Since I arrived at Natural England a year ago one of the most prominent themes has been the role we play in issuing licences to permit different kinds of wildlife management.
Natural England has a wide range of official powers and duties that it must discharge in pursuit of its general purpose, as set out in the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act of 2006 to ensure “that the natural environment is conserved, enhanced and managed for the benefit of present and future generations, thereby contributing to sustainable development.” The Act goes on to say that we must pursue sustainable development through “contributing… to social and economic well-being through management of the natural environment.”
When it comes to wildlife, this sustainable development and socio-economic context means that for us conservation is not only about the protection of Nature, but also about its wise management. In our ever more crowded world, where people’s relationships with the environment have so many complex dimensions, it is necessary to juggle many competing demands. Societies must produce food, build homes, establish and run infrastructure, enable new industries and provide for the requirements of recreation and cultural activities. One of the roles that Natural England has in the pursuit of its general purpose in this complex web of questions relates to the licensing activities that affect protected species.
That licensing takes many forms, and includes permissions to undertake activities that are deemed necessary to protect public health and safety (for example avoiding bird strikes with aircraft), the protection of food supply (for example in controlling birds that eat crops), to allow for built development that impacts on protected wildlife (HS2 being a high-profile case in point) and for conservation purposes (for example controlling the predators of ground nesting birds, such as curlew). Licensing is not only about lethal control, many of our licences are about the safe relocation of species – and applicants must always show there is no satisfactory alternative to lethal control. Where species are protected we will always look at population level impacts before allowing control to take place.
In issuing licences for these and other purposes, we must look at the evidence regarding the need to undertake activities that effect wildlife and take account of the complex suite of laws and policies that govern the protection of the species in question.
Some of the decisions we make are made more complex still as some of the licences we issue arise from directions coming from Central Government, for example in relation to the culling of badgers as part of our national effort to control tuberculosis in cattle. Our role is to ensure that this policy is delivered in a way that is both effective and humane but safeguards badger populations overall for future generations. We are currently working closely with Defra to establish vaccination as the main method for BtB control through the licensing of effective trials.
When it comes to evidence, law and policy, there are many technical questions that must be combined into what are often finely balanced judgements. It is in relation to these that we often find a range of strongly held concerns coming back to us. In many cases, and often in relation to the same decision, the range of views expressed by different groups are diametrically opposed. For example, in relation to the issuing of licences for the control of certain birds that cause economic damage, wildlife campaigners say the regime we adopt is too weak, while those who manage the land in different ways say it is too stringent.
It is in relation to these cases where we find not only disagreement with us, and between stakeholders, over the interpretation of evidence, law and policy, but also clashes between the values, ethics, passions and customs of different groups. In this regard, it is vital to highlight that Natural England, in discharging its general purpose, must take account of all the legitimate interests and points of view that exist in our society, not only those with access to the media or the resources to bring legal actions, while recognising that these are perfectly legitimate routes for people to pursue their interests, should they feel it necessary to do that. Disagreement is of course in the very nature of debate, and we will do our best to respond to the concerns that people bring to us and to explain why we have taken particular decisions.
Having said all of this, and highlighting that much of our licensing is about managing impacts and threats to protected species, we also issue licences geared toward wildlife recovery. Examples of these include the permission granted last year to reintroduce the white-tailed eagle to England and the licence issued to undertake a trial re-introduction of beavers into England. We are also using our powers to innovate with new licences that we hope will bring significant gains for wildlife, including the new district level licences we are issuing to encourage housing developers to pay for new habitat for great-crested newts, creating far more ponds for these animals than those being lost due to the construction of new homes. I am hopeful that such uses of our licensing powers over time will contribute to our overarching goal for Nature recovery in England.
As we put in place plans for Nature recovery, I am sure that no serious conservationist would argue that we could or should at all times, and without exception, protect all species. That is simply unrealistic, no matter how regrettable it is that any animal must be controlled or killed. The task that we must rise to is to make sometimes finely balanced judgements in line with our overall purpose, including the sustainable development context.
We look forward to working with our many partners and stakeholders pursuing that purpose into the future, as we seek the means to not only manage competing demands, but also to achieve the overall aim of the Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan. I realise that will not have everyone’s support all of the time, but our hard-working licensing team will do their best to make robust decisions based on the best evidence available.