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This blog post was published under the 2015-2024 Conservative Administration

Latest update: Wild bird licensing

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Biodiversity, Protected sites and species, Wildlife

James Diamond, Natural England Director of Operations, gives a further update on wild bird licensing, covering red kites, buzzards and cormorants.

A red kite bird soaring against a blue sky
A red kite. Credit: Mike Prince

When I published my last post on wild bird licensing back in February, I promised further updates on our work.  My last post focused on questions that had been asked in the media and social media about specific examples of nest removal and destruction.  I plan to use this blog post to explain a bit more detail behind some licensing decisions which involve lethal control (killing), by for example shooting adult birds.

Once again I will start with a reminder of how we approach these licence applications.  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.  We bring the same rigour and expertise to assessing an application to kill as we do to an application to for example release white-tailed eagles.  A successful applicant must clearly demonstrate – with supporting evidence – that these five tests 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
  • the conservation status of the species will not be negatively affected

I will now turn to some of the questions that have been raised since my last blog.

Why have Natural England licensed the killing of the rare red kite?

Natural England and its predecessor bodies were at the forefront of bringing the red kite back to England.  We are hugely proud of that. A current colleague of mine, who personally collected the first reintroduced birds from Spain in the early 1990’s, always looks fondly out of the train window as we pass red kites on a journey to London from the south west. As the population has grown, some kites have taken to feeding and nesting on and around busy airports and airfields.  When they do that, these large birds create a risk of air strike as planes land and depart.  Striking a large bird can seriously damage a plane and even cause a catastrophic crash.

Airports and airfields routinely deploy lots of other measures to reduce the risk of bird strike, including scaring and managing the airport environment to reduce the risk of birds feeding or flocking. However those measures alone are not always enough.

Since 2015 we have issued 12 licences to kill red kites on or near airports and airfields.  Each of these licences has permitted between one and four kites to be killed, with the exception of a single licence for up to ten birds.  One licence has been issued to destroy a red kite nest.  All of these licences have been issued for the purpose of protecting air safety.  No other licences to kill red kites have been issued.

A common buzzard soaring with wings spread against a blue sky
A common buzzard. Credit: Natural England/Andy Neale

Why do you issue licences to kill buzzards to protect non-native pheasants?

We issue licences every year to kill buzzards. Almost all of these are issued to protect air safety, in exactly the same circumstances as described for red kites above.  We have issued just under 70 such licences since 2014.  If you have used an English airport it is very likely that action will have been taken to kill birds under a licence from Natural England to look after your safety and that of your fellow fliers.

Following a successful Judicial Review challenge to our approach, we have issued nine licences to kill buzzards to prevent predation of young pheasants (which are classed as livestock)- four in 2016 and 2017 and a single licence in 2018.  All of these applications were very carefully assessed by our expert staff against the five tests described above.  We published more on these licences in 2016. The nine licences together permitted a maximum of 60 buzzards to be killed.  The most recent population estimate from the British Trust for Ornithology is 67,000 pairs.

Can you explain why so many cormorants are licensed to be killed?

Since 2014 we have issued over 1,500 licences to kill cormorants to protect fisheries in England.  Many of these are licences to cover the same sites in subsequent years and are issued to allow shooting to reinforce other scaring measures.  These are not licences to permit a cull down to a certain population level.  The largest number permitted to be killed was 58, but most licences are for under ten birds.   Our staff carefully consider the evidence presented for each application against the five tests.  We also need to fully consider any potential scaring impact on other birds, as some of these sites are also nationally or internationally important for their wintering waterfowl.   All of these factors are fully assessed before any licence is issued.

Do please feel free to add a comment or question below.  We will publish further blogs and your comments and questions can help inform the content.  We will not publish comments that are abusive or threatening.

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  1. Comment by Eileen Cox posted on

    You should not be issuing licenses to kill Red Kites, they are beautiful creatures & are not a threat to aircraft as they hardly ever flock. They are protected under the law. My son has been a commercial pilot for over 20 years & has flown from several British airports but himself & his colleagues have never even heard of Red Kites being a problem. I suggest that Natural England receive more money for Licenses for killing these beautiful birds, you need to stop it now, this practice is barbaric.

    • Replies to Eileen Cox>

      Comment by Heather Duncan posted on

      Hello Eileen, thanks for taking time to share your views having read James's blog. We'd like to make it clear that Natural England have not, do not, and will not charge for this type of license so we don't make any money issuing licenses.

      • Replies to Heather Duncan>

        Comment by Eileen Cox posted on

        Then why do you issue licences to allow these beautiful birds to be killed ,please stop.I cannot believe this is allowed.

      • Replies to Heather Duncan>

        Comment by Andy Adamson posted on

        Really is there no charge to the applicant for the licence?

    • Replies to Eileen Cox>

      Comment by Keith Cowieson posted on


      Birds-of-prey (BoP) like the red kite and buzzard (and many other non-BoP species) can be a serious threat to aircraft due to their habit of soaring in and around airfield approach and departure lanes. Airfields provide good foraging habitat for BoP - lots of open grassland with rough patches here and there for small mammals - and airfield structures like hangars, lighting and water towers etc are often used as BoP perching and nesting sites - as are hedgerow trees, woods and forests in surrounding rural landscapes. So BoP are often attracted to airfields.

      Birds and jet-powered aircraft do not mix. Ingestion of birds into jet engines can cause catastrophic damage, fire and crashes. For example, the RAF lost a Nimrod 4-engined jet aircraft at RAF Kinloss in the late 1970s due to a multiple birdstrike. Both pilots were killed. The recent Hollywood movie 'Sully' is a dramatised account of an actual incident to a twin-engined passenger jet aircraft that lost both engines due to a multiple birdstrike, and had to ditch (crash-land on water) in New York’s Hudson River in 2009, mercifully without loss of life. Islamist terrorist attacks in New York on 9-11 have shown the catastrophic damage and multiple fatalities crashing airliners can cause in a city.

      Several other military aircraft, including helicopters, have been damaged or lost due to birdstrikes, including a Sea King helicopter during the Falklands War with 22 servicemen killed as a result. More recently, in 2014, an American military helicopter crashed in Norfolk after a multiple birdstrike killing all 4 crewmembers. Red kites are particularly numerous around RAF Benson in Oxfordshire, one of the RAF's major helicopter bases, close to the first red kite English reintroduction programme release site.

      I suffered several birdstrikes during the course of my 36 year-long RAF career, and lost an engine following a birdstrike with a kestrel on one occasion. Fortunately the aircraft I was flying in had 2 engines, unlike its single-engined counterparts. BoP do not need to flock to cause a very serious hazard to flight.

    • Replies to Eileen Cox>

      Comment by Eileen Cox posted on

      I know all this, my son is a pilot & my father was a RAF pilot but I can’t help the way I feel about these beautiful creatures and I know that a few people with licences to shoot them is not going to control them around airports, it would take a small army to control them.
      I have Sully Sullenberger as a friend on FB

  2. Comment by Elizabeth Hillary posted on

    I don't think it is right to issue licences to kill buzzards because they threaten pheasant numbers. Pheasants are introduced in hundreds of thousands of numbers in the UK as a game species and cause a lot of damage to flora and fauna because of their proliferation.

    • Replies to Elizabeth Hillary>

      Comment by William Wallace posted on

      Buzzards threaten a lot more than just reared pheasants. All other free range poultry is at risk and in the natural world buzzards are mobbing peregrine falcons and stealing their prey, forcing them to hunt again - when the same thing happens again - putting both adult birds and their young at risk of starvation. Buzzards, like badgers, also take the eggs and chicks of ground nesting birds, putting our at-risk populations of peewits, skylarks and curlews in even more danger. Peewits (Green Plover) have vanished entirely from the wet field by my house, where there used to be 150 nesting pairs. On one field near here we counted 28 buzzards on one occasion. Conservation is fine because it involves management and helps Nature's balance. Preservation is not, because it can allow one species to become dominant at the expense of others. I'm afraid there are far too many people in our World for wildlife to have any chance of finding its own natural balance; we have to help.

      • Replies to William Wallace>

        Comment by Raven posted on

        William Wallace,
        You could try saving the peewits in your field by applying to NE for a licence to kill the buzzards. Except you're unlikely to be successful ...tell them the field is actually a runway/home to lots of pheasants and loads of aeroplanes/non native livestock are at risk. That might work.

  3. Comment by Gary Wall posted on

    One issue with recording these derogations is the Habides software system you use to submit Article 9 derogation reports to the EU Commission doesn't allow you to register exactly what a license has been issued for and even causes an issue when providing FoI requests. Is there anyway you can address this problem ?

  4. Comment by Patrick Sleigh posted on

    The raptor & predator population is totally out of control, doing a great deal of damage to farm livestock as well as a great many other species in the county side, the evidence is clear beyond doubt. This policy of rewilding has been costly to the tax payer & to a great many livelihoods in rural areas with livestock losses to the extent that some farmers/crofters have stopped keeping sheep as a result of their losses particularly to Sea Eagles

    • Replies to Patrick Sleigh>

      Comment by Chris Duncan Keeling posted on

      As a professional ecologist the only evidence that I can see that is not in doubt is that out dated ill informed Victorian attitudes to predators are still extant in our countryside. If buzzards are indeed putting the recovery of peregrines at risk at anything more than a very local occurrence then it is because our actions e.g. historic persecution of raptors has already put raptor populations at risk. In my experience opinions on raptors tend to be informed by ill informed reaction to snap shot observations, for example a game keeper took great pains to explain at length how buzzards are responsible for the decline in cuckoos because he had seen a buzzard take a wood pigeon.

      I grew up in a countryside where all birds of prey were scarce or absent, I was born in 59 and having seen my first sparrowhawk in Sussex on a gamekeepers gibbet I didn't see another until the 1980's. Buzzards too were completely absent, and red kites barely maintaining a talon hold in Wales. Song birds had already begun to decline in the absence of birds of prey due to pesticides and loss of habitat.
      Limiting the numbers of opportunist, generalist predators does not appear to have aided their recovery in the interim and will continue to have no effect on their the recovery and that of other protected species (invertebrates and flora) if we do not take measures to restore habitats. To do otherwise is to continue to tinker with the component parts of a bigger picture when we should be restoring the canvas and frame.
      Predators including badgers can have localised impacts and it may be necessary to take measures (lethal or non lethal to protect ground nesting birds) but this is due to loss of habitat or exploitation of every single square meter of agricultural land, for example ground nesting birds are easily targeted when they are forced to nest in narrow or virtually non existent field margins. The argument that there are too many of us and therefore we need to routinely control predators is simplistic and in no way a viable long term maintainable solution to halting the decline in farmland birds, little tern or invertebrates. The swift is in decline due the loss of nesting sites and potentially a massive decline in aerial invertebrates. If we take your view to its obvious conclusion we would be faced with controlling hobbies.
      With regards to re wilding a study on North Uist demonstrated that while an eagle will take a live lamb the majority of lambs which might be presumed predated were in fact still born! Don't believe everything you see in the media. My father was a shepherd and always argues that poor husbandry will lead to loss of stock. My wife worked on Handa island where a local famer brought his flock down to lambing sheds and suffered little or no loss to eagles and was in fact proud to have them on his land.

  5. Comment by Patrick Sleigh posted on

    The policy of rewilding is out of control with many other species & livestock on many farms being killed , other countrys in europe have discovered this have now certain times of the year when they cull raptors & predators to help the decline of song birds,ground nesting birds, waders etc This needs to happen in the UK before it is to late for some species.

  6. Comment by Peter Norton posted on

    I believe that not enough licences are issued and predatory bird numbers are out of control. Cormorants should be on the general licence, they have decimated fish stocks in rivers and freshwater lakes as the marine fish stock has dwindled and they have moved inland.

  7. Comment by Carolyn Billingsley posted on

    I am very concerned about the issuing licences to kill buzzards to protect a non native species (pheasants) which are wreaking havoc on our native wildlife. We are losing our native wildlife at an alarming rate and Britain is one of the most wildlife depleted countries in the world. NE should be working to rid the countryside of pheasants so that our decimated populations of native reptiles and invertebrates can begin to recover. As people who are passionate about nature we put our faith in NE as the statutory nature conservation organisation to protect it - if NE won’t or can’t who will?

    • Replies to Carolyn Billingsley>

      Comment by Martin Green posted on

      People saying get rid of pheasants ! If it wasn't for pheasants being put out there'd be no food for wildbirds.
      Of all the countryside I've been round shooting estates have way more wildlife than the supposed wildlife reserves by a mile !!!!

    • Replies to Carolyn Billingsley>

      Comment by Rebecca posted on

      Unfortunately, the gamekeepers and estate workers who rear and release pheasants do a huge amount of good for Britains wildlife at no expense to the tax payer. Land taken to build houses with artificial grass and fences instead of hedges have a great deal to answer for in the demise of insects, song birds and small mammals. People may not agree with the releasing of pheasants for sport but it cannot be ignored that this tradition has supported wildlife habitats and the rural economy's for hundreds of years. One of the main reasons buzzards and other birds of prey are thrieving in these managed areas of the UK is down to the work of gamekeepers but in my opinion Natural England have a responsibility to ensure the gamekeeping profession is not threatened by over population of the likes of buzzards. They are an extraordinary bird to behold and need careful management which licenses can achieve.