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Tim Bonner: The beginning of the end for gamebird licensing?

Many of you will be in mild decline after the end of the game shooting season last week. Few things are as fulfilling as a good day’s shooting and there are few activities as enjoyable which we can honestly say contribute so much to the environmental, economic and social sustainability of the countryside.

Yet, although gamebirds have been reared in the British countryside for well over 150 years, their release has become increasingly regulated over the past few years for reasons that have much more to do with politics than practicalities.

We were particularly critical of the failure by Natural England to monitor Special Protected Areas (SPAs) that led to a legal challenge and the requirements to licence the release of gamebirds on and around them from 2023. This in turn led to the last-minute decision last year to withdraw general licences for such release on the grounds of the purported risk of spreading Avian Influenza. This caused chaos for shoots in areas such as Salisbury Plain.

Whilst licensing of gamebird release only applies to SPAs, the real danger of Defra’s approach is that it creates a precedent and the Welsh Government - having previously explicitly stated that it does not support game shooting - has picked up the baton and is proposing to licence all release of pheasants and partridges.

When I met the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Steve Barclay, last month, we discussed the recent difficulties in the relationship between Defra, Natural England and the shooting community and how the handling of these issues had contributed towards that. When the Secretary of State was moved from the Department of Health to Defra some commentators described it as a demotion. We were quick to challenge that idea and point out that however important the NHS is, none of us is going to be healthy if we do not protect the environment and the countryside. Steve Barclay certainly does not give the impression that he sees his new job as anything but vital and, critically, seems to understand that the countryside is about people, as well as landscapes.

In a subsequent letter to the Alliance and our Aim to Sustain colleagues on 1 February, the Secretary of State updated us on Defra’s approach to licensing the release of gamebirds on or near SPAs and indicated that it will be less burdensome than that in 2023. This would be welcome and should be the first step in the removal of pheasant and red-legged partridge from Schedule 9 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act, which would render unnecessary general and individual licences in any situation.

As I reminded the Secretary of State, this whole debacle emanates from the lawyers' charter which is the ‘precautionary principle’ in the EU Habitats Directive, which remains in UK law. The precautionary principle states that you must not do anything in a protected area unless you can prove that it does no damage. The fact that no one has shown that there is any damage, or that what you are doing had been going on for decades before the designation of the protected area is not good enough unless you can prove the negative.

When parliament passed the legislation that required the licensing of gamebird release, we successfully campaigned for a ‘sunset clause’ that means that it will run out next year. It is in Defra’s gift to ensure that all the relevant work is done to show that the precautionary principle does not apply and that this unnecessary regulation of shooting does not need to continue. The Secretary of State’s letter must be the start of that process, not an end in itself.

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