Wild Justice outmanoeuvred by Defra on gamebird releasing

Pheasant cock and two hensIt’s a year since the campaign group Wild Justice led Defra and Natural England on a merry legal dance over the General Licences. These are the ones used to protect crops, livestock and wildlife from pest bird species. While new licences were being drafted the old ones were suspended, and the resulting vacuum was filled with publicity, but wildlife has been left worse off in the end. The lawyers were happy but the replacement licences can’t be used to protect species on sites listed by the EU as being high in conservation value. In this case, the law has become self-defeating.

This year the same group decided to challenge Defra using the same trick. This time over the release of gamebirds on and near these same EU priority conservation sites. Once again, this is a glorious legal dance because it is already the law that you can only release birds on many of these sites with the written consent of Natural England. They also have the power to halt any activity – so lawyers are dancing on the head of a legal pin.

The legal arguments in this case will now not be heard because Defra neatly sidestepped the legal technicalities by simply announcing they would issue a General Licence to cover gamebird releases in these places. Wild Justice, led by BBC Presenter Chris Packham, swiftly announced a ‘victory’, but it would appear the legal team at Defra are the real winners – they have avoided costly legal action and significant disruption to those providing the habitat that game management delivers.

Defra’s legal team also appears to have used GWCT research to tell Wild Justice that they were wrong to insist that all gamebird releases within 5km of a protected site must be included in this legal arm wrestle. As a result, only releases within 500m of an EU-recognised conservation site are included. The details of this new General Licence (so, not one individuals need to apply for) have yet to be produced. The GWCT is happy to help Defra with that, but we share the scepticism of others about the ongoing need for this measure. It may address a legal point but that is all it appears to achieve. In which case, it may be simpler to revise the legislation rather than add bureaucracy.

It has been indicated that this General Licence will be an interim measure. Whatever the outcome of the situation, it does provide all shoots with an opportunity to revisit their own plans and make sure they are continuing to maximise the conservation benefits while minimising any negatives. It’s sometimes easy to forget that the countryside we know today has been shaped by game management. Not only does it best protect and maintain our hedgerows and woodlands, but the wildlife that depends on it too. The GWCT will stand by our principles, which include that land managed for shooting should deliver a net biodiversity gain, and challenge any self-defeating legal changes.

The full Government announcement can be read here.


These are Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and Special Protection Areas (SPAs). Please note that many EU designated sites are also Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). However, not all SSSIs are EU designated sites.

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