The Government’s “precautionary” handling of pest bird controls could contribute to moorland birds becoming extinct if a glaring omission from new licences is not addressed, the director of the Moorland Association, Amanda Anderson, has warned.
It is “almost beyond belief”, she said, that precious European protected landscapes, including Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) and Special Protection Areas (SPAs), are not covered by replacement general licences for the control of pest bird species.
The licences published today by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) allow carrion crows, rooks, magpies, and other specified bird species, to be killed in most cases across England’s countryside in order to conserve wild birds, flora and fauna, preserve public health or public safety, and prevent serious damage to livestock or crops.
However, additional licence requirements are needed for protected sites - including 18 SACs and 10 SPAs in Yorkshire.
Omission is 'beyond belief'
Ms Anderson said: “We have made the point forcefully to Defra that it is almost beyond belief that precious areas that support incredible bird life are being left out, areas that have been designated for their important birds and habitats. Pest bird control, certainly in the uplands, has been a contributing factor to their success.
“Making conservation in these areas harder to achieve is a disaster for our wildlife. Defra’s precautionary approach and EU rules could preside over the extinction of our best-loved moorland birds like the curlew, lapwing, golden plover, if a way forward cannot be found.”
Announcing the new general licences, which are valid until the end of February 2020, Environment Secretary Michael Gove acknowledged the omission of European protected sites and said “this is a temporary way forward”.
Defra, which has taken over the control of licensing from Natural England, explained that it will now review long-term arrangements by working closely with Natural England, and an initial public consultation intended to be held this summer.
Countryside leaders have roundly praised the new licences for otherwise resolving disruption caused by the sudden revocation of three previous general licences by Natural England in April, following a legal challenge from the Wild Justice campaign group.
However, the Country Land and Business Association, BASC, Countryside Alliance and National Gamekeepers’ Organisation are among those who have told Defra they do not agree on the approach to protected sites and will look to use the forthcoming consultation to ensure the rules are extended.
Discussion 'does not stop here'
Countryside Alliance chief executive Tim Bonner said: “Whilst we remain very concerned about the initial decision by Natural England to revoke the general licences we are grateful for the Secretary of State’s intervention.
“Since Defra has taken back control of the licences we have seen significant progress and for most people managing most species the situation is now back as it was. The discussion does not, however, stop here and we will seek to resolve the outstanding issues as part of the planned consultation later this year.”
Guy Smith, deputy president of the National Farmers' Union, said: "It is positive for farmers that the licences once again include species such as rooks and magpies, and it would appear that the new licences seem to be practical and fit for purpose for our members.
“However, we do see the potential confusion for farmers who control birds in or near protected sites.
"In this situation, they may have to rely on other licences and it is imperative that the licensing system is clear, unambiguous and farmers have the tools they require to carry out control."
Wild Justice, meanwhile, said it was consulting lawyers over the new general licences, having launched a fresh legal challenge earlier this week over the temporary licences that Natural England issued as a stop-gap after the old ones were revoked.