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Individual licences to control birds - how Natural England will manage applications in 2021

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A gull is stood on a rock with the ocean in the background.
The new general licences will come into effect on 1 January 2021.

This month there have been some significant changes to licensing for the control of wild birds with the publication of Defra’s review of general licensing and three new general licences which permit activity for the purposes of conservation, preserving public health and public safety and preventing serious damage.  Following on from these changes Natural England is adjusting the individual licensing approach for 2021.

As a result, I am very keen to ensure that potential applicants for these licences have a good understanding of what the changes mean for them and the circumstances in which licences will be issued next year.

The new general licences will come into effect on 1 January 2021. The main changes are that they have been refined and made more specific to situations where there is evidence of widespread need for general licences for purposes such as conservation or preventing livestock damage. As such, from January, some species will no longer be included on the general licences for certain purposes and the management of these species will require an individual licence issued by NE, provided the legal tests for such a licence are met. Since Defra’s review has concluded that there is no evidence to justify routinely managing these species, individual licences will only be issued where an applicant can provide specific evidence that action is justified and appropriate non-lethal alternatives do not provide a suitable solution.

Feedback so far from our stakeholders suggests that the most significant changes for them are to the conservation licence. The general licence for conservation of wild birds can only be used for the protection of red and amber listed species. Following Defra’s review of the evidence base, jackdaws and rooks will no longer be able to be controlled under the general licence for conservation as there is a lack of evidence that they have a widespread impact on endangered bird populations. In addition, jays can only be controlled under the general licence for the protection of endangered woodland birds. Jackdaws, rooks and jays can be controlled under the general licence for serious damage to crops and livestock and the definition of livestock includes captive-reared gamebirds.

Due to the declines of the rural breeding populations of herring gulls and lesser black-backed gulls, people seeking to control these species will still need to apply for individual licences in 2021. The only exception to this is on airfields which can operate under the class licence.

We are currently analysing the urban gull survey that took place this year to refine our gull licensing approach in the built environment. We are working with stakeholder groups on how the process for applying for a licence will work and we will keep them updated on progress over the coming weeks.

In 2020, despite high demand, we approved very few individual conservation licence applications for these gulls, jays, rooks and jackdaws and I anticipate a similar situation in 2021.  Successful applicants were those able to demonstrate a serious localised risk to red or amber listed bird species where lethal control was the only practical option such as where entire colonies of birds were at risk.

Applicants for an individual conservation licence will have to provide evidence that the species they want to control pose a direct risk to a highly vulnerable species or important local populations. For example, Natural England will need more than anecdotal reports of predation events, when deciding whether to issue a licence. All bird species live with natural levels of predation and it would not be proportionate to allow control in all these cases. There would also need to be a clear reason why those species are particularly vulnerable at that location.

Over recent months, we have spent time talking to people who applied for licences earlier this year. It was a new process and there were some delays in responding to many applications. There was clearly more to do in terms of ensuring that applicants understood the requirements of the application process. Delays occurred when we had to return to many applicants to ask for more information and even then, we ended up rejecting or only partially permitting proposed control measures in the vast majority of cases since they did not meet the legal tests required to obtain a licence.

We understand that land managers need clarity as early in the year as possible so they can plan their work in that crucial period in the early spring. Applicants have told us that the uncertainty in 2020 made it difficult to plan their land management work and in 2021 we are aiming to ensure that there is much more certainty, much earlier in the process, so that potential applicants can check with us if they are likely to be eligible for a licence before spending time on a full application.

To achieve this, we will be discussing these improvements with stakeholders over the coming weeks and we will be preparing to receive questions and applications in the new year once the new general licences are introduced on 1 January. I will also be writing a series of further blogs over the coming months to provide updates on the new process, links to information and forms when they are published and on progress in handling applications and providing feedback to applicants.

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