General licences – DEFRA heads for a new debacle.

Jay. Photo: Andy Rouse

Media speculation that DEFRA is woefully unprepared to issue new, lawful, sensible general licences is probably correct.  The response of the shooting community has been to press DEFRA to extend the current unlawful (we contend), ridiculously flawed general licences and face legal challenge from Wild Justice all over again.  This is hardly the advice of a wise friend.

Wild Justice proposes an alternative approach – issue no general licences for 2020 and make all who wish to be licensed to kill the relevant bird species apply for individual licences to do so.  Wild Justice made this suggestion to DEFRA at a stakeholder meeting last week.

This would probably remove any chance of an immediate legal challenge by Wild Justice, a challenge that we are confident that we would win, and which we are fully prepared to take, given that DEFRA has failed to make any progress in the last year. These were also points that we made to DEFRA last week. Our main interest is over licences which allege to permit killing for conservation purposes rather than to prevent serious damage to crops of livestock.

DEFRA has made more of a mess of this subject than did Natural England. Natural England was edging towards a solution when DEFRA intervened – we need not feel sorry for DEFRA all these months later if they have failed to find a way through these issues. Farmers and others who wish to rely on a licence to kill certain species need to reflect on how abject has been DEFRA’s lack of action.

Wild Justice does not seek to prevent lawful lethal control of birds, it is about stopping the casual and unlawful killing of millions of birds. It’s government’s job to have a licensing system that works for users and is compliant with the legislation. General licenses are the chosen route of this and other governments to attempt to license these activities but they are not the only way to do it and DEFRA is realising rather slowly that there are inherent difficulties in framing general licences so that they meet the requirements of existing legislation.

Let us reflect on how we got here:

  • 13 February 2019 Wild Justice issued a Pre-Action Protocol letter to Natural England challenging the legality of general licences on specific grounds
  • 23 April 2019 Natural England withdraws all general licences (despite this not being what Wild Justice had requested)
  • 25 April 2019 Natural England starts issuing individual licences covering individual species and conditions – the shooting and farming community go wild, and Michael Gove decides that he can do a better job
  • 5 May 2019 DEFRA issue a 4-day consultation on general licences
  • 14 June 2019 DEFRA issues temporary general licences which are essentially unchanged
  • 24 July 2019 Michael Gove replaced by Theresa Villiers as SoS for DEFRA
  • 29 October 2019 Wild Justice and its lawyers meet DEFRA and its legal representatives to talk through issues
  • 5 December 2019 DEFRA second consultation on general licences closes
  • Today – after nearly 12 months, DEFRA, having grabbed the issue out of NE’s hands, appears unable to come forward with a new licensing system and is being encouraged by the shooting community to stick with a discredited and unlawful licensing system.

The budget cuts to DEFRA and NE are one reason why this is such a shambles, but DEFRA simply appears unable to think through the issues these days. 

To summarise: if, after a year, DEFRA cannot issue good general licences then they should not issue bad general licences.