on the ecology of Natura 2000 sites”. This could take many years to collect and interpret. Incidentally, ecologists against the badger cull launched a somewhat similar action challenging Natural England, saying that the removal of a meso-predator (ie the badger) near to protected sites could be having untold knock-on effects on other predators (especially foxes) which might then impact protected wildlife on those sites. They predicted that even determining which data needed to be collected and by whom (unqualified cull contractors/farmers?) would take many months. Shooting would presumably face the same problems, unless they could somehow successfully argue that government should sort out the mess the rapid intensification of the shooting industry has itself created.

 

While this particular challenge is highly targeted (as judicial reviews tend to be), it is also of huge concern that shooting’s ever-expanding releases mean they employ an ever-expanding arsenal of traps and snares to protect ‘their’ birds from the very predators that ‘their’ birds help see through the winter (‘only’ 30% of ‘gamebirds’ are actually shot, killed and retrieved each season, many of the rest provide winter food for scavengers whose populations remain artificially high as a result). The industry is buying up and fencing off more and more woodland to rear more and more pheasants. And there is increasing conflct with ordinary people who find themselves stuck in the midst of what is virtually a war-zone half the year.

Will this challenge change anything? That will be up to the court to decide of course, but Defra has already responded that they can’t possibly get anything done by the opening of the next ‘season’. Shooting will of course kick against what they will perceive as a threat to their rights to kill (and their profits) – as it always does when it feels that ‘antis’ are having a pop at them (which is ironic given their hobby). There will be the usual whining on social media which will be loaded with misinformation (fact: none of the Wild Justiceers are anti-shooting per se, they’re anti illegality). But whatever the outcome, actions like this challenge shooting’s belief that it is ‘untouchable’, and more and more people will be presented with the unpalatable truth that every year shooting releases more than fifty million birds into the countryside simply so that they can be blasted out of the air for fun.

 

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