Following yesterday’s meeting between senior representatives of the Angling Trust and the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC), the Trust has endorsed the concerns expressed by shooting, farming and countryside organisations at the chaos caused by Natural England’s premature and ill-thought out decision to suspend the general shooting licence used to control ‘pest species’ such as wood pigeons and crows. The Trust has issued the following statement:

The Angling Trust absolutely supports a sensible and considered review of the general licence and believes there is a strong case for the inclusion of fish-eating birds such as cormorants and goosanders, whose increased numbers in recent years have driven some fish species to the brink of extinction on a number of waters where previously they have thrived.

However, we believe that any changes should have been subject to discussion and consultation with all stakeholders rather than the panicked response from Natural England to the challenge from broadcaster Chris Packham’s campaign group Wild Justice.

We would have welcomed the opportunity, not only to discuss the most effective use of the licensing system, including the assessment and management of the general licence, but to have reviewed the management and control of other bird species that are not on the general licence but which pose a major threat to the health of our fish and fisheries. We note that the RSPB itself has culled over 1000 crows in the last two years on its reserves to protect the threatened curlew populations from predation.

The species covered by the ruling include wood pigeons, crows, magpies, jackdaws, jays, black-backed gulls, Canada geese and non-native parakeets. Fish-eating birds such as cormorants and goosanders are not on the general licence – although we believe there is a case for their inclusion – and as such the temporary cessation had no impact on angling or fishery owners in possession of a specific licence. Natural England have now announced the commencement of the first of their revised general licences with promise of a full review at the end of the year.

Unfortunately, the panic reaction of Natural England has led to some particularly unpleasant responses on social media, some serious personal threats that are now the subject of a police investigation, and a petition calling for Packham to be sacked from the BBC. The Angling Trust has joined BASC in utterly condemning the actions of those responsible for these threats and neither organisation supports the petition calling for Mr Packham to be “sacked” by the BBC. This is an over-reaction and unnecessary move against an individual who, while we don’t agree with him on this issue, has every right to say what he believes.

The Angling Trust is arranging a meeting with the new chairman of Natural England to express our concerns and to press them to properly engage with all stakeholders, including anglers and fishery owners, and to broaden this review to include other species that need a more effective management system, such as cormorants and goosanders.

Head of Policy at the Angling Trust, Martin Salter, said: “We have had serious concerns about the operation of Natural England for some time. They have been obstructive in the granting of our existing limited licences for the control of cormorants and goosanders and now they have caused massive problems for farmers who need to protect their crops from pigeons and for others who want to protect wildlife from predation by crows and magpies.

We are pleased that new general licences have been issued, although this has been done in such a rush that further problems are inevitable, and that the entire regime will be up for review at the end of the year. However, we would question whether Natural England is fit for purpose as a regulator and fully support the call by shooting, farming and countryside organisations for Michael Gove to step in and sort out the chaos caused by Natural England’s premature and ill-thought out decision to suspend the general shooting licence, which is vital to control pest species.”

Christopher Graffius, Director of Communications at BASC, added: “BASC welcomes the support of the Angling Trust in sorting out the current chaos caused by Natural England in withdrawing the general licences for pest control. As a result farmers are unable to protect their flocks from corvids and their fields from wood pigeons without tackling a bureaucratic system unfit for purpose. Both of our organisations are devoted to ensuring a healthy, well managed natural environment without which our activities are seriously damaged. Is it really too much to ask that the regulator should consult us on the systems they expect us to implement? With Natural England’s failure it is now essential that Defra Ministers get a grip or this will go down as a disaster in the countryside.”

Media contacts: Martin Salter, Head of Policy for the Angling Trust, on 07976 946033.

Background Notes
Much confusion has been caused by the recent controversy surrounding the general licence governing the shooting of birds and the call by the campaigning group, Wild Justice, for the system of issuing general licences to be reviewed.

Wild Justice is a new campaigning group set up by TV presenter Chris Packham and fellow conservationists Mark Avery (ex RSPB) and Dr Ruth Tingay. They have launched legal action against Natural England, the government’s conservation watchdog, for issuing a general licence that allows the unlimited killing of certain wild birds all year round. According to Wild Justice, this is unlawful under British wildlife laws as well as the EU Birds directive.

“We’re not saying that no birds should ever be killed but the means that Natural England have chosen to authorise this is unlawful because they are not taking enough care to judge individual cases, or indeed any case at all,” said Avery.

It is important to note that when Wildl Justice launched their campaign in February they were not calling for an immediate cessation of the general licence. They were seeking to engage Natural England and other stakeholders in reviewing the licences to make changes for the issuing of the 2020 licences.

It seems, however, that Natural England panicked and on the 23rd April they withdrew the 2019 licences with just two days notice. This unnecessary and hasty response has caused confusion and understandable resentment.

Natural England made it clear that new licences will be issued soon after the temporary suspension which will not be open to challenge. This has now happened although they have been severely criticised as unworkable. NE said:

“The change follows a legal challenge to the way the licences have been issued, which could mean users who rely on them are not acting lawfully. Natural England is working at pace to put in place over the next few weeks alternative measures to allow lawful control of these bird species to continue where necessary.”