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Licensing for the control of birds – how decisions are made

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Biodiversity

Dave Slater, Natural England's Director for Wildlife Licensing & Enforcement Cases provides more detail on licensing for the control of birds in our countryside.

This week there has been much discussion on social media about licensing for the control of birds in our countryside. It’s a controversial topic for many people, and I would like to set out some context to help inform the debate.

Wild birds in England have protection in law under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.  It offers all species general protection, but provides exemptions for licences for a range of purposes, such as protecting public health, preserving air safety and preventing damage to livestock. Government has given responsibility for issuing these licences to Natural England.

A starling
A starling

Any application for a licence received by Natural England is assessed according to the requirements of the law and five policy tests. These tests are applied consistently in a wide range of circumstances such as safely relocating nests, re-introducing species and in some cases lethal control. Anyone given a licence must have provided clear evidence that their circumstances meet these tests, namely:

  • 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, behind every licence application there is a diligent and professional wildlife adviser assessing the evidence.  Inevitably, many people who care passionately about birds question why they must be controlled. Conversely, many applicants feel we are too strict. We reject many thousands of applications each year and attach strict conditions to successful applications to ensure they are necessary, proportionate and humane.

A good illustration of this comes from a recent example which has received criticism online, namely  licences issued for the control of 50 starlings at a time to protect dairy herds in part of Somerset.

Our native breeding population of starlings is falling, most likely as a result of declines in invertebrates in our countryside. Our work in determining these licences has ensured only a very limited number are controlled, and that it only takes place where it is necessary. We have also worked hard with the farmers concerned to make sure lethal control is limited while non-lethal methods are also used.

The decline of the UK starling breeding populations is a serious concern for anyone interested in nature in England and Natural England works hard with its partners across the country on its National Nature Reserves (NNRs), through agri-environment schemes and Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) to restore habitat and change land management practices for the benefit of birds and other species.

In the winter, most of the starlings we see are visitors from Russia and continental Europe. A proportion of the overwintering continental starlings, together with relatively few local British starlings, use the reed beds at the RSPB Ham Wall and the Natural England Shapwick Heath NNRs as a winter roost, where about a million were present in January 2020. The starling licences which were the subject of criticism were all issued close to this roost in Somerset, and therefore can be assumed to be almost entirely wintering birds.

The impact of starlings on dairy herds can be quite serious and a number of cows have died from a form of Salmonella which has been linked to droppings from starlings. Unfortunately, it is not possible to exclude starlings from dairy sheds without compromising the welfare of cattle and the safety of staff.

Natural England has licensed the shooting of a maximum of 50 starlings per farm per winter over the last 15 years. A total of about 10 farms have applied, although not all apply each winter – farmers have to provide evidence that there is still a problem each winter.  The numbers actually shot are not significant as a proportion of deaths within the natural annual mortality of one million starlings across the UK.

This blog follows others previously posted here which have endeavoured to give context to or correct inaccurate claims about licensing decisions. Two examples can be found here which may help in further explaining licensing issues.

Licensing is an area of Natural England’s responsibilities that comes in for criticism but I must stress the importance of understanding the context of situations that are highlighted online. Decisions are not made in a complacent or detached way. In applying the law and setting consistent standards we are dedicated to finding the right outcome in each case so that the interests of wildlife and licence applicants who have legitimate issues to resolve are managed effectively.

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  1. Comment by Simon Tucker posted on

    Wow! What an exercise in whitewashing an unacceptable course of action. Where are the figures for mortality of cattle caused by Starling poo? As always happens when you lot want to rubber-stamp the killing of our wildlife, rather than doing your job of working on actual, scientific data to make decisions, you use anecdotal stories from the vested interests who want the licence. You are complicit in the unsustainable killing of our wildlife rather than standing up for it,

    I have worked on dairy farms where Starlings were regularly shot. The only thing attracting the Starlings in was food that had been wastefully spread on the path in front of the cattle feeders. As usual, a red-listed bird species is being sacrificed because some farmers cannot be bothered to work cleanly.

  2. Comment by Nigel Bell posted on

    How is the killing of birds recorded? Does someone from N.E attend or do you just take a persons word for it that they have only killed a specified number?

  3. Comment by Mary Smail posted on

    an endangered species is an endangered species wherever it is and whether it is convenient to us or not. It's time to prioritise nature.

  4. Comment by Steve Beer posted on

    Natural England, I am a teacher of Biology and have been for over 30 years and these licences for farmers to shoot birds like starlings is an absolute disgrace. Virtually all birds and mammals in the UK are in decline. Even seagulls are in decline and this is a combination of loss of habitats and often use of pesticides.
    All insects across the world are in massive decline so birds are struggling to survive in the first place.
    Shooting starlings and you justify it!
    About time you woke up to wilding the moors and stop activities such a Driven Grouse Shooting but no, when the Royal Family love it we must say nothing. We are not living in Victorian England anymore even if Boris would like to return us to that era. See the bigger picture about the global loss of biodiversity before you licence farmers to shoot birds.

  5. Comment by BAZ WILLMOTT posted on

    So 50 Starlings (Sternus vulgaris), times 10 farms (+ or -), times 15 years makes me think the numbers are building up. How are you going to ensure that each farmer will strictly adhere to these cull numbers. As this has been going on for 15 years and is now being extended for more years, isn't it about time a less lethal method is used/investigated.

  6. Comment by Kevin Hayward posted on

    Our starlings are decreasing because you keep giving out licenses to kill them. They are not destructive or a danger to anything or anyone. Leave our wildlife alone.

  7. Comment by Marcus Knight posted on

    what are you doing to bring this to more peoples attention? i only discovered this page through another blog post. I would hate for all of your good work to go to waste!

  8. Comment by Steve Beer posted on

    Dear Natural England,
    I understand that any negative comment will not be published here but the BIG picture around the globe is that virtually ALL life other than humans is in decline. Even you acknowledge this above. We have killed insects relentlessly for decades which are keystone species for other vertebrates and include pollinators of crops and yet you justify shooting starlings that might poo on some farms! Humans need to take a hit or two themselves if we are to survive the next century and that might include some farmers losing one or two cows! Wake up to what is happening globally and stop issuing these destructive licences.

  9. Comment by Ken White posted on

    It's clearly easier to kill innocent native wintering Starlings than to make changes to domestic animal husbandry practices

  10. Comment by Albert Jones posted on

    The decline in the populations of song birds ,starlings ,cuckoos and the like is in stark contrast to the rise in populations of birds of prey You don't have to be Albert Einstein to spot the link. Do something about it !

  11. Comment by G hicks posted on

    Shoot the damn pests. Gas powered "bird scarers" make living in rural areas absolute hell for residents. Can't have windows open or sit outside on summer evenings.