Natural England has shocked the shooting community by announcing that three of the general licences in England, which permit the taking of pest bird species including pigeons, crows and magpies, will be revoked as soon as Thursday (April 25).
This unexpected move will leave farmers, gamekeepers and pest controllers with no means of fighting back against aggressive bird populations, or preventing their spreading of disease, until a new licence is agreed – which Natural England says could take weeks.
Three of the general licences are being suspended: those that permit the lethal control of birds to prevent damage or disease; preserve public health or safety; or conserve fauna or flora.
Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are not presently affected.
This constitutes a major u-turn from Natural England, which previously said it was undertaking a review of the general licences, to be completed this year.
BASC had said this review could be positive for conservation and had promised to contribute to it. Now, Natural England says the prospective ban is “the first stage” in that review – a statement apparently at odds with Natural England’s lack of preparation for the move and the fact that stakeholder groups did not learn of it until the afternoon of Tuesday 22 April.
The public body said it was responding to “a legal challenge to the way the licences have been issued, which could mean users who rely on them are not acting lawfully.”
It did not go into detail on what this meant, though Wild Justice – the campaign group recently set up by Chris Packham and Mark Avery – claimed responsibility for it, as it had recently issued a claim for a judicial review against the general licences.
Shooting organisations were united in their abhorrence at the decision, with some saying they were looking to legal options urgently.
BASC chairman Peter Glenser QC said: “Natural England’s decision to withdraw the open general licences will cause chaos and uncertainty in the rural community.
“To take such a step without consultation and proper notice is utterly unacceptable from a statutory body and leaves many people at risk of breaking the law at a crucial time of the year when their need to control pests could not be more pressing.”
The Countryside Alliance’s Tim Bonner labelled the move “completely impractical and irresponsible”, while the NGO warned that it “will be a disaster for wildlife.”
For now, anyone needing to shoot or trap pest bird species for the three relevant reasons will need to apply for an individual licence from Thursday – though Natural England did not say how to actually do this.
Nor did it outline any plans to make the hundreds of thousands of Britain aware of the change, given the incredibly short timeframe before the ban takes effect.
Natural England’s interim chief executive Marian Spain said: “We recognise this change will cause disruption for some people, but we are working hard to ensure it is kept to a minimum.”We will bring forward interim measures as quickly as possible.”