Here is a further important briefing on the licence situation and we hope it is helpful. Our priority throughout all this has been to get a workable licencing scheme back up and running so that gamekeepers can do what they need to.
THE LEGAL SITUATION
As of today, Friday 3 May, the latest on the bird licensing situation in England is as follows:
The former General Licences (GL04, GL05 and GL06) which used to allow the control of pigeons, crows, magpies, rooks, jackdaws, jays, Canada geese and nine other species, were all revoked on 25th April. These birds are therefore fully protected unless one of the following applies:
If you have a valid Individual Licence granted by Natural England (NE) on your person, you can carry out the control that it specifies as long as you stick to all the conditions in the licence.
If you need to shoot or trap crows to prevent serious damage to livestock, you can do so under new General Licence GL26, issued last week. However, this is 11-pages long and includes many new and onerous conditions which must be followed. It is not a like-for-like replacement for the old General Licence under which crows could be controlled and please remember that it is only for the prevention of serious damage to livestock, not for crop protection.
Further new General Licences, for the control of other species and licensing purposes, such as preventing serious damage to crops, conserving wild birds, or for preserving public health and safety, have been promised by NE as soon as possible, some ‘within days’, others over the next few weeks.
You may have been told by NE, or seen statements in the press or online, that it is OK to control pest birds in an emergency and to rely on something called the Section 4 defence. This refers to a part of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. It is, however, not a permission it is only a defence. Legal advice is that the defence is at the very least shaky and it is significant that NE has only said that if you rely on Section 4, you "may not be prosecuted" (our emphasis). The NGO cannot recommend relying on the defence.
The law and the licensing systems in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have not changed so far.
WAS THERE ANY WARNING?
Like everyone else, the NGO had no prior warning of the General Licences being revoked by Natural England. Indeed we had been given reassurances by NE just five weeks before that although they were being challenged in court by Wild Justice, NE believed their General Licences were legally sound. They said they would "stay in place." Against that background, there was really no way we could predict what happened last week. It came like a bolt from the blue for everyone.
WHAT IS THE NGO DOING ABOUT IT?
As soon as we heard about the plan to revoke the old General Licences, the NGO went onto a 'war' footing. We are, of course, a tiny organisation compared to others but we have nonetheless done a huge amount, working non-stop to try to resolve the crisis.
We have had innumerable meetings and conference calls with NE (at Director level) so that they fully understand why their actions are causing such chaos. We have told them what needs to happen now (see below).
We have pressurised them continually to get their emergency interim Individual Licencing scheme running properly. It is getting better but there is still a backlog of applications. We are also demanding they get more staff onto their advice line so gamekeepers can get answers.
Our political adviser has been on phone and email more or less constantly to NE, to MPs, Peers, the Minister's office, the Devolved Governments (Scotland and Wales) and our colleagues in all the other shooting and countryside organisations.
We have written jointly with the other organisations to Michael Gove, demanding that he investigate what has gone wrong and that he sorts it out. Throughout the crisis, teamwork and joint working with the other shooting and countryside organisations has been excellent.
We have updated our website pretty well daily with the latest news and sent regular emails to all our members for whom we have an email address.
Our PR adviser has been briefing the media every day, which has resulted in a lot of press coverage, including helpful coverage of the issue in virtually all national newspapers. We have also briefed television and radio researchers.
And our hardworking office has dealt with hundreds of extra calls a day from members seeking advice. It has been the busiest time in the history of the NGO but also heart-warming to have received a surge in applications to join. (Please note, incidentally, that messages to the NGO office over the coming Bank Holiday weekend will be monitored but do help us, if you can, by limiting calls and emails to a minimum. Hopefully the answers to most of your questions are contained in this update).
Our priority throughout all this has been to get a workable licensing scheme back up and running so that gamekeepers can do what they need to.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN NEXT?
NE is working 'at pace,' it says, on a new set of General Licences to re-allow - lawfully this time - more or less what used to happen in terms of controlling pest birds.
These new General Licences, for the various species and licensing purposes (eg wood pigeons for preventing serious damage to crops, crows and magpies for conserving wild birds, gulls and Canada geese preserving public health and safety), have been promised by NE as soon as possible, some ‘within days’, others 'over the next few weeks'. We have urged that the licences gamekeepers need are prioritised and NE has agreed to do this.
If the other new licences, when they emerge, are similar to the only one that has come out so far (GL26 for preventing serious damage to livestock by crows – see The Legal Situation, above), they will be equally unworkable and the pest control crisis will continue.
If NE listens to what the NGO and the other user-groups are telling them, daily, however, and its new licences are practical and workable and easy to understand, then we will support that as being the quickest approach to solving this crisis.
But if NE continues with the overly bureaucratic and unworkable route it has taken so far, then we will consider legal action to force a change of course. We have already formally reserved our legal position during talks with NE, so as not to limit legal action should it become necessary.
Further updates will be available on the NGO website as the situation develops and will be emailed to all members for whom we have an email address as appropriate.