What's to be done about wildlife licensing in England?
Updated: Jun 3
Eagle mobbed by crows in Hemsley. Image: David Dixon
Ever since Natural England were last year forced to revoke three General Licences after a legal challenge from campaign group Wild Justice, the licensing system has been in chaos. But in reality General Licences – the means by which farmers, gamekeepers and landowners are able to common pest and predatory species – has been gradually turning into more and more of a mess ever since Natural England took over the system from Defra in 2007.
The National Gamekeepers’ Organisation, Countryside Alliance and the Moorland Association have together prepared a document for the Secretary of State for the Environment about the current legislation process in England, which can be read on the PDF below.
As the document explains, the system pre 2007 was easy to use, cheap, compatible with EU legislation, and there were no legal challenges. But since then, the system has become increasingly complicated. In the first few years, the General Licences for bird control went from being 2 pages long to 5. Now it sits at 11 pages long.
Last year, following the Wild Justice challenge, Defra were forced to take control and issued workable licences. This year – 2020 – NE have struggled to issue individual licences, with many applicants not receiving them until Apri, long after predation had begun on the eggs and chicks of rare and declining species such as curlew and redshank. Natural England has blamed the delays on “a backlog due to high workloads”. Not only that, but the application and issuing process is both incredibly confusing and even “inept”. Gulls, on the other hand, can now no longer be controlled by general licence, but require individual licences. There is also a cap on numbers. But in reality, although hundreds of gamekeepers, estates and farmers applied for gull licences this year, the attached document states that the Countryside Alliance, the National Gamekeeper’s Organisation and the Moorland Association, are aware of only one single licence being granted for gull control throughout rural England. This is for an upland SPA designated as a Hen Harrier breeding site, indicating that Natural England are not concerned with the fate of rare waders at all. When it comes to stoats, Natural England have not followed all of Defra’s policy guidance, which has “resulted in highly restrictive and burdensome General Licences that go far beyond just specifying the types of trap that can be used for catching stoats, as had been the Government’s intention and instruction to NE.” But overall, Natural England’s shambolic systems and licences has resulted in a far more complex and restrictive system than in other countries working under the same European rules. Knee-jerk responses to challenged have resulted in patched-together rules, while a lack of public consultation and liaison with affected stakeholders has led to poorly drafted licences. Costs are of course spiralling, as are the workloads of hard-pressed Natural England and Defra staff. It seems unlikely to change any time soon. So what's the answer? The attached document, prepared for the Secretary of State for the Environment by the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation, Countryside Alliance and the Moorland Association, suggests that it is time that wildlife licensing returned to central Government, and requests an immediate Government feasibility study of the issues raised. For everyone’s sakes; that of our wildlife, of everyone who works with Natural England and indeed the Natural England and Defra staff, let’s hope a solution is found. Fast.