Northern Ireland’s new general licences

Rook. Photo: Tim Melling

With the publication of new general licences for Northern Ireland – click here – we can draw a line under another chapter in Wild Justice’s campaign to reduce the casual and unlawful killing of wildlife under statutory licences. Following changes to general licences in England, Wales and Scotland, Northern Ireland has made a raft of positive changes following a successful Wild Justice legal challenge in 2021 – click here.

General licences are used by statutory agencies to authorise the killing of what might be called ‘pest’ species – although we object to that as a blanket term. All wild birds are protected by law but there are circumstances under which they can be killed legally – for example to protect human health, crops or endangered species. The general licences permit any of us, under certain circumstances and conditions, to kill specified species without applying for a specific licence which would involve a careful justification of the need for lethal control.

Since Wild Justice launched its first legal challenge, on general licences in England, in spring 2019, we have seen widespread reform of general licences. The licences still are not perfect but they have been improved, through our campaigning and legal challenges, by removal of a large number of inappropriate species from the licences, tightening up of the conditions applying to the licences and restriction of the times of year and the locations in which they can be used.

The Northern Ireland general licences were, frankly, awful until our actions – click here. The new Northern Ireland general licences affect very many fewer species: the ‘health and safety’ licence contains just two species whereas it used to include seven species; the ‘damage to crops’ licence now contains six species rather than nine species and the ‘conservation licence’ now is reduced to two species from four species. Use of the ‘conservation licence’ to kill Hooded Crow and Magpie is limited now from March – August inclusive.

The necessary and sensible changes for which we have argued and campaigned have been opposed by shooting organisations and in some cases by farmers. There has been a lot of bluster and bravado about how Wild Justice would not win, but we have. With the help and involvement of our supporters, and the deployment of great legal brains, we have, together, brought about the most significant reforms to general licences across the UK that have ever taken place. We have taken on the casual licensing of casual killing of wildlife and brought about very significant changes in the teeth of opposition from interest groups and initially indifference from the regulators.

Reform of general licences may seem like a rather small and niche aspect of wildlife law, and to some extent that is correct, but it involves the state allowing the killing of wildlife, and that is no small matter. Also, we have shown that legal challenges can be powerful tools in engineering change. We have not changed wildlife laws, we have made the regulators stick to the law. That sends a strong message to those same regulators, and others, that they must, more generally, consider carefully the legal basis of their actions.

We could not have made the progress we’ve made without great lawyers and great support from the public. Without your financial support we could not have taken a string of legal challenges, none of them cheap, across the UK – thank you. Your money has delivered real change. And many Wild Justice supporters have responded to consultations, including one in Northern Ireland this summer, which have shown that there is public appetite to tighten up these licences – thank you again.

And this work on general licences has in some ways established the Wild Justice approach – we will take legal challenges and deploy scientific arguments whether they are popular with others or not, and we will not be intimidated nor brushed off. We’ll see these challenges through to a conclusion. In the case of general licences, we have achieved a great deal in the last four years but there are still many other battles to fight on behalf of wildlife where the same approach will be needed. Thank you for your support.

Wild Justice is a not-for-profit organisation set up by Chris Packham, Ruth Tingay and Mark Avery. We are entirely dependent on donations. To support our work – click here. To hear more about our campaigns and legal cases subscribe to our free newsletter – click here.