Wild Justice | General Licence Reforms

The General Licence system is essentially a way for industries (especially agriculture and shooting) to get ‘permission’ from the government to step around the laws that protect birds in England. Nominally, all wild birds are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended). You and I can’t simply go out and shoot or trap birds. It’s illegal. Unless of course you and I claim that the birds we want to kill are ‘pests’ or causing us economic harm, in which case Defra will let you wave a metaphoric piece of paper around and off you go. And these ‘licences’ are unbelievably easy to get hold of: in legislative terms they’re pretty much the complimentary peanuts on Natural England’s bar, and Defra the bartender who couldn’t really give a toss how many you take or what you do with them because peanuts are cheap and anyway they have better things to do like kill badgers for the dairy industry or defend fox hunters and ‘trail hunting’.

Only, it turns out that Defra (who really should have known better) have been breaking the law all along!

Natural England, which grants the licences on behalf of Defra, is only permitted to do so for specific narrow purposes listed in the Wildlife and Countryside Act, such as preventing serious damage to crops. Before airily wafting bits of electronic paper out the door, they should have satisfied themselves in every case that there would be no other alternative solution to killing the wild birds covered by each General Licence for each specific purpose listed in the respective licence during its operation.

Far from the narrow and exceptional circumstances that the General Licences should be used for, shooters have been using them as a blanket excuse to gun down wild birds. Most of us will have at some time probably come across men blasting crows and pigeons as they spiral into a roost site, only for our concerns to be smugly met with ‘we’re shooting ‘vermin” and we’re ‘allowed’ to because we ‘have’ a General Licence.

That’s never sounded legally sound, but it wasn’t until the mighty Wild Justice bothered to read the entire set of General Licences one day that those suspicions turned into legal challenges. And despite howls of outrage from the shooting industry (and completely inaccurate whining that all Wild Justice wanted to do was to ‘ban shooting’ rather than clarify the law) the courts have agreed that in a number of cases the lax terms of the General Licences did in fact lead to the breaking of the law protecting wild birds.

As Wild Justice say in their press-release below, less than two years ago there were 156 species/purpose combinations under which you could possibly kill wild birds but those combinations have now been reduced to 41. That is a huge change and while birds will still die some controls have now been put in place, restoring legal protection to birds that should never have been on, for example, a ‘conservation’ general licence like Rooks and Jackdaws (both of which do more good for agriculture than harm in terms of the invertebrates they eat).

Also of note, in light of our own ‘Language Matters‘ campaign, is Wild Justice’s comment that “All should now stop talking about ‘pest species’ – the licensing system has partly caught up with the science and with the law.” We will have to look more into that because shooting lobbyists BASC are still talking about ‘pest species’ on their updated website (and, incidentally, taking credit for feeding into (ie lobbying) the 18-month Defra-led process which resulted in what they admit are licences where “the terms and conditions are more complex than the current versions they replace” – ie are now legal and not so lax that wild birds were being killed illegally: their members must be delighted).

General licences in England – Wild Justice legal challenges bring about significant reform

Today DEFRA released new general licences which will apply in England from 1 January 2021 for the calendar year.

This is the most recent move in a sequence which started with Wild Justice’s successful first legal challenge to the legality of these licences’ predecessors back in spring 2019.

Things have certainly moved on thanks to the pebble we threw into this particular pool and the ripples have probably not stopped spreading yet.

All should now stop talking about ‘pest species’ – the licensing system has partly caught up with the science and with the law.

All wild birds are protected by law [The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981] and can only be killed under specific circumstances when non-lethal measures are ineffective. No native species is listed on all three of these licences any more.

Since spring 2019, and our legal challenge, the following major changes have been made:

  1. The general licences do not automatically authorise killing of species on SSSIs
  2. Herring Gull and Lesser Black-backed Gull are removed from these general licences and treated differently under a better (though imperfect) licensing system which has more controls built into it
  3. Rook and Jackdaw are removed from the conservation licence – it will be illegal to kill these two species in future and claim that it is for conservation purposes
  4. The conservation licence is only valid (for killing Carrion Crow, Magpie and Jay) for the purpose of conserving a list of species of conservation priority (not necessarily exactly the right species but certainly a step forward)
  5. There are more details to come on animal welfare aspects of killing these species.

Less than two years ago there were 156 species/purpose combinations under which you could possibly kill species but those combinations have now been reduced to 41. That represents a massive change brought about by our legal challenge.

We have yet to talk to our lawyers in any detail about these licences and suspect they may identify remaining problems with them, but our judicial review of the Welsh general licences in mid December will possibly elucidate those legal issues (and DEFRA will have to react to the results of that legal case, whatever they might be).

DEFRA carried out a consultation on these licences last year. We’d like to thank all of you who contributed to that consultation – your views made a difference, without a doubt.

In all modesty, Wild Justice’s legal challenge has prompted the biggest and most far-reaching reform of general licences ever.

The general licences for England from 1 January 2021 can be viewed here:

Conservation licenceclick here

Serious damage to crops and livestock licenceclick here

Public safetyclick here

Wild Justice 09 Nov 2020