Licence to confuse

General Licences permit landowners and other authorised users to carry out a range of otherwise illegal activities to control certain wild birds where necessary to prevent serious agricultural damage or disease, preserve public health or safety and to conserve flora and fauna, including other wild birds. They are issued annually by the relevant body in England, Wales and Scotland, and can be relied on by anyone who meets the criteria and who complies with the detailed terms and conditions although they are most usually relied on by farmers and gamekeepers.

In England, the General Licences are the responsibility of Natural England, who last year carried out a wide ranging review.  A number of proposals were put out to consultation, and one in particular attracted considerable attention, namely that pest birds should only be shot or trapped where other methods, such as scaring or proofing, had been tried and failed.  Sir Barney White Spunner, Chairman of the Countryside Alliance, described the proposal as “so impractical as to be ridiculous” and showing a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of shooting in managing pigeon problems: scaring does not stop them eating crops but just moves them on to someone else’s.

Over 2,000 responses were received and in September Natural England published a summary of its decisions. To the relief of the rural community, common-sense prevailed and the Board decided that the test should remain as before, simply being satisfied that there is no satisfactory alternative. The Board also decided not to implement a proposal which would have required all reasonable precautions to be taken to avoid unnecessary suffering of birds and for wounded birds to be pursued and despatched.

Following the consultation, the General Licences for 2015 look slightly different from previous years in terms of format, but the substantive changes are relatively minor. Egyptian goose has been added to the species that may be controlled for the purposes of preventing serious damage or disease and Sacred ibis and Indian house-crow to the species that may be controlled for conservation purposes.

Various definitions that were formerly included have been left out.  It is no longer apparent on the face of the licences that an “authorised person” includes not only the owner or occupier of the land where the action is taken (and “occupier” includes any person with a right to shoot), but also any person acting with their authority. Clearly this could cover shooting pigeons on land owned or occupied by their employer, but also, for example, running a crow trap on land directly adjoining a grouse moor with the neighbour’s permission.  Instead, the user is simply told that “authorised person” is as defined in section 27(1) of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. To expect a busy farmer or gamekeeper to refer to primary legislation to work out whether he’s covered or not seems a little unhelpful and unrealistic.

Natural England has, also unhelpfully, failed to clarify on the licences the position with regard to Hooded crow, for which for several years there has been uncertainty and disagreement over whether control under the General Licences is permitted. In 2012 Natural England published Advice in which it stated that since the licences specify “Crow – Corvus corone”, only Carrion crow can be controlled, explaining that since 2002 Hooded crown have been officially listed as a separate species (Corvus cornix).

In Scotland, where Hooded crow are widespread, the General Licences now specify both Carrion crow and Hooded crow. Given the extremely low numbers of Hooded crow south of the border, Natural England was of the view that control under General Licences was not justified and proposed changing the wording to clarify that.  If Hooded crow are a problem an application for an individual licence would be required. The proposal was rejected, and, at the time of writing, the wording has remained unchanged and ambiguous, although Natural England have confirmed to the writer by email that they stand by their earlier Advice and that Hooded crow are not a species that may be taken or killed under General Licence in England.

It is vital that the General Licences should be sufficiently clear for users to know precisely what birds they apply to without being an expert in taxonomy.  Come on Natural England: if you mean only “Carrion crow” SAY SO IN ENGLISH PLEASE.

The consultation also raised a number of topics “in order to inform future proposals”. These included cage trapping, an activity routinely carried out each year in late spring and early summer to target crows and other corvids to protect ground-nesting birds.  Views were sought on:

  • A draft Code of Practice on the live trapping of birds, to be appended to the General Licences in place of some of the existing conditions and to provide additional advice on the conduct of trapping operations
  • Keeping trapped birds as decoys, including how long they may be kept in traps and kept as decoys
    A tagging system for traps, similar to that in place in Scotland where the police issue individually referenced tags to be attached to traps, which provides a means of identifying the user without this being apparent to members of the public
  • The use of Larsen-Mate type traps (also known as “clam” or butterfly” traps, including potential conditions of use such as specifying suitable bait (e.g. no carrion, which might attract non-target species such as raptors, foxes and badgers), again as already stipulated in Scotland

Natural England say they will be considering the feedback in detail before any changes to the current licensing arrangements are made. It seems very likely, however, that further changes will follow and those who operate cage traps will need to ensure they keep abreast of them as they are introduced

Trapping or killing a wild bird outside the terms of a licence, or failing to meet the needs of a decoy bird, is an offence, and since 2010 anyone convicted of a wildlife or animal welfare offence is automatically excluded from being able to use any of the General Licences until the conviction is spent (typically 5 years). The 2015 Licences contain the additional warning, not seen in previous years, that a failure to comply with the terms and conditions:

“May result in your permission to use the licence being withdrawn.  Natural England will inform any person or organisation whose permission to use this licence is withdrawn in writing.  This sanction may be applied to other similar licences.”

On this point at least Natural England could not be more clear. Breaching the terms of the General Licences is not to be taken lightly, and even in the absence of a conviction, it is fair to assume they will not hesitate to exclude from future use those who do.

If you would like more information about topics discussed above, please contact Tim Ryan on 01732 375395 or email [email protected]

“First published in Gun Trade News – March 2015”.

The contents of this article are for the purposes of general awareness only. They do not purport to constitute legal or professional advice. The law may have changed since this article was published. Readers should not act on the basis of the information included and should take appropriate professional advice upon their own particular circumstances.

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