Statement on general licences by Wild Justice

Wild Justice was founded by Dr Mark Avery, Chris Packham CBE and Dr Ruth Tingay in October 2018. It exists to use the legal system on behalf of wildlife and to advocate for changes to laws to benefit wildlife. Our first legal case was a successful legal challenge of three long-standing general licences which ‘authorised’ lethal control of 16 bird species in England.

On the day that Wild Justice was launched to the public, 13 February 2019, we sent a formal Pre-Action Protocol letter to Natural England challenging the validity of General Licences GL04, GL05 and GL06.

We now learn that Natural England received legal advice, on 21 February,  that the Wild Justice challenge was correct. From that date Natural England knew that it must address the legal failings of its licensing regime. Whether two months of silence followed by a shock announcement of a sudden revocation of General Licences GL04, GL05 and GL06 will be regarded as a satisfactory response by a public body to finding that it was acting unlawfully is for others to judge. Three months after Natural England received its legal advice, the way ahead is still unclear and Defra has ‘taken control’ of the subject of licensed bird killing.

In Scotland, following Wild Justice’s action in England, Scottish Natural Heritage is bringing forward a consultation on their very similar general licences and as yet no change to the licensing system has been introduced.

Much of the outcry by certain shooting organisations and the media over Natural England’s actions has been ill-informed and ill-judged. Wild Justice does not think that the issue has been handled particularly well but we recognise that Natural England was unlikely to be praised by all however they dealt with revising an unlawful but long-standing licensing system.

The transition period from an unlawful licensing regime to a lawful one which is fit for purpose started on 21 February but it is worth considering how a statutory regulator of wildlife law, Natural England, allowed an unlawful system to persist for so long. Species protection law is a fundamental cornerstone of nature conservation and Natural England’s job was to implement it properly. This is a failing of a public body that should be investigated. In Natural England’s recent evidence to the Efra Committee it was suggested that in 2014 Defra leant on Natural England to prevent changes to the bird-killing licensing regime. This goes to the heart of Natural England’s role and independence. We believe that this should be investigated. Owen Paterson and Liz Truss each occupied the role of Defra Secretary of State for parts of 2014.

Wild Justice will be writing to Natural England asking them to clarify and correct certain aspects of their evidence to the Efra Committee and to explain their conduct to Wild Justice following the legal advice they received on 21 February. We will also write to the Efra Committee with information that they may find useful.

But turning to the future. There is a gaping hole which the unlawful General Licences GL04, GL05 and GL06 used to fill. Now that Defra has taken responsibility for the licensing regime we await their proposals. Natural England had made a good start in issuing a timetable for the publication of a series of new general licences which would be both species-specific and issue-specific but this timetable is already in tatters thanks to Defra’s intervention. Three new general licences were issued by Natural England and have been criticised on a number of grounds by a variety of users of the licences. Without getting into the details, we can see that some criticisms of those new licences are valid and others are not. But having a series of licences that regulate the killing, only where necessary, of particular species is a difficult administrative task. Wild Justice will wait with interest to see what emerges from Defra’s cogitations and we have no fixed view at present, but it may be that general licences are a rather blunt instrument to deal with the complexities of this issue. We’ll have to see what Defra come up with.

In any case, Wild Justice reiterates that there is no justification for new general licences which allow the lethal control of Jays, Jackdaws, Rooks or Magpies for the purpose of conserving fauna or flora. Killing those species for that reason is not scientifically justified.

We envisage that there may be a long way to go before the issues identified as a result of our successful legal challenge are resolved satisfactorily. Wild Justice will play a constructive  part in the necessary discussions that must follow but reserves its right to take further legal challenges on this subject if necessary. Defra now has the opportunity to end the casual and unlawful killing of millions of birds and to restrict lethal control to those circumstances allowed by the law.