Stuart Farr takes a look at the new general licences

Carrion crows are one of three birds covered by the ‘new’ licences, along with woodpigeons and Canada geese
(© Pixabay: MabelAmber)

Stuart Farr turns ‘mythbuster’ to challenge the ongoing ramifications of changes to general licensing.

As news reaches our shores that Australia’s beloved national symbol, the Koala, is now on the verge of being “functionally extinct”, one might be tempted to adopt the exclamation used by our friendly Antipodean cousins. “Stone the crows” one might say at such a surprising development. 

Nevertheless, it is perhaps ironic that crows are also a big issue at the moment as several common “pest” species in our own natural environment are currently experiencing a somewhat unwelcome boost to their numbers in light of Natural England’s unilateral decision to revoke three General Licences as from 25 April 2019.  

A few weeks had passed and the decent weather of mid-May found me sitting on the garden bench outside our home. Somewhat distracted, I cast my gaze upward to watch two wood pigeons flapping and cooing at each other in the tree above my head. At that moment, a small voice reached out from the back of my mind. 

The voice whispered to me: “Packham was right… Packham was right.” No word of a lie, almost as if the voice was trying to emphasise the point, at that very moment, one of the pigeons high above promptly defecated on my poor unsuspecting dog who was innocently sunbathing directly beneath them. Plop! I shook my head in mild despair and went inside to find a damp cloth.

Abhorred by the whispering voice within my own brain, I pushed it firmly away.  “Be gone evil thought!” I said to myself. “You’re only saying that because I had to watch those two woodies having their fun time in our tree instead of reaching for my trusty BSA .22 and spending the rest of this fine evening perfecting a splendid pigeon-based recipe.”

A day or two later, it continued. I perused one of the (now many) examples of the BASC’s fallback strategy for dealing with seemingly anything controversial or of national importance.

Yes, their electronic leaflet campaign had gotten into full swing and had deluged my inbox with all manner of stuff, which clearly showed they were very cross about something. It certainly seemed to contain plenty of “tanks on the lawn” rhetoric. 

The BASC missive I reviewed in more detail was entitled: “Benefits of General Licences (England)” and purported to be a “new briefing document to counter general licence “myths”. Intrigued by the title, I read it. I paused. I read it again. I scratched my head.

I consulted an academic and we both came to the conclusion that this document would have made excellent cross-examination material in a court case – most probably for Wild Justice, I regret to say. 

I confess to being mystified over precisely what myths this document was seeking to de-mystify – because it didn’t say. Having carefully checked the Wild Justice website, I noted they don’t actually seek to propagate any actual myths as such.

The organisation simply warns us of its intention to litigate against those who don’t comply with the law, which I suppose could be a myth if it were not true. But as recent events have shown us, it probably isn’t a myth at all.

As I attempted to work my way through BASC’s updates, a little devil of a thought appeared on my shoulder. This particular silky-voiced devil whispered in my ear, “Packham was right…Packham was right.” I flicked the devil off my shoulder and chucked a load of salt in its eye for good measure.

But the thought simply wouldn’t go away. So it came as no surprise when, within 24 hours, the editor of this esteemed publication emailed me. No messing about, he fired his burning question straight at me: “Was Packham right…? Was Packham right…?” 

I emailed him back; “Yes, Packham was right!”

I’m not sure that’s the response I was means to give, and I apologise if these words re-open a sore wound. I understand that farmers have suffered. As a shooter I am only too aware that allowing pigeons even a couple of weeks of freedom to gorge on crops will have a direct impact on yields. However, in my defence, my comment does not come without some degree of qualification. 

Packham (or rather, more accurately, the organisation called Wild Justice in which he is directly involved) was only right in the sense that the legal argument used to revoke the three relevant General Licences was legally correct and sound.

In legal parlance, the actions of Wild Justice were correct but fail to take into account the potential impacts on livelihoods
(© Pixabay: PDPics)

Whether the pursuance of that legal argument took proper account of the bigger picture, on the other hand, is a completely different matter. The full consequence has yet to be seen.

The terms of the three main General Licences that were legally challenged were not correct and operated in line with the legislation that had spawned them – principally the Wildlife and Countryside Act (as amended) 1981.

Natural England knew, or at least ought to have known, this. They took their own legal advice. They openly and publically conceded that if a legal action were commenced they would lose and so the announcement of the revocation of the three general licences concerned was an inevitable consequence of that decision. In legal parlance, we sometimes refer to this sort of scenario as “a slam dunk” for the potential claimant.

The rest, as they say, is now history. It does not require me to comment further on the problems which have ensued. It’s safe to say I suspect there was quite a lot of back patting going on within a particular legal camp – the first victory chalked up on the strategy office’s white board so as to speak.

As matters stand, after a somewhat clumsy attempt to re-draft and re-issue particular general licences, the decision was made to place the responsibility back in the hands of DEFRA – an organisation which I understand various commentators believe also probably contributed to the problem given its previous history of dealing with general licences. 

DEFRA is gathering evidence and has launched a consultation process to enable that to be done. The response has been tremendous I believe but further news is going to have to wait until the information is processed and decisions are made. In the meantime, shooting – at least in my area of the country – appears to have been subdued.

Three “new” general licences have been issued to cover only three out of the 16 or so species previously covered under the revoked licences. The three licences available currently cover Canada Geese, Carrion Crows and Wood Pigeons.

In other cases not covered by these it is necessary to apply for an individual licence. Those licences which have been issued, of course, carry various conditions. It is important therefore to review these and comply.

While I am sure the gun trade has weathered far worse storms than this – and for that reason alone should never be underestimated – the recent actions on the part of Wildlife Justice were clearly aimed in this case at the shooting community.

It begs the question whether these sorts of legally based “projects” (as they call them) may become part and parcel of a new normal in the future. Possibly so. 

In which case, who is going to be responsible for dealing with them and what (if any) strategy is there for responding to these future “projects”? I pose these questions because it occurs to me that any organisation which advances what it seeks to portray as an ethical objective while openly publicising litigation as a primary tool for achieving that objective, opens itself to criticism in a rather more critical manner. Litigation is not a one-horse race. Nor, I suggest, should our court system be used as a means to an end in this manner. 

Finally, for the avoidance of doubt, please note that actually stoning crows is not and never has been permissible. Nor is hanging dead ones on someone’s gate in some kind of threat. Strewth! 

Stuart is a solicitor and partner at Knights plc. He has been a shooting enthusiast for over 30 years and welcomes contact from trade members: stuart.farr@knightsplc.com

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