What will DEFRA do?

Thanks to the legal challenges made by Wild Justice, and our subsequent lobbying and that of others, the general licences in England have improved significantly in the past two years: there are fewer species that can be killed and for much more specific purposes than before. And some species have been removed from the general licences altogether and so now anyone with a good reason for lethal control of those bird species has to apply specifically for a licence for their particular issue and circumstances.

In the big scheme of things, these are the most fundamental and far-reaching changes over the past decades, but Wild Justice believes that there is still some way to go to make the licensing of bird killing, through general licences, fit for purpose. We believe that the current DEFRA general licences are legally flawed but are awaiting full disclosure by DEFRA before we can consider whether or not to mount further challenges.

We are hopeful, but not the least bit certain, that our legal challenge to the Welsh general licences will move things on further still. We should find out, probably, in the next 10 days or so.

We have asked DEFRA for clarification on a number of issues since they published their new general licences in November, ahead of them going live on 1 January. We contacted DEFRA yesterday to say , very politely, ‘Oi! You promised us some answers to our questions’ and were told that answers to our questions and those of others would all be published within two weeks. Then we had a call from DEFRA a little later saying it might be longer than two weeks.

Wild Justice is primarily concerned with the so-called conservation licence under which it is possible to kill a small, and reduced, number of corvid species (Carrion Crow, Magpie and Jay (and the non-native and rarely encountered Indian House Crow)) for the purposes of conserving threatened bird species (as listed on the Red and Amber lists of Birds of Conservation Concern). In England there is a further narrowing of scope introduced which is that Jays can only be killed to protect woodland species (which are listed).

Wild Justice’s scientific position is that this is better but not good enough; Jays should be removed from this list completely (as arguably should Magpies) and the list of species actually affected by predation by corvids in numbers large enough to be a conservation issue is much, much smaller than the Red and Amber lists. These are matters of science, and cannot easily be addressed in the courts, but we believe that DEFRA has not taken much notice of the science in only moving as much as they have so far.

Carrion Crows, Magpies and Jays are scavengers and predators. They will eat the eggs and chicks of many species, and have been doing so for thousands of years. That doesn’t make them a conservation problem any more than Blue Tits eating caterpillars are a conservation problem. Species eat each other – it’s ecology. The conservation general licence in Wales helpfully makes it clear that it is designed to protect the eggs and chicks of species of conservation concern, not adults. Presumably DEFRA thinks the same as ecology does not differ in that respect on either side of Offa’s Dyke.

If predation on eggs and chicks is an issue (which we would contend for most circumstances) then this can only possibly occur in the avian breeding season. Although different species nest at slightly different times, being at this latitude in the northern hemisphere means that the breeding season for UK breeding birds is essentially March-July inclusive – those dates would capture over 95% of all nesting attempts each year in the UK.

So our question to DEFRA (and to NRW by the way) is very simply ‘under the conservation licence, does DEFRA consider that its licences allow the killing of say, Carrion Crows, at any time of year or only in the breeding season when Carrion Crows take eggs and chicks?’. So would killing a Carrion Crow today, in England, where the person killing that Carrion Crow claimed it was for a conservation purpose under the general licences, be lawful or not?

We’re interested in DEFRA’s answers to this and are surprised that in nearly two months they have not given us one – and we believe that these answers are relevant to others’ actions too. DEFRA must know their own intentions in writing their revamped general licences. Is a gamekeeper killing a Jay today in England, allegedly for conservation purposes, covered by the current general licences or not?

DEFRA have had more than long enough to get their thoughts together on this issue but Wild Justice fears we are still confronted by casual licensing of casual killing of huge numbers of birds every year.