Wildlife campaigners behind a new legal challenge over pest bird control licences have warned they are prepared to escalate their concerns by taking Natural England to court if necessary.
Temporary licences issued by the public body to allow wood pigeons, carrion crows and Canada geese to be shot by land owners and farmers in order to protect crops and livestock have a similar legal flaw in them as the three general licences for the control of 16 bird species that they replaced last month, the Wild Justice group claims.
The original general licences were revoked by Natural England after the group’s first legal challenge a little over a month ago, leaving farmers and land owners uncertain about how they could control pests at a critical time of the year for new-born lambs and spring crops.
In a statement today, Wild Justice, whose members include BBC naturalist Chris Packham, said: “We believe that the licences that Natural England published have a similar legal flaw in them as did the previous general licences. If Natural England thinks not, then we are prepared to take this case through the courts to have the legal arguments decided by a judge.
“If Natural England concedes again then the world will wonder what on earth they were doing issuing more legally flawed licences.”
The latest legal challenge is aimed specifically at the temporary licence issued last month to kill carrion crows.
Environmental campaigner Mark Avery, a former director of conservation at the RSPB and member of Wild Justice, described the crows licence as “shoddy” and “scientifically threadbare”, saying: “We are glad that Defra has promised a proper review of licensing of the killing of wild birds because, on the evidence of this licence, that killing often amounts to unjustified casual killing.”
In a formal legal letter sent to Natural England, lawyers acting on behalf of Wild Justice say the group is not “specifically seeking the withdrawal” of the three temporary licences, but it does “invite Natural England to reflect on the legality of any licences issued relating to their subject matter in 2020 or beyond”.
Its points of contention are that Natural England’s temporary licences leave it to the farmer or land owner to decide if there are no alternatives to killing pest birds when the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act requires Natural England “to be satisfied as to the absence of alternatives before granting the licence, not in some after event assessment”.
Wild Justice also contests Natural England’s definition of pheasants as livestock because they are “kept” for shooting.
Since the original licences were revoked, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has stripped licensing powers from Natural England and has received about 4,000 responses to a consultation on the use of general licences.
A spokeswoman for Defra said the next steps “will be set out shortly”.
Natural England was approached for comment but failed to respond in time.