On Monday Defra published the details of General Licences for 2021 for the control of wild birds including woodpigeons, crows and magpies. The General Licences regulate the most basic aspects of countryside management such as protecting crops from pigeons, lambs from crows and songbirds from magpies.
Last year, Natural England’s decision to withdraw the key General Licences for the control of wild birds in the face of legal threats by anti-shooting campaigners caused understandable anger, so you might have expected this to be a controversial announcement. The fact that it was not, is largely because in the chaos that followed Natural England’s decision, the then Secretary of State, Michael Gove, took direct responsibility for General Licences back into Defra and set about ensuring that the new licences were evidence-based and legally robust. The current Secretary of State George Eustice has continued to take that responsibility.
The result is that whilst there are some changes to the purposes for which species can be managed, all the species which can currently be controlled will remain on the General Licences and the licences will be available for use in most areas, although further details regarding protected sites is awaited. While there remain some details of the licences which we are discussing with Defra, and the full conditions for trapping also have yet to be published, these are fundamentally workable licences. This is a complete rebuff to Wild Justice - Chris Packham’s crowd funded anti-shooting vehicle - which had argued that the whole concept of General Licences was illegal and would be ended by its legal challenges.
All Wild Justice actually achieved was to bully Natural England into completely withdrawing licences for controlling critical species for the protection of lambs, threatened bird species and crops over the crucial spring period last year. This year, next year and presumably in years to come, decisions about what action to take for conservation, livestock protection and crop protection will once again be largely left to practitioners. As well as achieving nothing, Wild Justice has also, of course, wasted vast amounts of resource both in Natural England and Defra which could have gone to practical purposes.
The Alliance will continue to work with our colleagues in other rural organisations to keep a close eye on the annual licence review process, but there are two things that we believe must happen if the current situation is to continue. Firstly, Defra must continue to hold responsibility for the review and production of the licences. Defra has proved it is far more capable than Natural England and such a fundamental area of rural policy should be overseen directly by Ministers rather than being placed in the hands of an arm’s length quango.
Secondly, post-Brexit, the Government must review the legislation that underpins the General Licence system and so much else that controls the management of wildlife and the countryside. It is the shifting interpretation of EU legislation on which our laws are based that has caused so much confusion over General Licences over many years. If there is any purpose to Brexit, it is surely to ensure that we have laws that make sense in Britain, not in Brussels, and there would be no better place to start that process than in the countryside.