Wild Justice seeks judicial review of gamebird releases

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

On Monday afternoon our lawyers lodged court papers calling for a ban of releases of Pheasants and Red-legged Partridges into the English countryside this year except where DEFRA has ruled out any impacts on the ecology of Natura 2000 sites.  This is the latest stage in a legal challenge which began in November 2018.  DEFRA admitted last year that it was required to assess the impacts of the vast numbers of non-native gamebirds on Special Protection Areas for birds and Special Areas of Conservation for wildlife and yet has recently admitted that its progress is so slow that nothing will be in place to limit releases this year. DEFRA has therefore not taken the necessary steps quickly enough to avoid further unlawfulness and we are seeking an expedited hearing for judicial review of their decision.

Each year gamebirds reared in captivity are released into the countryside in late summer ahead of the shooting season. Both the species in question, Pheasant and Red-legged Partridges, are non-native species and are released in vast numbers. Industry estimates are that 47 million Pheasants and 10 million Red-legged Partridges are released for shooting.

Here is an extract from our Statement of Facts and Grounds where the Claimant is Wild Justice and the Defendant is George Eustice, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs:

The Claimant seeks permission for a judicial review to be considered on an expedited (so as to allow for determination of the claim well before July 2020 at which point releases of gamebirds will begin) basis.

At the substantive (or rolled up) hearing, the Claimant will ask the court to declare that:

• As set out above, the UK has unlawfully failed to implement the Habitats Directive.

• The Defendant has unlawfully failed to take such steps as would be required (or indeed any steps) to ensure compliance with the Directive as set out above in relation to the release of game birds for sport shooting in the summer of 2020.

• Given that the Defendant has failed to ensure that Appropriate Assessments will be undertaken (and releases will only be in accordance with their conclusions), the releases of game birds in 2020 will be unlawful other than in those particular cases where it is possible to exclude from the outset adverse impacts on Natura 2000 sites.

The Claimant also asks for an order that the Defendant should exercise his powers to issue SNs (Stop Notices) to prevent such releases.

Here is an extract from our witness statement:

Imagine that there were no Pheasants or Red-legged Partridges living in the UK at the moment and somebody suggested releasing nearly 60 million of them for the first time this summer! There is no possibility that such a situation would be nodded through by any competent government department. And yet the scale of non-native gamebird releases has been allowed to increase steadily and inexorably over recent decades with government and its agencies failing to regulate or even study these impacts in any adequate manner. That must end now because common sense requires it but so does the law as far as it pertains to Natura 2000 sites.

Yesterday we heard that the Hon Mr Justice Mostyn did not grant our request that the period for the Defendant to file its acknowledgement of service and summary grounds of defence should be shortened, but did order that on filing of the acknowledgement of service and summary grounds of defence the papers are to be placed as soon as possible before a judge to decide if permission should be granted and, if so, who the interested parties should be and whether the claim should be expedited to be heard before the end of the Trinity term 2020.

The three co-founders of Wild Justice said;

Chris Packham CBE: DEFRA has been dragging its feet on this issue since we first raised it. It is time to sort this out and Wild Justice is fully prepared for a court battle on behalf of UK wildlife.  Our challenge relates to Natura 2000 sites in England but the impacts will be felt right across the UK countryside.

Dr Ruth Tingay: The lack of monitoring and regulation of gamebird releases is staggering. The Government doesn’t seem to know or care how many are released each year and even the figure of 60 million gamebirds may well be an underestimate.  Incredibly, there is nothing to stop the shooting industry releasing twice as many gamebirds next year. This has to stop and proper regulation brought in.

Dr Mark Avery:  These non-native gamebirds go around gobbling up insects,  other invertebrates and even snakes and lizards, they peck at vegetation, their droppings fertilise sensitive habitats which no farmer would be allowed to fertilise and they provide prey and carrion that swell the populations of predators that then go on to prey on other threatened species. And the biomass of Pheasants and Red-legged Partridges exceeds that of all native UK birds put together. This is a very serious ecological assault on the countryside which government is failing to assess and regulate.

Wild Justice is represented by Tessa Gregory and Carol Day, solicitors at Leigh Day.

Carol Day: Wild Justice quite rightly held off issuing legal proceedings last year on the basis that the Government said it would review arrangements to consider the impact of the gamebirds’ release in future. It is now clear that the review has only just started and that no action will be taken that could affect the shooting season in 2020.

If Wild Justice waited until September to challenge the legality of the gamebird releases it would be too late. The Pheasants and Partridges would have left their breeding pens, and the damage could then be done. And so – responsibly and properly – the Claimant is acting now, at a time when it is still possible to head off the alleged illegality.