DEFRA roll out of general licences

Common Jay Photo: Andy Rouse

DEFRA has rolled out the existing scientifically flawed and, we believe, unlawful general licences for several more months. This is yet another sign that DEFRA pays little attention to its environmental responsibilities or, perhaps yet another sign that DEFRA just cannot function properly these days. It’s difficult to tell which.

It’s certainly a very clear sign that DEFRA has no urgent interest in properly regulating the casual shooting of millions of birds but then DEFRA has been slow to act to reduce illegal killing of protected wildlife and quick to sanction killing of tens of thousands of protected Badgers so this does not act like a government department with the interests of wildlife at its heart. That’s a reason why Wild Justice needs to take battles on behalf of wildlife.

The issuing of these licences was, last year, a job which Natural England carried out. Many will remember that Natural England completely botched their response to Wild Justice’s legal challenge and revoked the then-existing licences with a matter of a few hours notice to all involved (despite having had legal advice weeks earlier that their licences were unlawful). Natural England then began what looked as though it might be a somewhat lengthy process of issuing a much larger number of more specific general licences (more on that approach later) until Michael Gove took the licensing role away from Natural England in what looked like a fit of impatience, telling all and sundry that DEFRA would sort it out much better and much more quickly. DEFRA has sorted out nothing under either Michael Gove or Theresa Villiers and DEFRA now plan that the discredited general licences will run for another five months until, we are promised, new licences will be issued.

It’s just another DEFRA shambles.

Wild Justice was invited to a meeting with DEFRA officials yesterday (we were invited on Wednesday evening for a meeting on Thursday afternoon). It was a private meeting and we were frank with DEFRA. As you can imagine (because we have made them often before) we made the following points;

  • Wild Justice is unimpressed by a further roll out of scientifically flawed and unlawful general licences. We do not believe that DEFRA is doing its job properly.
  • a 5-month extension of the existing discredited licences is in many ways an extension by a further calendar year because most of the casual killing of birds that these licences ‘authorise’ will take place in spring.
  • Wild Justice’s most pressing concerns are over the so-called conservation licence which does not specify what it is aiming to conserve, where it is aiming to conserve it and at what period of the year any such measures would be most effective. This licence, in particular, should not have been rolled over in anything like its current form. DEFRA has been negligent in encouraging further casual killing under a licence which purports to have a nature conservation function.
  • in particular, DEFRA has had ample time to consider the species listed under the so-called conservation licence and it should by now realise that there is no justification for having Jackdaw, Jay, Rook or Magpie on such a list. It does not take this long to review the science and in rolling over this licence for another breeding season DEFRA has simply rolled over to the shrill and unscientific cries of the likes of BASC. By not addressing this issue whatsoever and introducing any change for over a year then DEFRA has ignored the evidence that it has received from true nature conservation organisations and further reduced any claim it might have for science-led policy making. It doesn’t take this long to cross some species off a list.
  • further, the inclusion of released gamebirds on the livestock/crops licence is bizarre and another example of how the shooting industry appear to hold sway over DEFRA. Yes, Pheasants and Red-legged Partridges when in captivity in breeding facilities are livestock but DEFRA has bent the definition of livestock out of any semblance to reality when saying that free-living gamebirds are still livestock when they are at large in the countryside because they might come back and visit their release pens now and again. No civil servant worth their salt would ever draft such nonsense so surely this must have been dictated word for word by shooting interests? Who owns each individual gamebird with this status? How do they know who is the owner since gamebirds are not individually recognisable or close-ringed? Can I seek compensation from gamebird releasers if their livestock are in my garden eating my vegetables? Can I sue the owner of these livestock if they cause a road traffic accident? Can I shoot livestock? Can my gamebird-releasing neighbour claim that I am shooting his livestock if he thinks his livestock have crossed the boundary and been driven on one of my shoot days? And yet DEFRA has rolled over this nonsense after months of review.

Wild Justice made some other points too, but that’ll do as a summary.

DEFRA officials assured Wild Justice that the review they were carrying out was detailed and thorough, and we do not doubt that. Although, of course, we have no clear evidence about it and can only see the complete unwillingness of DEFRA to make any changes at this crucial time of year and instead DEFRA has done what the shooting industry in particular has demanded and kept everything in its discredited form for more months.

DEFRA asked Wild Justice whether we were against general licences in principle. We reiterated that we were not, but that we reckoned that DEFRA was finding that it was very difficult to write general licences that are detailed enough to be lawful. We can imagine that DEFRA may eventually reach the position that Natural England had reached when Michael Gove strode manfully into the debate, saying ‘Let me deal with this’, and realise that they need to have much more detailed and specific general licences, and more of them, to deal with different circumstances, than the incredibly vague ones that exist now. But that is up to DEFRA to decide – they should have decided by now.

Let us imagine that DEFRA officials come up with proposals for a new licensing system, as a result of careful and detailed consideration, that are far better than the ones we are living with today – this must be possible. DEFRA needs to consult Natural England on the new licences and then they must be signed off by ministers. There is nothing certain about the outcome of this process. The outcome is not certain and the timing is not certain.

DEFRA officials were quite keen to know Wild Justice’s intentions on the legal challenge. That’s a matter for Wild Justice and its lawyers to consider and we are. As you can see from the above, DEFRA has done nothing to reduce the chance of legal challenge to their licences as they have changed nothing, promised nothing and merely kicked the tatty and damaged can down the road for another five months.

Wild Justice can, of course, test some of the legal issues by legal action against Natural Resources Wales general licences, or potentially Scottish Natural Heritage general licences as well as the DEFRA general licences. These are possibilities under active consideration.

Also, we had a quick chat about gamebird releases where DEFRA has already told us that they need several months more to decide what they are doing. Wild Justice pointed out to DEFRA that having admitted that the law requires them to assess the impact of gamebird releases on sites of high nature conservation importance then they may be acting illegally if they do not limit such releases this year. That was just a reminder, we’ve said it before.