Gamekeeper Steven Musk is one of the lucky ones. DEFRA granted him a licence to release birds near a Special Protection Zone. It’s one of only a handful that have been issued.
More than 100 shoots are not so lucky. They usually put down pheasants and partridges within 500 metres of a European-designated SPA in England. DEFRA has banned them from releasing there.
It’s not been easy for Steven. The first licence he received didn’t allow him to release birds until 30 September 2023, which could have been the end of his shoot. He says that, if he were forced to release his birds late, it would go against his code of practice and what the businesses needed.
He says: “We’ll be looking to shoot early October and a release then is unethical.”
He says the delay in getting a licence stopped all operations immediately. He says: “We had to really think about where we could minimise the impact, so we put all birds on hold and sold birds to reduce our risk as best as possible until we sorted out the situation.”
Steven appealed to DEFRA and his new licence allows him to release birds from 1 August 2023. He says the situation is frustrating. He says: “We’re struggling. We’re not going to make money. We’ve had to do everything outside the box to try and just get through.”
He says the original licence was wrong and required him to challenge it. He says: “We need to see something better for the future because we can’t operate like this.”
BASC warns that hundreds of jobs are at risk over the delays of individual release licences for shoots close to SPAs. Glynn Evans of BASC says: “For some people it’s nothing short of catastrophic for DEFRA to have brought in this change in approach. It’s beyond the 11th hour, it’s simply unacceptable. It’s had serious implications for people.”
Steven says: “It’s very frustrating, when we’ve put a shoot that everyone enjoys from beaters to guns. Everyone that comes here enjoys it.”
He says it’s more than a job. He says: “It’s people’s way of life. And it’s what they enjoy and it’s been taken away from them.”
DEFRA claims the risk of the bird flu is the reason for the late cancellation of the GL43, which allows gamebird release. Steven rejects this claim. He says his shoot is inland and not at risk from seabirds which are the main carriers of avian flu.
He says: “We don’t have an issue. It’s a biased opinion from people in Natural England. We were never at the table right from the start and they didn’t come and ask for our data.”
BASC and other fieldsports groups have joined forces to seek a judicial review over DEFRA’s failure to issue the GL43 general licence because it puts hundreds of gamekeepers’ jobs at risk.
Glynn says: “We have engaged with DEFRA and we’ve sought engagement with them throughout this process. Making such a drastic change at the last minute is not acceptable. And we are prepared to take legal remedies to address that. It’s what we will do to represent the shooting community.”
For Steven, the delays have been stressful and costly. He says if the chaos continues, confidence in the shooting industry will go down.
He says: “Customers aren’t coming forward buying days. That could mean the end of the shoot here.”
He says going ahead this year is the lesser of two evils.
He says: “We are going to lose a lot of money this year. But if we don’t see the end of the tunnel, we may not just decide not to go ahead next year.”
Shoots and gamekeepers around the country are now awaiting their fate as they lobby for individual licences to protect their livelihoods and the vital conservation work they do.