Guest post by moors campaigner and author of ‘Snared’ Bob Berzins.
If anyone is trying to understand the legal framework protecting wild birds here in the UK, the RSPB is a great place to start. They tell us that the most significant piece of legislation is the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, where “All birds, their nests and eggs are protected by law” (see also ‘Nesting Birds and the Law‘ on this site).
Which sounds brilliant for conservation, until you read the exceptions. The most significant of these is the issue of General Licences, which allow people under certain conditions to perform acts which would otherwise break the law. RSPB tells us General Licences “are subject to strict terms and conditions and anyone intending to use one of these licences must read them very carefully. Failure to comply could lead to an offence being committed.”
I’ll concentrate here on the General Licence for conserving wild birds, flora and fauna, which allows the killing of corvids, currently specified under GL34 (Valid until 31st July 2020):
GL 34 says that ‘All corvids except raven can be killed in unlimited numbers, by semi-automatic weapon, cage trap (see GL33) or captured by net‘.
If we consider animal welfare, shooting often leaves birds wounded, prolonging suffering. Use of cage traps is regulated by GL33 which has the following advice:
5. Dispatch of trapped animals
Birds should be removed from the trap and dispatched with a sharp blow to the back of the head using a suitable stick, or dedicated ‘priest’ or equivalent. As far as is practicable, avoid these actions being witnessed by the public. [Edit: Highlights are our own]
Beating a bird to death is the best advice the Government can give for the widespread trapping of thousands of corvids every year. How barbaric. This hasn’t come from conservation advisers who have animal welfare as their highest priority, or any priority at all. No, you can hear the voice of gamekeepers here; this is how they’ve always done it and their friends in the government cheer them on.
There is no definition of what constitutes the valid use of this licence. It’s left to members of the public to decide for themselves when killing for conservation is necessary. I don’t blame RSPB for telling us there are strict conditions which must be followed, but the Department for Environment, Food, & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) have completely abnegated their primary responsibility here: to tell the public when this licence can be used at all.
Here are some scenarios I witnessed in my own garden which might fall under the umbrella of “conservation”. A magpie steals newly born blackbird chicks from a nest; a jay kills a great tit fledgling; a carrion crow grabs a frog on the edge of a pond. All three species are corvids (crows) – and corvids are demonised. But they are just generalist predators, in these cases feeding their young. By providing a good habitat and good food sources for all those birds and animals, they all do well, as nature intended. But for those individuals who regard corvids as vermin, the current general licence system allows unlimited killing in virtually any place. Apparently the simple examples I’ve given above would be enough justification to kill the crow, magpie and jay so something is fundamentally wrong here.
The fourth scenario is one that really did upset me. I found a young woodpigeon suffering, in pain and unable to fly any more. A vet determined it had been shot with an air rifle. This is the result of public perception of pest species which anyone can kill. I expect RSPB would vehemently disapprove of this shooting, but the system of general licensing and government messaging makes it all the more likely. And when all this is magnified on grouse shooting moors or in pheasant shooting areas, the killing of corvids occurs on an industrial scale.
Just over a year ago the system of general licences lacked even more accountability than now and the old licences had hardly changed in years. Then came a bold, crowd-funded legal challenge by Wild Justice, which was based on the simple premise that our starting point is all wild birds are protected.
Three main legal principles were established;
• there must be every attempt to deter “problem” birds by ongoing non-lethal means.
• lethal control of birds must be a last resort and not a first choice.
• and sites with special protection for birds must be just that.
For the latter point this means open-ended, unaccountable killing is not acceptable.
The legal action resulted in general licences being withdrawn (temporarily) and a requirement across the board that killing of any bird species on protected sites requires the issue of an individual licence. This follows from the EU Birds Directive (2009) which sets out protection for all wild bird species and especially those birds with declining populations. But also specifically Article 8 “which requires Member States to prohibit the use of all means, arrangements or methods used for the largescale or non-selective capture or killing of birds or capable of causing the local disappearance of a species”. In theory all such EU law will be transferred into UK law as part of Brexit.
The protected sites most familiar to me are the Pennine Uplands and the majority of this area is designated as a Special Protected Area for birds, mainly waders and some raptors and this goes hand in hand with similar EU law protecting habitat (the same uplands are designated as Special Areas of Conservation).
Curlew and other listed wader species are declining. There is a strong argument to consider the changes in farming practices that have led to loss of suitable breeding habitat for waders in lowland areas (a BTO paper ‘Environmental correlates of breeding abundance and population change of Eurasian Curlew Numenius arquata in Britain‘ states that “Degradation of habitat a key driver of Curlew decline”) but inevitably eyes are turned to generalist predators and the line “Curlew numbers were lower in areas with greater crow abundance and with a higher chance of fox occurrence”.
You might have gathered I’m not in favour of any routine killing of corvids but in terms of curlew and other wader populations I really don’t know what a properly balanced solution looks like. It’s common sense to recognise the destruction of suitable habitat puts more pressure to achieve nesting success in smaller upland areas. A rewilding perspective tells us we need to encourage a wider range of predators, not fewer, so that crows and foxes have competition themselves. And then we should leave nature alone. What I do know, though, is that on every single grouse moor there is a local extinction of corvids – in breach of those EU Directives – and if you look for hard science to justify this, there simply isn’t any. Even Natural England (NE) agreed there is no justification for including magpie, rook, jay and jackdaw on general licences (see section 4.19 here https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/816268/general-licences-government-response-to-call-for-evidence.pdf).
But the Secretary of State disagreed – to give yet another example of the government blindly supporting shooting interests. Grouse moor managers never tire of telling us how great wader numbers are on their land. But you don’t have to look far to realise the mass destruction of predators on grouse moors is exactly what leads to huge numbers of grouse to shoot on the 12th August.
I’ve illustrated that general licences are vague, require no record-keeping and allow unlimited killing. But what does an individual licence covering those protected areas look like?
Following the withdrawal of general licenses in April 2019, the licence covering conservation was among the last to be re-issued on 14th June 2019. In the period up to this, there were rumours swirling around that Natural England would just issue individual licences that allowed grouse moor managers to continues exactly as before – surely not? That would be unlawful given the precedents set by the Wild Justice action.
In June 2019 I made an information request to Natural England under Environmental Information Regulations, which are similar to Freedom of Information requests, asking whether lethal control licences had been granted for six Peak District grouse moors. All that came back were details of one licence to kill fifteen gulls on an unnamed estate. At first sight this was great news – it means that the gamekeepers on those estates, with one exception for the licence issued to control gulls, had no legal right to kill any wild birds (except game birds in season), given that they were almost completely Special Protected Areas. The gull licence was a model of “good” practice with limited killing and mitigation of the impacts.
As a matter of principle I challenged the decision to keep the location secret. After an appeal to NE and the intervention of the Information Commissioner, the principle of not revealing locations for individual licences still stands. The justification is that revealing locations leads to threats posted online with this licence for killing buzzards the main example https://www.gov.uk/government/news/licence-for-buzzard-control
As far as I can make out this has led to a situation which is unprecedented within our legal framework: if a gamekeeper is killing crows in a Special Protected Area, a member of the public has no idea if the law is being broken – Natural England won’t tell you. The only recourse is to report what you see to the police and to trust they make time to investigate properly. Given the pressures police forces face, it’s not very likely is it? Yes, I agree that no one in this heated debate should feel personally threatened, but it just so happens that the consequence of these licences remaining secret is that gamekeepers can kill with impunity, just as they always have done.
It took 12 months but eventually I received information from Natural England on one corvid control licence. This licence allowed unlimited killing – not only on the grouse moor but in any location in England. Given all I’ve written here I’m trying to find out if this licence was lawful and if not, what I can do about it. But one thing’s for sure, DEFRA and Natural England bend over backwards to give gamekeepers what they want, never mind conservation.
Bob Berzins June 2020. Bob has recently published a novel, ‘Snared’ (which we are currently helping also turn into an audiobook) and written several guest posts for Dr Mark Avery’s blog focussing on the management, or mismanagement, of upland areas such as the Peak District, Walshaw Moor and the North York Moors.
From Bob Berzin’s website bob-berzins.co.uk
‘Snared’ exposes the pressures of rural life and tackles the brutal reality of countryside crime.
Set against the beautiful backdrop of England’s moorland, Snared dramatically lifts the lid on a spectrum of interconnected illegal activities, ranging from raptor persecution to dog ﬁghting and money laundering. This is the story behind the facade of heather-filled moors and skies full of red grouse.
Driven by the wealthy and privileged, rural families are broken and discarded, as activists unravel their secret world. Layers of restraint are stripped away until a man who holds life and death in his fingers has nothing left to lose.
As events build to a breathtaking climax, who will survive – and will justice ever be served?
With a plot to appeal to the social media generation, Snared comes at a critical time for the English countryside, with much native wildlife under threat, and the far-reaching effects of the climate emergency keenly felt.
It is available for sale at https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B089267Z6G