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Defra Secretary gives an update on gamebird release on or near SPAs

In a letter to stakeholders on 1 February 2024, Defra Secretary of State, The Rt Hon Steve Barclay MP, has given an update on Defra’s approach to licensing the release of gamebirds (pheasant and red-legged partridge) on or near Special Protection Areas (SPAs). Without giving the final details of the 2024 licensing approach, the Secretary of State has provided an update on their “direction of travel”, indicating that Defra’s approach will be less burdensome than that in 2023.  

The Secretary of State’s intention to issue a 12 month general licence, with appropriate conditions, for the release of gamebirds on or near those SPAs which meet certain suitability requirements is a welcome development. This works on the assumption that the national highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) risk level of transmission for wild birds remains at medium. According to the announcement, Defra officials are currently analysing each SPA to determine its suitability for a general licence. Those wishing to release gamebirds on or near an SPA that is found to be unsuitable will be required to apply for an individual licence, as was the case in 2023. 

The Secretary of State has also asked the Chief Scientific Adviser to keep the HPAI risk level under review, stating that if the risk level were to fall from medium to low then he “will be prepared to respond quickly to the implications”, with the possibility that more SPAs could be covered by a general licence.  

Defra is aiming to publish full details of the new general and individual licence process for SPAs by the end of February. Although this is far too late for many who run shoots, the end of February is at least an improvement on the shambolic situation experienced in 2023. 

The Alliance welcomes this show of sense and pragmatism by the Secretary of State, and would encourage him to ensure that if evidence shows that the release of gamebirds on European Sites is not having a contributing effect on the spread of HPAI in wild birds, then pheasant and red-legged partridge should be removed from Schedule 9 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act, rendering unnecessary the associated general and individual licences, and the additional administrative burdens these incur. 

Read the Secretary of State's full letter

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