Natural England’s decision to suddenly revoke licences allowing “pest” birds to be shot freely merits a thorough investigation, according to Farming Minister Robert Goodwill.
A legal challenge from Wild Justice, the campaign group set up by BBC presenter Chris Packham, saw the government advisory body pull three general licences for controlling 16 bird species at just 36 hours’ notice last week, a decision even surprised the campaigners, Mr Goodwill claimed.
According to the Countryside Alliance, the move has caused “utter chaos” for farmers and land managers, who shoot specified species under licence to protect crops and young livestock.
Since the decision, Natural England has announced that those affected can apply for individual licences. A new general licence for controlling carrion crows was issued last Friday, followed tonight by others for woodpigeons and Canada geese.
Mr Goodwill, who is MP for Scarborough and Whitby, spoke to The Yorkshire Post shortly after a meeting with Environment Secretary Michael Gove on the issue.
“He was very concerned about the way that this had unfolded, the way that Natural England has maybe acted,” Mr Goodwill said.
“I don’t even think that Mr Packham and (co-campaigner) Mr (Mark) Avery expected it to unfold the way it did. They thought they’d found some sort of legal problems, which the advice that Natural England was given, suggested may be the case.
“I don’t think even they wanted to stop farmers from shooting crows, baiting new born lambs, or to prevent farmers or gamekeepers shooting magpies, maybe taking plover and lapwing eggs," said Mr Goodwill, adding: "We need to fix the problem and fix it quick.”
Calling for an investigation, the Minister said: “We need to look into exactly what happened, why the legal basis on which these general licences were issued was it seems flawed, whether the legal advice Natural England was given was correct at the time and see what action we can take as quickly as possible to restore the situation.”
Farmers already suffering
Farmers are already seeing the consequences of the licences decision, said Adam Bedford, regional director of the National Farmers' Union.
"This has been a difficult week with the loss of the general licence coming at a critical time for both arable and livestock farmers," he said.
"We have had reports of lambs being injured by crows and cereal crops being seriously damaged by pigeons.
"We have been working at the highest level with Natural England to get this situation resolved as quickly as possible. It is a high priority for us."
Phones 'red hot'
Dorothy Fairburn, regional director of the Country Land and Business Association, said the group’s phone line had been “red hot” with concerned land owners, as she criticised Natural England for not acting sooner.
“Our view is that Natural England knew there was a problem, that this legal challenge didn’t just appear out of nowhere. They could have set up a consultation on how to deal with shooting licences and kept the existing system running while they did so,” she said.
It has been reported that Mr Gove may strip Natural England of its licencing power.
Ms Fairburn said: "The only outcome I want is a workable system that doesn't put unnecessary bureaucracy on farmers.
"It's about getting Natural England to do the job they need to be doing properly. We don't want to further diminish Natural England."
The Yorkshire Post asked the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs if removing licencing powers from Natural England were being considered as an option, and a spokesman for the Environment Secretary responded, saying: “The Secretary of State has asked officials to urgently investigate the issues around general licensing.
"He is also actively exploring with Natural England what options could fix the problem as swiftly as possible.”
Quick action promised
Natural England said it was working “as quickly as possible” to minimise disruption caused by its bird control licencing decision.
Interim chief executive Marian Spain said new licences - in additional to one covering carrion crows - were planned to be issued “this week and over the coming weeks, subject to assessment”.
Species controlled under the old general licences included crows, magpies, Canada geese and feral and wood pigeons.
Ms Spain said talks were being held with groups representing licence users to ensure that any further new licences are “as clear as possible”.