by Tim Bonner

The new Defra general licences to release pheasants and partridges on or near special protected sites came into force on Tuesday and with sad predictability, anti-shooting campaigners Chris Packham and Mark Avery announced their intention to return to the courts within 48 hours. The opportunity to use funds donated by gullible donors to drain the public purse is, apparently, too much to resist.

You may remember that in November a judge rejected a claim by Messrs Packham and Avery’s vehicle Wild Justice for £35,000 of costs in relation to its original Judicial Review on this issue, and also concluded that it ‘would not have been successful’ had the case not been settled. Despite this, Wild Justice is desperate to return to the courts to argue that the General Licence issued by Defra for the release of gamebirds on and around protected areas does not give those sites sufficient protection.

There are three very obvious conclusions that can be drawn from this extremely expensive and increasingly pointless campaign. The first is that Wild Justice’s interest has little to do with protected sites and everything to do with its obsession with restricting and prohibiting shooting. Its claims that it is not an anti-shooting organisation are frankly ridiculous given that its entire focus is on shooting issues.

The second is that attempting to deal rationally with such groups, as Defra did during the initial legal process, is utterly pointless. Wild Justice and its fellow travellers have no interest in settling issues or in sensible agreement. Every action is merely a stepping-stone to the next assault so the government would be better to fight where it stands, rather than trying to reach a logical consensus with people who reject logic.

The third is that the ‘precautionary principle’ which the UK has inherited from EU legislation provides a licence for activists and lawyers to challenge every decision that might have an impact, however vague, on protected sites. This principle means Defra is constantly being challenged to prove a negative – that activities like shooting are not having an impact on protected areas – which is an almost impossible task, especially when Defra’s agency, Natural England, has not been monitoring protected sites.

Defra Secretary George Eustice has long been an outspoken critic of the Habitats Directive which includes the precautionary principle and his view is increasingly shared by others in government and elsewhere. It will be wonderfully ironic if Wild Justice’s obsessive pursuit of shooting actually leads to the demise of the ‘precautionary principle’ on which it relies.

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