English government caves in to Packham over pheasants

The English government is to ban pheasant release on around 10% of the countryside unless under licence. The announcement by environment minister George Eustice came after BBC presenter Chris Packham’s Wild Justice group threatened to take the government to court over the issue.

According to DEFRA, shoots won’t be able to release pheasants or red-legged partridges within a quarter of a mile (500 metres) of ‘European protected areas’, which include SSSIs, Ramsar sites and SPAs except under licence. It wants Natural England to handle the licensing system.

In 2019, in similar circumstances, Natural England introduced a ban on pest control on or near European protected areas. A threat of legal action saw it remove the general licences and ban pest bird shooting. Since then, Natural England’s woeful handling of individual licences has seen birds such as crows and magpies eat their way through native songbird populations on these sites.

Shooting organisations including BASC and the Countryside Alliance condemn Eustice’s announcement. They say none of them were consulted.

They have made a number of demands of the government, including ‘Any licensing system must be in place by 1 February 2021 to allow shoots to plan for the season. If this is not possible the system should be delayed until 2022.’

In a statement, Wild Justice says its members are delighted. The statement adds: ‘Thanks to our legal challenge, the shooting industry faces its largest dose of regulation since a ban on the use of lead ammunition in wildfowling in England in 1999.’

The GWCT says Wild Justice has little to be happy about. On its blog, the GWCT says: ‘This is a glorious legal dance because it is already the law that you can only release birds on many of these sites with the written consent of Natural England. They also have the power to halt any activity – so lawyers are dancing on the head of a legal pin. The legal arguments in this case will now not be heard because Defra neatly sidestepped the legal technicalities by simply announcing they would issue a General Licence to cover gamebird releases in these places.

‘Wild Justice, led by BBC Presenter Chris Packham, swiftly announced a “victory”, but it would appear the legal team at Defra are the real winners – they have avoided costly legal action and significant disruption to those providing the habitat that game management delivers.’

Wild Justice now aims to add the pheasant and red-legged partridge to schedule 9 of the Wildlife & Countryside Act, which contains species which cause ecological, environmental or socio-economic harm, such as signal crayfish, grey squirrel, ruddy duck and Japanese knotweed.

Countryside Alliance chief executive Tim Bonner says the cave-in is not as serious as it looks or sounds. He says: “Wild Justice will probably claim this as a victory (they usually do) but in reality it is very likely that little will change in practical terms for shoots on or near SPA’s that are operating to best practice, and there is little evidence any are not. The Government has suggested that there will be a General Licence with release densities based on GWCT guidance. All that Wild Justice will have achieved is another layer of bureaucracy and an awful lot of wasted Government time and resource at a time when it has plenty of more important priorities.”

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