Will shoots require a licence at some point in the future? It is highly likely that grouse shoots in Scotland will require a licence within five years as a result of the Werrity Report for the Scottish Government that was published a year ago. It might be argued that the licensing of lowland shoots in England is a step closer after a recent announcement by Defra.
Wild Justice is a campaign group led by Chris Packham, Mark Avery and Ruth Tingay, that uses the threat of Judicial Review to force changes to the regulation of shooting in England. There was chaos a couple of years ago when Natural England caved in to the threat on the issue of General Licences for the control of pigeons, corvids and other birds. New licences were issued after months of delay, critically in the spring when crops and wildlife are at their most vulnerable. The only major change was that predator control was not allowed within designated sites.
Wild Justice then moved on to the rearing and release of gamebirds, claiming that allowing such numbers, around fifty million, to be released without an environmental assessment contravened the European Habitats and Birds Directives. Under the threat of Judicial Review again, Defra announced a review of the issue. This has now been completed and the outcome is the issue of a General Licence to release gamebirds within 500 metres of European designated sites, SPA (Special Protection Area) or SAC (Special Area of Conservation), for the 2021 season. This is an interim measure whilst more research is conducted as the review found insufficient evidence on the impact to such sites by gamebird release.
Wild Justice has claimed this as a great victory and dropped its case for Judicial Review but the truth is somewhat different. For a start, the requirement only applies to European designations, not Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). Secondly, this is a General Licence so applies to all, there is no need for any individual to apply. Defra will consult on the details but following best practice will be a condition of the licence although it is not clear how that will be monitored or enforced.
The Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) has conducted extensive research into the impact of releasing pheasants into woodland and has recommended guidelines. Release pens should take up no more than one third of the woodland on any farm or estate and the release density should be no more than 1,000 birds per hectare of release pen. Where the woodland is sensitive, ancient semi-natural woodland for example, that should be reduced to no more than 700 birds per hectare. The research found no negative impact on the environment if these guidelines are followed. The release of red-legged partridge is less straightforward as release pens are usually situated in cover crops such as maize.
These recommendations are part of wider best practice guidance in the Code of Good Shooting Practice. This includes a requirement for shoot managers to deliver an overall measurable improvement to habitat and wildlife with special consideration of designated sites such as SSSIs. Critics argue that this code is voluntary, but breaches can be reported to BASC and action taken to persuade offenders to comply.
The British Game Alliance was set up in 2018 to promote the consumption of game meat and to act as an assurance scheme. As such it has a list of 23 standards that shoots which sign up to the assurance scheme are obliged to meet. They include requirements to benefit the environment and wildlife and to follow guidelines on the rearing and releasing of gamebirds. Help and advice on compliance is offered but consistent breaches result in membership of the scheme being terminated.
This has been a torrid season for country sports, shooting in particular. The Covid-19 pandemic resulted in many shoots deciding to reduce activity or even close for the year. Now the latest lockdown has stopped all but rough shooting and vermin control for at least a month, just as the season reaches its peak. This will cause real problems as paying guns demand a refund but the shoots may not have the cash flow to permit this. Offering a day next year is all very well but there has to be a doubt over when normal service will be resumed.
The British Game Alliance has been so successful in expanding the market for game meat with Sainsbury being the latest supermarket to sell BGA assured products. So it is ironic that the supply has been curtailed first by fewer birds being released and now by the pause in shooting. Time will show the balance of supply and demand.
Is the latest move the thin edge of the wedge? Once the licensing of shoots has been introduced, will it be expanded over time with stricter conditions? There is strong pressure for this to happen and yet even the RSPB admit that there are significant environmental benefits from well-run shoots. There are shoots that do not follow the guidance but it is unknown how many there are. It is not even known how many gamebirds are released, although any release of more than fifty is required to be recorded in the Poultry Register by law. Building on the work of the BGA, the shooting community needs to show it can regulate itself with the ability to enforce best practice. Time is short and, if it fails, further regulation is inevitable.