The facts about licences for wild birds

Blog from Natural England Director of Operations James Diamond

There has recently been a great deal of speculation on social media about the licensed killing of wild birds in England. I’d like to take this opportunity to give some context to Natural England’s licensing work so that people can understand our decisions.

All wild birds in England are fully protected in law by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended).  Whilst the Act offers all species general protection, it also provides exemptions for licences to be issued by Natural England on behalf of the government.

These purposes include preserving air safety and public health, and preventing damage to livestock. These licences, which have been issued for nearly 40 years, can only be granted once all other avenues have been explored.

In determining any licence application our expert staff take account of the requirements of the legislation and the five policy tests set out by Defra. A successful applicant must clearly demonstrate – with supporting evidence – that:

  • actual damage or a problem is occurring;
  • the species is actually causing the damage or problem;
  • other reasonable and practical non-lethal alternatives have been considered and tried (such as scaring, trapping or proofing);
  • the action is proportionate;
  • and the conservation status of the species will not be negatively affected.

Amongst the licences we have issued are permissions to despatch individual birds, such as robins and house sparrows, which have found their way into food preparation premises.

We have also authorised: the removal of individual birds (or their nests) where they are a risk to transport or power supply infrastructure; the shooting of cormorants alongside scaring to protect inland fisheries; and the removal of birds, such as buzzards, that are presenting a risk to aircraft safety at an airport.

None of these actions presents any risk to the conservation status of the species involved. Further information about the reasons for issuing a licence for the control of birds can be found on

Although the focus of the recent interest blog has been licences for the lethal control of birds, it’s worth pointing out that Natural England’s licensing work also enables important conservation work to take place. This includes the tracking and ringing of birds, research into their behaviour and the reintroduction of species such as corncrakes in Cambridgeshire and cirl buntings in Cornwall.

In the interests of transparency we have published a summary of the licences for the control of birds issued between 2013 and 2018, with the reason for approval stated:


Bird Species Licensing Purpose
Brent goose Preventing serious damage to agriculture
Greylag goose Preserving public safety and/or preventing serious damage to agriculture
Black-headed gull Conserving fauna (including wild birds) or preserving public health or safety
Herring gull Conserving fauna (including wild birds) or preserving public health or safety
Great black-backed gull Conserving fauna (including wild birds) or preserving public health or safety
Lesser black-backed gull Conserving fauna (including wild birds) and/or preserving public health or safety
Curlew Preserving air safety
Oystercatcher Preserving air safety
Buzzard Preserving air safety and/or preventing serious damage to agriculture
Raven Preventing serious damage to agriculture
Kestrel Preserving air safety
Peregrine falcon Preserving air safety
Robin Preserving public health or safety
Grey heron Preserving air safety and/or preventing damage to fisheries or inland waters
Red kite Preserving air safety
Stock dove Preserving air safety
House sparrow Preserving air safety and/or preserving public health or safety
Wren Preserving public health or safety
Blackbird Preserving public health or safety
Great tit Preserving public health or safety
Starling Kill, injure or take for the purpose of preventing serious damage to agriculture
Golden plover Preserving air safety
Cormorant Preventing damage to fisheries or inland waters
Goosander Preventing damage to fisheries or inland waters
Egyptian goose Preserving public health or safety and/or preserving air safety
Moorhen Preventing serious damage to agriculture
Mallard Preserving public health or safety and/or preserving air safety
Pink-footed goose Preserving public health or safety and/or preserving air safety
Canada goose Preserving public health or safety and/or preserving air safety


Wigeon Preserving public health or safety and/or preserving air safety


Mute swan Preserving public health or safety and/or preserving air safety


Ruddy duck Conserving fauna (including wild birds)
Bullfinch Preventing serious damage to agriculture
Ringed plover Preserving public health or safety and/or preserving air safety
Fantail/white dove Preserving public health and safety and/or preserving air safety
Barnacle goose Preserving public health or safety and/or preserving air safety
Coot Preserving public health or safety
Skylark Preserving air safety




  1. Comment by Howard Rowley posted on

    Meaningless without the numbers of birds slaughtered each time. Presumably every bird that flies within 5 miles of an airport will be culled under 'Preserving Air Safety'.

  2. Comment by Biddy Broiler posted on

    Some animals are clearly more equal than others Clucks - but why wasn't this put in the public domain from the start?

    A number of these 'explanations' (e.g. food contamination) raise questions about the adequacy of the operational arrangements of the stakeholders. Why wouldn't they be expected to bear the cost of a non-fatal solution (i.e. removing sparrows, wrens etc from buildings)?

  3. Comment by Lesley Karen Roden posted on

    There is not enough information here. For example, how were bullfinches impacting on agriculture? It seems our precious wildlife is too easily 'removed'.

  4. Comment by mARK cHAMPION posted on

    I am interested in how a buzzard can have a serious negative affect agriculture, could you, in the interest of transparency, explain the damage that buzzards were having on agriculture, please.
    Thanking you in advance.....

    • Replies to mARK cHAMPION>

      Comment by Mike H posted on

      My own thoughts exactly. Buzzards feed on carrion. How does that damage agriculture. There are some unscrupulous farmers out there.Whilst walking in North Wales, I came across a farmer putting out poisoned rabbit carcases to kill buzzards and red kites. He had been doing it for years. I reported it to DEFRA and he was given a warning.

  5. Comment by Neil Armstrong posted on

    Somethings I can understand but so many are just catch all reasons for example moorhens can not be seen to cause serious damage to agriculture?? Now Canada geese eat much grass from fields better to have foxes to catch or drive them away but I doubt they & so many other birds fly in such a way to cause air safety problems??

  6. Comment by stephen Crofts posted on

    An absolute joke. Ive heard Wrens can be lethal at this time of year.!

  7. Comment by Patricia Murgatroyd posted on

    It's all about the human race isn't it?! The poor birds are are victlms of our devastation of the countryside because of our greed for meat,fish,hunting and shooting. Their habitats have been destroyed by agriculture and you are adding to this by condoning their slaughter. May you hang your heads in shame.

  8. Comment by Elizabeth Owens posted on

    What a load of nonsense !

  9. Comment by Donna-Marie Skoyles posted on

    Disgusting allowing these beautiful birds to be shot! We are the ones that destroy everything. There is no excuse, it is just a licence to provide more money. People want to see more birds not less and they are under enough pressure as it is.

  10. Comment by Sarah Zaluckyj posted on

    Killing skylarks to 'preserve air safety'? Is this some sort of joke? And killing blue tits, robins, blackbirds and wrens to preserve public health? This list goes on...I see red kites are killed for preserving air safety. I am sure Britain's farmers are delighted with that! In fact in all of this I see the moneyed grip of farmers and building developers. When the loose reason or preserving air safety/public health safety/preventing harm to farms and fisheries and inland waters is given as a reason for killing these species - do you actually inspect the place? As more of your jobs are axed, doesn't it occur that just anybody can use this as an excuse to blast more wildlife out of the sky and off the land? Unless you have the staff to follow-up on requests with site visits, then it's time this to stop this 'licensed killing'. There must be more loopholes in this legislation than a tea-bag.

  11. Comment by Andrew Dimoglou posted on

    TOTALLY UNSATISFACTORY!...I won't say answer as it didn't, but was an nebulous reply...numbers and specific explanations withheld...yes,withheld because these licences are not justifiable.Birds near food sources etc. can be moved or prevented access I'm sure.It would seem the premises are at fault, for not securing the property from "invasion".Furthermore what constitutes "serious damage to agriculture"?...Finally,how do solitary birds of prey constitute an air safety threat?Are not planes tough enough to withstand a collision with such birds?..If not they should not be flying.How many injuries or deaths have been caused by red kites please.I will be emailing these questions until I get satisfactory answers.

  12. Comment by Elizabeth Weston posted on

    Total nonsense. You cannot expect this weak response to satisfy those who are passionate about our nation’s wildlife.

  13. Comment by Peter Bailey posted on

    Surely this is a case of using a hammer to crack a nut! At a time when our wildlife is already experiencing disastrous decline in numbers and diversity! I would happily sign a gov petition against this unwarranted 'culling'.

  14. Comment by Tony Ridge posted on

    I cannot believe this is necessary and the list of birds on the death list is horrendous. How is this monitored to make sure this is not just shooting for fun and how do people distinguish what they are allowed to shot. It is difficult enough to know what they are when you have a camera lense. How does a Robin harm anything for example. It gives so much pleasure and even seems to be the face of Christmas.....

    I would like to see more science behind this and research on what effect they are really having. Do the positives outweigh any negatives on keeping these beautiful creatures alive if you look at the bigger picture. What are the alternatives. Are we engaging with farmers for example and discussing their concerns and providing real facts, education and help.

    • Replies to Tony Ridge>

      Comment by Heather Duncan posted on

      James Diamond - Many thanks for the comments on this blog piece. I fully understand that issues of this nature will provoke a range of reactions and responses from people. I will try to respond to a couple of the specific questions posted.

      People have asked for more information on specific species and instances. This blog post from July 2018 describes raven licensing to protect livestock and this news story from September 2016 (updated November 2016) describes our approach to buzzard licensing

      We are looking at how we can publish more updates to describe how licencing works for individual species and situations.

      Several of the comments refer to publishing numbers of licences issued. In the raven blog I said that until recently we routinely published licensing statistics online. This was removed from GOV.UK due to very low numbers of page views. We are looking at the feasibility of bringing that information back online, starting with 2018, as soon as we can.

      Thanks as always for your keen interest in wildlife and nature conservation.
      James Diamond
      Natural England Operations Director

  15. Comment by Alison Hunt posted on

    As a tax payer paying for this insane slaughter I request a full and proper reply from Natural England justifying this unsustainable licence to kill endangered birds. If a flock of sparrows get into a food facility then the door has been left open or the building is deficient- the sparrows are not to blame and should not be killed.
    What evidence is there that all available bird scaring devices have actually been used and failed near airports before raptor and raven killing licences are granted by NE?
    Natural England's presumption of guilt on the part of birds is astounding.
    Is the human race increasingly going to be restricted to a sterile surgical environment devoid of bird song and beauty?