Wildlife legislation provides for the protection of our wildlife, and the licensing procedure exists to create the ability to undertake, but only where there is a valid justification, an activity affecting a plant or animal which would otherwise be illegal. Natural England issues thousands of individual licences each year for a number of different purposes which are set down in law, and vary from the protection of wild flora and fauna, research and conservation surveys, the prevention of serious damage to livestock and crops, to public health and air safety.
The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust considers that an informed and coherent debate on the possible role of licensing in achieving the recovery of some species of wildlife in exceptional circumstances is needed. We pledge our commitment to maintaining this debate in a spirit of rational and evidence-based dialogue.
We have conducted an extensive amount of own work with black grouse, grey partridge, a range of upland waders and water voles amongst many other species. This work provides clear, peer-reviewed scientific evidence that the effective, and legal control of some generalist predators in some circumstances is essential to the recovery of some species under threat. On rare occasions, the control of predators may be required provided this strict conditions required by licences are met.
The GWCT is strongly committed to work closely with as many of the organisations that issued the State of Nature report in 2013 as possible. We will also work with those who wish to see a richness of species and an abundance of wildlife, be they conservationists, farmers, land owners and gamekeepers, informed by our extensive scientific work.
The details of two licences involving buzzards
Our assessment of these is that some misreporting has contributed to the confusion surrounding these licences. Some press releases have been unclear or have omitted small but significant facts. The details, as far as GWCT understands, are as follows:
- Licence A – WLM/2013/0571 – issued to a pheasant shoot – given permission to remove four nests and eggs contained
- Licence B – WLM/2011/1801 – issued to a poultry farm – given permission for five birds to be trapped and removed
Both applications appear to have had very detailed technical assessments, including detailed economic, commercial or welfare considerations. In the case of the pheasant shoot it appears that a significant range of non-lethal options were tried: the use of brash wigwams; car radios; gas guns; scarecrows; flashing lights; reflective tape and diversionary feeding included.
It appears that the conditions for the granting of licences in these two different cases were met, although there does appear to be some inconsistency in the position of Natural England stretching across the whole application process. The GWCT is clear, however, that if the conditions for granting licences were met, Natural England were acting correctly in granting them. It is, of course, essential that a statutory body such as Natural England should act strictly within the law and not be diverted by local but not necessarily material considerations.
The RSPB has said that the issue of the licences without public consultation was 'wrong'. It is not clear to us how this might be the case, given the licensing rules as they stand. The Law Commission are currently reviewing this aspect and the involvement of stakeholders in the granting or otherwise is included in their deliberations.
GWCT takes the concern over the granting of these licences very seriously. We welcome a full and informed debate of the licensing rules because we are confident that when correctly administered, they may sometimes be an element of ensuring more abundant wildlife or of resolving otherwise intractable but legitimate conflicts of interest. It is vital, in order that there should be public confidence in the system, that the process is followed scrupulously and diligently. Illegal control of generalist predators is unacceptable and unnecessary control of predators should be discouraged. But by the same measure, the correct use of the licensing system should be accepted as a component of building trust between different interests.
The role of the Buzzard Stakeholder Group
The recent controversy has implications for the work of and possibly even the future role of the Buzzard Stakeholder Group (BSG). We consider that had the BSG been allowed to function as intended, the licences might not have been requested on the basis that they would have pre-empted the research planned by the group. The fact that research was on-going could not have been used, in itself to refuse a licence, but the applicants might have thought it wise to have benefited from the research before proceeding with licence applications.
Last year the BSG was working towards agreement of research. The original proposals had three significant parts:
- What could be done to divert attacks
- Discovering why some release pens suffered predation by buzzards and others not
- Investigating the effectiveness and necessity of egg removal and buzzard capture
The suspension of the research planned by the BSG has meant that none of these areas of inquiry have been investigated. The GWCT urges that high priority is given to carrying out this research. It is important, in our view, to recover a measure of consensus to reconcile the conservation of buzzards with responsible game management and free-range farming.
This consensual approach should be applied in all cases of licensing. Where necessary and appropriate, stakeholder participation should be encouraged in agreeing on guidance for the use of licensing. All those who participate should recognise the essential importance of working with a common purpose to achieve workable and sustainable outcomes.