Crowdfunder: Wild Justice – General Licences in Wales

Our favourite trio of ‘injustice fighters’ – Dr Mark Avery, Dr Ruth Tingay, and Chris Packham CBE aka Wild Justice (and if you don’t know what WJ is or what they do have a read of our write-up of their first birthday party) – have launched a Crowdfunder to challenge yet another poorly-written and scientifically illiterate piece of legislation in the courts. They’re again taking on the General Licences – this time in Wales.



On 17th March, Wild Justice and their phenomenally dedicated team of lawyers filed an application for a judicial review of Natural Resources Wales’s (NRW’s) issuing of general licences on 1st January this year. NRW says on their website that they “issue general licences to allow certain actions to be carried out without the need to apply for a specific licence [our highlighting]. Each general licence is issued for a particular purpose and some are limited to certain species only.”

If you’re not sure what a General Licence (GL) is, essentially they are government licenced short cuts to kill wild birds. GLs don’t exist as hard copies. They are vapour-thin, not-really-there online permits which the ‘licensed’ person only has to say they have read to be allowed to kill wild birds that would normally be protected by eg The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. There’s no test to pass to get one, incidentally: the government will take you at your word that when you turn your gun on a flock of birds or set your cage traps up, you have read the regulations and done everything you can to employ alternatives to lethal control. As NRW put it, “Persons authorised by this licence must ensure they have read and understood the terms and conditions of this licence prior to carrying out licenced activities” – yes, that’ll ensure things are done legally and properly…

Now, killing birds is supposed to be ‘last resort’, but as we all know that’s not how some of our ‘countryside managers’ see things. On that point, Wild Justice say (correctly of course) that all wild birds are protected by law and the exceptions to this full legal protection are well-defined and quite specific. Although NRW has stated the purposes of their general licences (eg nature conservation, protecting crops from serious damage, human health etc) they have not identified the circumstances under which there is no non-lethal alternative to using lethal control. This, WJ argues, is unlawful and amounts to allowing the casual killing of otherwise protected birds.

In more specific terms, WJ has a real problem with General Licence 004. NRW has produced a pile of new updated general licences, but four are perhaps key: GL001, 002, 004, and 016.(they can be found in English here). All of them are woolly and open to abuse (though GL002 which licences the killing of Feral Pigeons for the purpose of preserving public health and preventing the spread of disease to humans would be the least contentious for many people). GL004, though, is a cracker, as WJ discovered when they went through the details…

GL004 licences the killing or taking of certain wild birds for the purpose of conserving wild birds. The species covered are Carrion Crow, Magpie, Jackdaw, and Jay. Quoting GL004 is a gamekeeper’s favourite when they assume the ‘role’ of ‘conservationist’ (and ‘conservation’ is how they describe killing lots of birds so that lots of other birds can be killed by shooters). But WJ looked closely at which wild birds would be conserved by wiping out these four species of corvid, and found that “many of the 143 species listed have never, and will never, nest in Wales! Species like Sanderling and Velvet Scoter are winter visitors and corvid predation on their eggs in Wales is simply out of the question.” They could have also included that NRW lists Balearic Shearwater – a species which only breeds in the Balearic Islands and in a few sites along the south coast of France – and the peculiarly named ‘Whimchat’ which doesn’t exist at all (yes, it’s a typo for Whinchat, but don’t governments have a responsibility to check these things when they’re allowing wild birds to be killed?).

As WJ go on to say, “…there is no strong evidence, and precious little weak evidence, that, for example Jackdaw has any impact on species of conservation concern in Wales (or anywhere else). In one of the most important studies looking for evidence of impacts of predation on prey species, the authors didn’t even consider Jackdaw as worth examination because it simply isn’t a predator of nests and chicks…yet Jackdaw is on the list as a species that can be killed for nature conservation purposes. This is turning the precautionary principle on its head.”

Shooting lobbyists have reacted to this challenge to their pet licences with the sort of faux-outrage that we’re all becoming utterly used to. Rather than admit that there are clearly problems with NRW’s GLs, and that all WJ is doing is challenging bad law, BASC, for example, has started yapping that (as WJ put it on their blog) “[we] are bringing down the whole of farming, the whole of the countryside and the health of Wales by using legal approaches, available to all in a democracy, to challenge government action“. We won’t link to BASC here, but they are even asking, why in a time of national crisis has WJ chosen to launch a legal action about birds? WJ has answered that of course, but we’d also respond by suggesting that it appears to us that the shooting industry is using COVID-19 as a cover to carry on killing wild birds just as they have done for – well, ages. Shame on them, frankly.

WJ does acknowledge that these are incredibly tough times for many, many people and asking for funding now is a risk – but NRW clearly wanted the fight (they were warned there would be one if they published their updated licences) and WJ (thankfully) won’t back down when it comes to protecting our wildlife. Considering that WJ has raised more than £13,000 from 550 people in just a few days, it looks like they have a great deal of support as they (according to the ridiculous shooting industry) destroy Wales. They certainly have ours, anyway…