Gamekeeper Steven Musk is on the frontline of a battle which could cost him his livelihood. His shoot in Swaffham in Norfolk is close to the Breckland Special Protection Area, SPA. After a last-minute change by Defra on 31st May 2023, he is now forced to apply for a licence to allow him to release pheasants and redleg partridges.
DEFRA’s record on granting individual licences is poor. If the license doesn’t arrive, Steven says he can’t accept the birds he’s ordered, and it could be the end of his business. Steven says he is on tenterhooks.
He says: “If we get rejected for a licence, or we have to do anything that incurs more costs on what is already an expensive season… unfortunately the commercial side of the shooting does keep me here. If that disappears, so will my position. I’ve worked long and hard to be where I am, and I wouldn’t want it to end overnight through someone else’s decision.”
Fieldsports groups have banded together to launch a judicial review against DEFRA and Natural England. They are calling for an urgent review of GL43, the General Licence that covers gamebird releasing around ‘European protected sites’. BASC, the Countryside Alliance, the National Gamekeepers Organisation, and Aim To Sustain are among the signatories on a letter to DEFRA secretary Thérèse Coffey calling for the government to solve the crisis it created with the last-minute change. Gareth Dockerty of BASC says it’s complete chaos because the announcement was dropped at the 11th hour, on May 31st. He says: “There’s been no time to plan. There was no consultation, and it’s left the whole shooting community really in complete limbo.”
BASC says if shoots can’t get individual licences, they can’t release birds and there will be no shooting. DEFRA will have caused problems to hundreds of shoots, thousands of businesses and could cost millions of pounds throughout the sector.
Gareth says the government estimates that there’ll be 40 shoots affected around the country. He says: “We know it’s far more than that. I’m North York Moors based. My guess would be in the North York Moors that it would be more than 100 shoots here alone. I would think it would be into the many hundreds around England.”
He says DEFRA doesn’t realise how much shooting goes on in the areas affected by the change. He says the sector was gearing up for a busy year after the issues with covid and bird flu but this last-minute change throws the season into doubt for many shoots.
Dan King of Sandhill Veterinary Services in Yorkshire says it could have a huge impact on his business. He says: “It certainly has the potential to depending on how the licenses are granted, it could have an absolutely catastrophic effect as we’re sandwiched between the Yorkshire Dales and the North York Moors, which makes up the vast majority of our client base.”
He estimates 80% of his shoots release into SPAs.
It’s all about bird flu. Fieldsports groups believe the change in licence conditions starts at DEFRA’s Natural England agency, which was responsible for the 2019 general licences fiasco.
Between Natural England and DEFRA, a similar disaster is unfolding, this time because of DEFRA’s avian influenza risk assessment which dates from December 2022.
The high rates of bird flu at the time led DEFRA to conclude there was a possible risk of the transmission of highly pathogenic avian influenza from released gamebirds to wild birds during the summer of 2022.
A year later, the change to the general licences is based on the belief that that remains the case – and the new rules will remain in place until summer 2025
Dominic Boulton of Aim To Sustain, which represents a variety of fieldsports groups, says: “There have been no recorded cases of birds being released already infected with avian influenza, and there’s no reason to suspect that it’s likely to happen in the future. So, to use this as a reason to restrict releases is completely without foundation.”
Last year, when fieldsports groups met DEFRA to review the GL43 licence, they asked and were assured that DEFRA would give as much notice as possible to any changes it planned to make.
Gareth says: “What DEFRA doesn’t seem to grasp is that shooting, like many pastimes in the countryside, has year round investment. Planning for the shoot starts September, October, the season before, certainly by January.”
He says shoots have ordered the birds and are ready to go. He says: ”The guns probably paid a deposit. The hotels and restaurants are all booked up, People are excited and looking forward to having a game bird season that isn’t impacted by covid and hopefully that wasn’t going to be too impacted by bird flu. Yet at the last minute, they were then told actually these plans need to effectively go on hold because you now need to apply for a license that they weren’t expecting.”
Steven isn’t sure how long he will have to wait for his licence. He’s already spent a lot of money preparing for the season. He says: “We estimate around about £90,000 is already invested into deposits on game birds, game covers, wages. The list is quite significant. There’s lots of little things that go into it and cost that you don’t really even think about. That is all lost if we can’t carry on shooting.”
Despite last-minute appeals from shooting organisations, DEFRA made the change.
Now BASC and others are taking legal action to persuade DEFRA to re-issue GL43 with SPAs included, alongside other European areas, to prevent a wildlife welfare crisis and economic collapse of a range of rural businesses.
Dan says his clients have invested heavily preparing for the season. He says: “I know the huge amount of work that’s gone into a lot of these shoots in these areas, investing in pens and making pens bigger and looking at numbers. Really doing everything properly but for it to potentially all be taken away like this is just unbelievable.”
He hopes it can be resolved, but admits it’s worrying.
Meanwhile, Wild Justice is also planning legal action over the GL43 licence. It says it wants last year’s GL43 to stay revoked. It’s statement says: “In order to remedy the legal errors, we request that the Secretary of State: a. commits to a review of the approach to monitoring and enforcement of GL43, taking advice from Natural England as to the compliance of such approach with the Habitats Directive; and revokes the current iteration of GL43 while such review is ongoing.”
Steven says he won’t risk releasing birds without a licence as the penalties are too steep.
He says: “I’ve heard it’s unlimited fines, potential custodial sentences, and a loss of firearms license. I am the license holder and I’m the one that’s applied for it so it would be my firearm certificate gone.“
He says he’s not prepared to take the gamble or jeapardise the stewardship and conservation he does. But if the licence isn’t granted there will be loss of jobs.
In a statement, DEFRA doubles down on its bird flu defence, with claims that its scientific assessment is ‘robust’. It claims that Natural England will process applications within a month, though that is not the experience of gamekeepers.
Natural England maintains a strongly preservationist stance, and anti-conservation, turning down most wildlife management applications. A DEFRA spokesperson says:
“We are currently experiencing the worst global outbreak of avian influenza on record and are taking all necessary steps to mitigate the impact and spread of the disease. Following a robust scientific assessment, we are having to limit the release of gamebirds in areas of conservation concern in an effort to reduce the impact of this insidious disease. We will review this change, alongside all available evidence, and modify the licence should the risk change.
“Natural England always strives to process individual licensing applications within 30 working days of receipt.”
Steven disagrees with the threat of bird flu from game bird releasing. He says: “We were in the epicentre last year of the bird flu epidemic. We had seagulls, lots of wild birds dead on reservoirs in and around pheasants. We didn’t see any issue in our in our game birds at all, partridges, or pheasants. And we saw no cross contamination into the wild bird stock either way. So, I don’t believe it would be an issue.“ He says it will be more detrimental to stop the shooting rather than worry about bird flu, which is already in the wild bird population.”
Shooting groups are determined to fight for shooters and gamekeepers such Steven to stop the sector being crippled.
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