Blow that whistle!

Let us tell you a story – some of it is known, some of it is surmise based on anonymous information, apparently from several sources (but we can’t be sure – it’s anonymous!) received by Wild Justice. We’re asking that the people who know what is happening become whistleblowers and contact us to reveal more.

It’s a story about gamebird releases.


Thanks to a legal challenge by Wild Justice in October 2020 – see here – Defra was forced to introduce new regulations on gamebird releases near sites of high nature conservation importance because of the impacts of large numbers of non-native Red-legged Partridges and Pheasants on native species and sensitive habitats. This was a significant change to the level of regulation of gamebird shooting in England (Wales is considering action too – see here).

Last year, many organisations, including Wild Justice, called on Defra to limit gamebird releases because of the prevalence of avian flu. Defra didn’t act then but calls continued – see here. This spring, rather late in the day, Defra sensibly introduced more restrictions on gamebird releases and such releases inside or close to Special Protection Areas (SPAs) had to be individually licensed.

The licensing system – what we know

Licences had to be sought for releases of non-native gamebirds in and near SPAs. The licence applications were made to Natural England who provided Defra their expert advice on whether individual licence applications should be approved. Defra is the licensing body, and Defra ministers are ultimately responsible – but they must seek Natural England’s advice as their nature conservation advisor.

The licensing system – what we are told

Wild Justice has been told, by anonymous sources, but apparently several of them, that the process of deciding on the issuing of licences looks more like this;

Image of T. Coffey Licenced under CC BY 3.0 DEED

First, we are told, there is a secret mystery committee involving other ‘experts’. Can this be true? If it is, then who are its members? We would surmise that it contains members of the shooting industry and nobody from the likes of RSPB or BTO. 

Second, we are told, that Natural England’s advice is sometimes countermanded by the secret mystery committee. The committee decides in favour of more licences being approved against Natural England’s advice, and then passes them on to Defra ministers including the Secretary of State, Therese Coffey, herself.

Third, we are told, that further applications are approved and/or the conditions of the licences are weakened by ministerial decision.  It is a matter of considerable public interest if ministers are going against the formal advice of their expert advisors. It is of even more public interest if the ministerial decisions are arbitrary or not based on the facts presented in the licences. 

Wild Justice has tried to get to grips with this process through the process of Environmental Information Requests. Natural England were supposed to get back to us on Thursday after asking for an extension of the normal response time to 40 days (we started asking on 9 August). We heard nothing from Natural England on Thursday, chased them on Friday and then received a response which we will tell you about tomorrow. Defra simply refused to answer our questions claiming that they were too onerous.

This is speculation about what is happening

We can’t be sure what’s happening – but that’s because we have asked and Defra hasn’t come clean. Would that make you more relaxed or more suspicious about events? It has made us pretty suspicious.

We know that shooting interests have threatened legal action over the licensing scheme – maybe a deal has been done so that the licensing system is as weak as possible, through ministerial intervention, to keep the shooting industry happy?

What if other politicians (there’s quite a lot of gamebird shooting in Rishi Sunak’s Richmond constituency for example) have put pressure on Defra to fix this for their constituents?

We don’t know, but we intend to get to the bottom of this.

If you can add information to this story then please contact Wild Justice and we will respect your anonymity.