Some years ago I was driving down a country road in late February or early March when I saw a field that was uniformly grey in colour. Unable to discern what crop might be that colour, I looked more closely and saw that it was a field of oilseed rape totally covered in pigeons. As they lifted into the air at my passing there were thousands of them, wheeling around before settling back down. That crop must have been a write off. There are many occasions when massive flocks of pigeons destroy a crop; indeed one estimate put the average damage at £125 per hectare. And yet it became illegal to shoot pigeons on Thursday 25th April.
The reason for this was that Natural England had revoked three general licences that cover the control of predator species. All species are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 but many are then allowed to be controlled under the licensing system. There are three categories of licence; general, class and individual. General licences are issued each year to allow anyone to control certain species named in the licence. Class licences are issued to individuals to control certain species at any time but the number is limited. For example, a local river keeper has a class licence to shoot six cormorants a year. An individual licence is issued to a particular individual to control a specific number of a species at a specific time and place.
Three general licences were revoked last month. GL04 allowed control of thirteen species of birds to prevent damage or disease to livestock or crops. GL05 allowed control to preserve public health or public safety. GL06 allowed control to protect wildlife and plants for conservation purposes. In total sixteen species of birds were involved, including pigeons, crows, rooks, jays, magpies and Canada geese. The decision was taken only 36 hours earlier so there was very little notice and no consultation. Not surprisingly, there has been absolute pandemonium ever since.
The cause is the threat of legal action by Wild Justice, a pressure group set up by Chris Packham, Mark Avery and Ruth Tingay. They claim that the issue of licences by Natural England does not comply with the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and warned Natural England of impending legal challenge. In a move that surprised even them, the Board of Natural England ordered the immediate revocation of the three general licences on the advice of its lawyers.
This could not have come at a worse time. Young lambs are gambolling in the pastures at risk from crows for which the eyes are a great delicacy. Ground nesting birds are starting their breeding cycle with eggs and young chicks most at risk from a wide range of predators, including crows and magpies. Winter oilseed rape is now in flower but spring crops such as peas and beans are vulnerable to pigeons as they emerge from the soil.
There was a graphic and heartrending letter from broadcaster and conservationist Selina Scott and accompanying article in the Times last week describing how she has spent the last ten years creating a wetland nature reserve around her home in the North York Moors. She has encouraged lapwings, curlews, skylarks and oyster catchers but has seen crows and magpies picking off the heads of young chicks, assuming that they have not taken the eggs already. In the past, her brother has taken steps to reduce the numbers of predators but that is now illegal. She is so upset that she is staying away from the area because she cannot bear to witness the destruction.
If Natural England was not aware of the outcry that its action would cause, it very soon learnt. It claims there was no other option because the licences were unlawful and has since issued new licences to replace those revoked. The first, GL26 issued on 26th April, was to kill or take carrion crows to prevent serious damage to livestock including poultry and reared game birds. However, it does not cover any wild birds. The second, GL32, was to kill or take pigeons to prevent serious damage to crops. In the meantime, anyone who has a strong case could apply for an individual licence via the website, but those that have tried have not been successful.
More replacement licences were promised but on 4th May, an exasperated Secretary of State Michael Gove took back the power to issue licences, which will now be covered by Defra for a short period. He has also ordered an enquiry into the action by Natural England and has asked for submissions from anyone involved or interested.
Organisations such as BASC and the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust have examined the new licences closely and claim that they are not fit for purpose. They are long (eleven pages for the new crow licence) bureaucratic, inflexible and restrictive. Anyone who wishes to be covered by the new licences must be able to prove that they have tried all alternative measures and that killing is the last resort. It is not enough to assume a threat, it has to be shown that serious damage has actually taken place. This harks back to the ‘shoo before you shoot’ consultation fiasco a couple of years ago which suggested that pigeons must be politely asked to move on by means of bird scarers before they could be shot.
The incompetence of the Government and its agencies is staggering. It is easy to blame Chris Packham as many have; a petition demanding that the BBC sack him attracted 127,000 signatures by the 2nd May. Anyone is entitled to his own opinion, however misguided and counterproductive that might be as the revocation of these licences will undoubtedly lead to a massive loss of life amongst wildlife. The real culprits in this fiasco are the lawyers who approved the licences in the first place and then caved in at the first sign of challenge. In a sane society, existing licences would have been allowed to continue until new ones could be devised in consultation with those who have to operate them and understand the consequences. We must hope that Defra acts swiftly to remedy the situation but little is happening at the time of writing.