General licences: June 2019 update + what Packham is up to

UK environment secretary Michael Gove is underway with his consultation on the general licences. In the meantime, here are the rules:

In addition, you can now conserve wild birds and flora or fauna (WML GL34), preserve public health or public safety (WML GL35), and prevent serious damage to livestock, foodstuffs for livestock, crops, vegetables, fruit, growing timber, fisheries or inland waters (WML GL36). Click here for more.

Click here for the Government website where to apply for general licences.

In reaction to government inacvitity, the Countryside March in London is gathering pace, with more groups backing it and volunteers handing out leaflets about it at country shows.

Find out what went wrong with the general licences in this film on ParliamentLive.tv, where the EFRA Select Committe lays into Marian Spain, Tony Juniper and Lord Blencathra from Natural England.

Thanks to the 1,000 people who took part in Fieldsports Channel survey, which we submitted to Gove’s consultation on Monday 13 May 2019. If that 1,000 is a representative sample, it may interest you to know what the average Fieldsports Channel viewer is like:

  • You were out once a week in the last 12 months on an average of 2,230 acres (900ha).
  • You and your friends each took 1,150 pigeons and corvids off your ground.

Your own average personal tally was

  • 633 woodpigeons
  • 159 corvids (including carrion crows, hooded crows, Indian house crows, rooks, jackdaws, jays and magpies)
  • 90 feral pigeons
  • 11 collared doves
  • 7 Canada geese
  • 1 herring or lesser-black backed gull
  • 1 monk or ring-necked parakeets
  • 0 Egyptian geese or sacred ibis.

Even birdwatchers have started protesting against the general licences. ‎A birdwatcher called Michael Brewer‎ posted these photos on Facebook from RSPB Leighton [Layton] Moss on the Yorkshire Birds and Birders group. He spotted the first of the avocets chicks that had hatched at 8.30am. By lunchtime, all had been eaten by the gulls. He writes: “The amount of gulls and crows nowadays is at epic proportion. The little birds have no chance.”

Opinion is hardening against Natural England, which started this debacle. Mistakes pile upon mistakes at the DEFRA department, which has had responsibility for general licences taken away from it. With sheep farming under pressure from pest .birds on the Isle of Wight, for example, Natural England plans to release 60 lamb-eating sea eagles there. Read the story here.

The new general licences are also shambolic:

The new licences for woodpigeons, carrion crows and Canada geese are hugely restrictive compared to the old licences:

  • You can only shoot pigeons while crops are actually growing, not before you sow.
  • You have to scare crows off birds’ nests in a manner that doesn’t scare nesting birds.
  • You have to prove crop damage – if necessary, in front of a judge.
  • You have to move scarecrows every day – and prove you have done that.
  • You can’t shoot on our near SSSIs – that’s a ban on around 15% of England’s land mass, turning SSSIs into a songbird snackbar for crows and magpies.
  • You can shoot a pigeon, but you can’t shoot it to eat it
  • You are no longer allowed to decide for yourself whether there are too many birds on your ground, not enough birds, or about the right amount – and what to do about it. That’s up to judges in a court of law, advised by the RSPB.

For other species, the new forms are on the Natural England website. Andy Crow walks us through the new licensing system for shooting/trapping pest birds.

All you have to do is:

  • Find the right form online Bit.ly/natengland
  • Click on it and print it (Get Sophie in the office to help you). The weight of applications is regularly crashing the Government system but Andy (well, Sophie) managed to do it.
  • Fill it out and post it
  • You are officially licensed the moment you pit the envelope lands in the postbox.

“You can also apply online – but it doesn’t let you,” says Andy (Sophie confirms this is true). And viewers are reporting that even the Natural England email mailbox is full and returning emails, plus those who get through to Natural England on the telephone are being told not to apply but wait until new licences are released. The threat of private prosecutions by antis make that too risky for anyone with a shotgun licence.

Natural England has also put up new licence for carrion crows here and for Canada geese and woodpigeons – but they are significantly different to the old ones, were introduced without consultation, and the shooting organisations oppose them. Full story here.

Now protestors against the new general licences and Natural England’s handling of the chaos plan a London march. Here’s our story on that.

On Tuesday 23 April 2019, the picture was very different, as our report makes clear:

The Government bowed to Chris Packham and announced a ban on most pigeon, crow, gull and Canada goose shooting in England from midnight on 25 April 2019. Natural England – the Government agency responsible – revoked “three general licences for controlling certain wild birds as of Thursday 25 April 2019,” says the Government in a statement. It adds: “These licences (GL 04/05/06) cover 16 species of birds including several members of the crow family, Canada goose, some gulls and pigeons.”

Natural England revoked the licences as of 2359hrs on 25 April. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are not yet affected.

In February 2019, Chris Packham and two other animal rights activists launched a fundraiser called Wild Justice, a legal challenge to the way the licences are issued, arguing that all members of the fieldsports community should be criminalised. Government lawyers appear to have folded and let Packham have his way.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Farming Today programme on 25 April, Packham’s Wild Justice colleague Mark Avery said he was as surprised as the shooters by Natural England’s action. He said Wild Justice had asked for the General Licences to end in January 2020. He said he accepted that farmers needed to shoot pigeons but questioned whether gamekeepers should carry out pest control to benefit Gamebirds. “We totally accept where landowners… and farmers… should be able to shoot birds that are causing them problems,” Avery told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the same morning. “We don’t have any problem with that happening in a regulated manner.”

Angry MPs including Nicholas Soames met Natural England and DEFRA secretary Michael Gove on Wednesday morning, 24 April. Afterwards, one of them, Rishi Sunak, MP for Richmond in Yorkshire, told GunsOnPegs.com: “In a nutshell, the three general licences that cover the control 16 wild bird species were not lawful as NE did not have an appropriate assessment of need to underpin them (even though they have been using them for years). A court case due to be heard today/tomorrow (brought by environmental campaigners) would have found against NE and NE felt it therefore had no choice but to revoke the licenses.

“It seems clear that there has been a failure at NE. They should have taken remedial steps far sooner so as not to end up in this situation now – there should be accountability for this at the appropriate time.”

This quickly grew into a call to sack Packham, Gove and Natural England acting head Marian Spain. Click here for that story.

Packham took to British television, where he tried to lie his way out of his troubles. Full story here.

The three licences subject to the legal challenge cover 16 bird species, including several members of the crow family (crows, magpies, rooks, jackdaws and jays), feral and wood pigeon and number of invasive non-native species (such as Canada goose).

The specific licences:

  • General licence GL04: To kill or take certain species of wild birds to prevent serious damage or disease
  • General licence GL05: To kill or take certain species of wild birds to preserve public health or public safety
  • General licence GL06: To kill or take certain species of wild birds to conserve wild birds or flora or fauna

Details are sketchy. They do not appear to include licences to protect crops. However, they probably do cover Larsen traps. Here’s the Countryside Alliance chief executive Tim Bonner, answering viewers’ questions on what you can and cannot shoot (recorded the day after the ban was announced and the day before it came into force, 25 April 2019):

Taken by surprise by the decision, Natural England says it is “working at pace to put in place over the next few weeks alternative measures to allow lawful control of these bird species to continue where necessary”.

It said it planned to solve the problem in the short-term by putting up forms on its website. Anyone needing to control one of 16 bird species where there is no reasonable non-lethal alternative will need to apply for an individual licence in the same way they apply for licences to control birds such as cormorants and ravens. There were fears that these licences would take weeks to obtain and are seldom given out – though Natural England reassures shooters: “If people need to take action in the meantime they will need to apply for an individual licence, using a simplified process which will be available on gov.uk from 25 April”. That’s the form now available at Bit.ly/natengland.

Natural England’s Marian Spain says: “We recognise this change will cause disruption for some people, but we are working hard to ensure it is kept to a minimum.

“We will bring forward interim measures as quickly as possible as the first stage of our planned review of the licences. We want to make sure our licensing system is robust and proportionate, taking into account the needs of wildlife and people.”

her words did not reassure shooters across the UK, who reacted angrily.

Reaction from viewers on Fieldsports News’ Facebook page

Petitions to reverse the decision have gone up. Here is the link to the petition to get Chris Packham sacked from the BBC, which at the time of writing has more than 100,000 signatures.

As well as the hundreds of thousands of pounds-worth of damage to British agriculture and the cost to th countryside at the height of the nesting season, nuclear power stations told pest controlers they were pausing pest control. Here’s our story on that.

General licences were introduced in the 1980s as a government fudge to allow the legal control of pest bird species, after the government accidentally banned all bird shooting when it signed up to the 1979 EC Birds Directive. They allow the ban to stay but grant ‘general’ licences to all citizens in England and then Wales with permission to shoot pest birds. The Tory government of the day told shooters that the licences would be renewed automatically every year and nothing would change. In the early 2000s, the Labour government looked at revoking them as a back-door to banning birdshooting – but it tracked back from that position. Now BBC presenter and animal rights activist Chris Packham has succeeded where anti-shooting politicians failed and has forced a ban with a simple legal letter.

Wild Justice and lawyers outside Defra Nobel House on 11 March ahead of meeting Natural England. Left-right: lawyer Anita Davies from Cherie Blair’s former legal practice Matrix Chambers, Chris Packham and Ruth Tingay from Wild Justice, Carol Day from solicitors Leigh Day, and Mark Avery from Wild JusticeNatural England says it is working on n

Liam Bell, chairman of the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation said, “Natural England has made an absolute shambles of this and has put gamekeepers and others to huge inconvenience and concern, to say nothing of imperilling vulnerable nesting gamebirds and wildlife. We are united with other like-minded organisations in demanding a return to workable General Licensing within the shortest possible time. Once that has been secured, there must surely be consequences for those at NE who have made serious mistakes and miscalculations.”

Viewer Dan Spence who unusually managed to reach Natural England on the telephone was told: “No point applying for a licence as the new General Licences will beat your application.”

Click here for BASC’s document (PDF) on the benefits of the general licences.