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Latest update: Wild bird licensing

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A picture of a barn owl
A licence was granted to remove 4 barn owl chicks from a nest, which were then hand- reared and released (Credit: Natural England)

Blog from Natural England Director of Operations, James Diamond

When we published this blog (The facts about licences for wild birds) back in December and we promised further updates on our licensing work. I want to use this blog post to explain a bit more detail behind some individual licensing decisions that have been highlighted on social media and elsewhere, but first a couple of reminders.

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 for a range of purposes.

In determining any licence application our expert staff take full account of the requirements of the legislation. A successful applicant must clearly demonstrate – with supporting evidence – that these five test can be met:

  • 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.

So, those licensing decisions…

Why did Natural England license the killing of barn owls?

In 2014 we issued a single licence to remove four young barn owls from a nest. The nest was in a collapsing wall and chimney within the grounds of a school. There was judged to be an immediate and increasing risk to people’s safety through bricks and other building materials falling to the ground. The young owls were successfully reared in captivity and released into the wild. No barn owls were killed.

Why license the killing of wrens? How do they threaten public safety?

Wrens are tiny birds and it is hard to imagine how they themselves could threaten public safety. However in 2015 we did issue a single licence to allow the destruction of a nest and eggs. The nest was within a tree which required immediate removal to prevent a real risk of it falling and injuring people.

How can Natural England justify the licensed killing of peregrines?

In 2015 vital planned maintenance work was scheduled for a power station structure. A pair of peregrines set up a nest which would have prevented that work from happening. We licensed the moving of the nest and four eggs to a nearby location to allow the work to continue and the peregrines to continue raising their family and contribute to the remarkable nationwide recovery of this wonderful bird. No peregrines were killed.

In these kind of situations we will always test first if the operation can be delayed until the nest is unoccupied. Very occasionally that is not possible due to an immediate risk or importance and only then we will consider licensing. Killing is always the last course of action. As demonstrated above licensed nest or chick relocation can often solve the problem.

Behind every licence will be a similar story of expert and careful consideration of the five tests I outline above. We will continue to use these blogs to explain decisions. You can read about raven licensing on this previous blog (Ravens have seen impressive recovery).

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  1. Comment by Eileen Cox posted on

    Have you any idea how long birds have inhabited our planet? Shame on you

  2. Comment by Rob Thomas posted on

    ‪This sort of information is important and places the three chosen examples in some context. These three cases did not involve killing (adult) birds, whereas many others clearly do. Can you give any of the more marginal examples, to illustrate how the decisions to kill birds arise?‬

  3. Comment by Jonathan Ferguson posted on

    It's unfortunate that the Guardian chose to focus on these isolated (possibly justified) cases - so what about having some transparency about the licencing, and even better, doing something about large-scale illicit culling?

  4. Comment by Nigel Goodman posted on

    Your attempt to minimize isn’t cutting it with me -
    I don’t believe you that the tree involved such immediate total removal that the wren next was destroyed
    The issuance is far more and you don’t report on the activity that follows the license
    You seem to have very close links to the industries that are to gain from destruction
    The 400 mute swan eggs were very disturbing
    So I’d like full transparency please —

  5. Comment by Nigel Goodman posted on

    You minimisation is not acceptable . Licenses against 170000 from 70 species in 5 years You've issued licenses against Red kites . So this is meaningless? -> the red kite is listed Schedule I of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and has full legal protection.

    It is an offence to intentionally or recklessly disturb nesting kites. Red kites are extremely sensitive to human activity close to the nesting area during the nesting season, and can abandon their nest and chicks at the slightest disturbance.

    To attempt any of the above actions is an offence in itself.

    Special penalties (fines of up to £5000 for each bird or egg involved and/or imprisonment for up to six months) could be imposed on a person convicted of any of these offences.

  6. Comment by Sue Waton posted on

    This does not explain the continued issuing of licences to shoot wild birds, geese, seabirds and the many other species listed in the Guardian report. These are merely examples of occasional interventions. Please answer my specific question in my email dated yesterday.

  7. Comment by m cHEDZEY posted on

    Publish the numbers you seem to think it a low number.

  8. Comment by Mike F posted on

    Easy meat for popularists like Change and 38Degrees. None of them have read the details or try to understand the need. However, Skylarks and air travel is a bit tenuous surely?!
    This is why 1700 per annum road deaths get a massive budget, policing, fines and clog up the courts, but 2000 diabetics a WEEK just get death duties. Road deaths fall as traffic volumes rise, cars get safer. Diabetes increases because we are told to consume more.
    The conclusion:
    People are just happy to be idiots.
    They're getting worse.
    ONS should start keeping a stupidity index.

  9. Comment by Claire Weaver posted on

    Why are the headings titled "Why did NE license the killing of barn owls? ... wrens ... peregrines" when no adult birds were killed and no eggs 'died' in two of the cases described. When we face considerable controversy over the shooting and killing of buzzards it is unhelpful to have headlines worded in a way that suggests that adult birds had been deliberately killed/shot. Could not the heading be worded to reflect what actually happened i.e. a license was issued relating to these species "why did NE issue a license regarding barn owls?" I understand that the license was a license to kill - in case the chicks did not survive, because the wren eggs were prevented from hatching, because the peregrines could have deserted the moved nest. I also appreciate that the license may be called 'license to kill'. However, we are addressing a public audience and their initial reaction to the headline will colour how they receive the information - if they bother to read further. Please can we have more consideration given to the wording of these articles.

  10. Comment by brian fisher posted on

    There are fewer than 8,000 pairs of Ravens left in the UK. Why did you issue a license to kill?

  11. Comment by Graham Opperman posted on

    The following was the justification for signing a Petition against Mass Slaughter of Wild Birds. This appears to be totally untrue and misleading according to this official website!!!


    It’s worse than I could have imagined. I’ve been investigating the extent of the officially licensed mass slaughter of wild birds in England, and the results are shocking.

    Licences were issued to destroy over 170,000 wild birds, eggs and nests - all with the approval of government agency Natural England. This has to stop".

  12. Comment by Rodger Stubbings posted on

    Hi James - this info needs precise facts - numbers of licences granted, and more important the number of birds killed By each licensee !

    If you do not have this info, you are not protecting our bird life.

    Without exact numbers, there will be concern that Natural England is sanctioning wholesale slaughter.

    Sincerely, Rodger

  13. Comment by Daniella McCarthy-Stewart posted on

    I was directed here by a community member on the RSPB website, because I had concerns about the culling of wild birds, in order to learn a little more about the individual cases you cover.
    From the three examples above, one thing stands out very clearly.
    The barn owls and the peregrine falcons were rescued and moved and continued to thrive, the wrens were exterminated.
    I believe I have discovered that there is an indifferent attitude towards the more common garden birds, apparently they do not attract the same respect and concern that a larger, protected species might.
    I am really not happy about that and I wish that the same policy would apply to all wild birds, there are plenty of wildlife sanctuaries that would assist in the rescue and resiting of tiny common birds, as the emphasis is on all wildlife, not just the popular, fancy ones.
    This is very disappointing.

  14. Comment by Yvonne Sayer posted on

    What defines causing damage or problem ? There is no black and white definition .Farmers food industries etc related directly to profit making will select and interpret these very loose definitions in their own way and act accordingly . your organisation is waffling interpretations rather giving direct boundary instructions there are no tight specifics and no mention of direct legal prosecution for any misuse and abuse of a license .
    By this lack of due care and diligence Natural England are allowing free rein of interpretations and therefore are responsible for any killing of birds that are not causing any real threat. once eradicated these species will not be replaced .no doubt your association will then call for a preservation order on threatened species . natural England is complicit by its liberal guidelines to the future extinction of endangered species . financial determinates £££s under the banner of a protection organisation..?
    Disgusting and shameful practises are therefore possibly being instigated by official license ., under the guise of protection ? Protection of profits rather than species
    Who is directly on the ground witnessing and monitoring those with the 140 plus licenses ? On a regular basis ? Have any licenses been revoked ? Has any legal prosecution been invoked since these licenses have been handed out ? Ad verbatim ....?how long are these licenses in force ? Are the licencees inspected on a regular basis by an independant body?
    Self inspection self monitoring and regulation practises in any organisation never works ....fact. It is always open to abuse and is abused by at least a minority in any sphere of organisation .meanwhile such blatant PR waffle does not instil confidence or respect for your organisation albeit it has .government backing ... surely such backing is certainly no recommendation especially when Machiavellian principals apply in government .no doubt in the near future the RSPB ,nature watches and TV programmes such as Countryfile will be flagging up the reality of the outcome of those licenses being the threat of anhialation of certain species due directly to the lack of rigid boundaries and structured directives by Natural England under government backing .
    For example The Red Kite was eradicated through lack of control and now be reintroduced with public money at great cost . Other species will not be so fortunate . Waffle is waffle such waffle convinces no one .

  15. Comment by Carrol Walker posted on

    Thank you for explaining a few details our wildlife needs protecting I know some people will over react but so do i on unnecessary killing of any wildlife I spend money helping to protect them and will continue to do so

  16. Comment by Maureen Hall posted on

    Is that 1981 Act, the one that is there to prosecute those who hunt Foxes, with hounds and Terrier men on quad bikes, spades at the ready to dig out a Fox that has made it to a hole, and throw it to the hounds? Just wondering.

  17. Comment by Adam posted on

    Are the case details of each license in the public domain?

  18. Comment by brian fisher posted on


    Natural England and Natural Resources Wales are issuing thousands of licences to kill birds. Nesting birds such as robins, starlings, blackbirds and bullfinches are being legally killed, in spite of these birds being protected by law. They say that they only issue licences to "preserve public safety", but many licences are sought to protect farming, fishing and forestry interests too. Also, it's unclear what non-lethal methods, if any, are pursued before licences to kill these birds are issued.