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Wild bird licensing stocktake - an evolving process

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Since my previous blog covering wild bird licences, we have reached the end of the main season of demand for licences for control of those bird species that would have been previously covered by the General Licence.  With only a handful of licences remaining to be assessed, it is a good time to take stock on where we are compared to last year.

Following revocation of the general licences in 2019, we received 6728 applications for individual licences to control the species that had been on the general licences. These comprise:

  • Crow
  • Jackdaw
  • Jay
  • Magpie
  • Rook
  • Wood pigeon
  • Feral pigeon
  • Canada goose
  • Egyptian goose
  • Monk parakeet
  • Ring-necked parakeet
  • Sacred ibis
  • Indian house crow

We granted 2483 individual licences for control of these species for the following purposes: avoiding serious damage, protecting public health and safety and conservation. More than 4000 applications that did not pass basic validity checks or demonstrate that they had considered alternatives to lethal control were not taken forward.

Last year the situation was exceptional. Many important activities had historically come to rely on the general licences, such as protection of lambs and other livestock, safety at power stations, prevention of predation of threatened species like roseate tern and redshank; and mitigation of hygiene risks to human health.

To minimise disruption of these, we created a new licensing process which gave individual consideration to each application. None of the species controlled under the licences were of conservation concern, which meant that it was proportionate to put in place a streamlined assessment process. The most important sites for birds and other wildlife were excluded from the licences granted in the streamlined process, to make sure they were not at risk.

The streamlined process enabled us to assess whether or not applicants had considered alternatives to lethal control, but as conservation status across England was not a factor for these species in these decisions then location was not material to the decision to grant licences.

Since then, Defra has issued three new general licences and has extended the general licences that we had put in place for control of crow, wood pigeon and Canada goose for defined purposes. These general licences place the responsibility on the licensee to ensure they have considered alternatives and eliminated the need to process individually.

This year, we have received 1350 applications to date. These have come to us because of two exclusions from the Defra general licences:

  • European and Ramsar sites, these being sites of international importance because of the wildlife they support; and
  • Two gull species, lesser black-backed gull and herring gull, which had been taken off the general licences because of concern about their conservation status.

Because these licence applications were either on sensitive sites or for control of birds of conservation concern, or both, most were higher risk than most of last year’s applications. We therefore put them through a more detailed licence assessment and granted only 130 licences, the remainder mostly rejected or withdrawn because insufficient information had been submitted for a proper assessment to be made.

There are a number of key points we can take from the experience of the past year.

Firstly, we have achieved a step change in the conservation of the two large gull species. Under this evolving licensing regime, the scale of lethal control has been reduced to a fraction of that in previous years.

Secondly, despite all the difficulties of the pandemic, we completed a major survey of these species in urban areas, which will give us much better information with which to design a long-term sustainable approach for these species.

Thirdly, we know more about the demand for lethal control than we did before. We would like to understand this better and will be working with land managers and scientists to see what is driving this apparent change.

Finally, there is a need to provide further support to licence applicants to ensure that they are able to submit the information necessary for assessment. The higher failure rate of applications, may reflect that the application process was new to many who had operated under the general licences

We will act on these points and will continue to advise Defra in the review of general licences, with a view to achieving a balance which protects our natural environment and meets society’s other needs. If you would like to know more about our role in relation to licensing, our chairman, Tony Juniper, has written a blog on the subject. You can also sign up to our wildlife newsletter – - to find out more about developments in this area.

In summary, it has been a challenging year operationally as we have had to adapt quickly to changes.  Licensing is a topic which people are passionate about, either because they object to lethal control or because they feel that the control of birds is a vital part of their business. Licensing also operates in an ever-changing landscape - some bird species are in decline, which we need to take into account when issuing licences, and there is always new evidence emerging on non-lethal methods of control that can be used or what is causing population change in some species.

We are determined to learn lessons both in terms of the experience of applicants over the past two years – but also in terms of how we ensure that the evidence on which we base decisions is sound so all interests can understand and accept them – even if they disagree.

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