Impacts of non-native gamebird releases need to be assessed – another success for Wild Justice

Seven week old pheasant chicks, often known as poults, after just being released into a gamekeepers release pen on an English shooting estate

Yesterday, after nearly three months of cogitation, Defra agreed that the law requires them to assess the ecological impacts of the unregulated release of tens of millions of non-native gamebirds. This is another very significant success for Wild Justice, our wonderful legal team and our equally wonderful supporters. Be in no doubt that despite this being required by law, it would not be happening without the Wild Justice challenge.

Which law? Our challenge depended on the EU Habitats Directive (a piece of legislation drafted by former Conservative MEP, former civil servant in the environment department, and father of the current UK Prime Minister, one Stanley Johnson). This legislation was of UK origin, in that it started as an idea in Stanley Johnson’s head, but applies across all EU member states. It is an important source of protection for the environment from the eastern Polish border to the west of Ireland, and from the north of Finland to the southernmost tip of Spain, and it is what requires an assessment of the impact of gamebird releases in the UK.

Why and how? The Directive requires the assessment of plans or projects that may affect the status of sites of high conservation importance, Special Areas of Conservation and Special Protection Areas. A plan or project might be something as obvious as a plan to build a housing estate in the middle of such a site (where it is likely to be turned down) but also includes a plan to build a housing estate abutting such a site or close enough to such a site that it might be affected. Our challenge said that releases of non-native gamebirds needed to be assessed in a similar way for their impacts and Defra has had to agree. We suspect, on the basis of the government’s conservation record over nearly a decade, that they were reluctant to concede this point but after long thought they have conceded it. It’s a good decision and an important one.

What happens now? Nothing for a while! But Defra have said that they will consult on the issues and the legislative framework. Wild Justice will be keen to play a part in this consultation and we will encourage our supporters to do so too. The issues that are raised for the conservation status of SACs and SPAs will apply more widely than just those sites and so this should open the door to more scrutiny of the impacts of vast releases of gamebirds on the ecology of the countryside as a whole, and the consultation that applies to England will have implications for practice in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland too – we’re all in the EU and all covered by the Directives at the moment.

Wild Justice said ‘We’re delighted to have prompted a government change of policy that will open the door to a review of the ecological impacts of non-native gamebirds on our native flora and fauna. The currently unregulated release of gamebirds for shooting has, the science shows, large potential impacts on the ecological health of our countryside. It is time that these releases are properly assessed and come under proper regulation. We will scrutinise the plans that Defra brings forward in order to assess their ecological value and their compliance with the Directives. If Defra’s plans do not comply fully with the Directive then we stand able to take further legal action, and we will not shrink from doing so if that is necessary. We are grateful to our wonderful legal team at Leigh Day and Matrix Chambers and to our supporters who funded our challenge.‘.