Northern Ireland to extend unlawful General Licences for killing wild birds after failing to complete consultation review

Press release from Leigh Day (8 September 2022)

Environmental group Wild Justice has protested delays by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) in reviewing responses to a consultation on Northern Ireland’s General Licences for the killing of wild birds.

The delay means that current licences already conceded to be unlawful will be extended for use until 17th October 2022.

DAERA admitted its general licences are unlawful in a landmark victory for Wild Justice last year when the department promised a consultation and to publish amended general licences.

However, after an initial delay that was put down to elections in Northern Ireland, DAERA now says it will not meet its own extended deadline to complete the review of consultation responses and will not be able to share new draft general licences with stakeholders until 19 September 2022.

DAERA conceded that its general licences were unlawful after Wild Justice launched a legal challenge in September 2021 to three general licences that permit the killing of certain species of wild birds.

DAERA then provided written assurances that its flawed general licences would be replaced by interim licences and that a full consultation would be launched. The interim licences were intended to be in place until 10 September 2022 to give plenty of time for the consultation and for draft general licences to be shared with interested parties before their final publication on 11 September 2022.

However, DAERA has written to Wild Justice saying it will not be able to complete its consultation review and will need to once again extend the interim general licences. They are expected to be extended by five weeks to 17 October and the new general licences are not expected to be provided until 19 September.

Wild Justice first raised concerns with DAERA about its approach to general licences for bird killings in May 2019, following a successful legal challenge to Natural England’s 2019 general licences. Wild Justice wrote again to DAERA last year regarding serious flaws in its 2020 general licences, and called on DAERA to revise the licence replacements which were due to be issued in September 2021. DAERA’s response, which was provided only after protracted delay and after Wild Justice sought the intervention of the Information Commissioner’s Office, made clear that DAERA had failed to comply with the Wildlife (Northern Ireland) Order 1985 when issuing the 2020 general licences. DAERA subsequently launched a mini consultation but withdrew it just days later, stating only that it contained “errors”. A full consultation was eventually launched in 2022.

According to DAERA, 1882 responses were received to the latest consultation. While DAERA has yet to indicate what revisions it may make to its general licences, Wild Justice considers that DAERA’s current licences are overly permissive and stand in stark contrast to those in other countries such as Wales where licences have already been revised in response to Wild Justice’s concerns.

Wild Justice, led by Dr Mark Avery, Dr Ruth Tingay and Chris Packham CBE, have urged DAERA to withdraw the unlawful 2021 general licences.

Commenting in response to the latest delays, Wild Justice said:

“DAERA are dragging their feet on this issue and it’s simply not good administration. This seems to be a systemic failure as we have found DAERA to be slow and unfocused on other matters such as Badger culls and Woodcock shooting. The Northern Ireland public, and wildlife, deserve a better response from the department which has Environment in its name.”

Wild Justice is represented by Leigh Day lawyers Tom Short and Carol Day acting through their agent in Northern Ireland Phoenix Law, and barrister David Wolfe QC at Matrix Chambers.

Leigh Day solicitor Tom Short said:

“Our client has long been concerned that DAERA’s approach to wildlife licensing is not fit for purpose and this latest delay is further evidence that DAERA is struggling to get on top of the issue. After conceding in late 2021 that its general licences are flawed, it is unacceptable that DAERA is now proposing to once again extend interim general licences on the same terms. Last year our client welcomed DAERA’s commitment to reform the general licences. We urge DAERA to do all it can to ensure that there are no further delays to that process, particularly in circumstances where the current interim licences do meet statutory requirements and any reliance on them may place shooters at risk of criminal liability.”