Licensed to kill
The number of birds, eggs and nests involved (170,000) does look eye-wateringly large and the public reaction has been similarly large.
My view, as expressed here back in December, is that
I don’t have a problem with the principle of issuing licences to kill protected birds. That may surprise you, but I don’t. And that is because you have to think back to when the legislation came in (presumably the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981). If you are drafting legislation which gives full protection to a bunch of bird species, over three decades ago, then you are going to think ‘But there might be some cases, and I’m not sure what they are right now, when rare exceptions should be made to this general rule of protection’. That seems prudent. And the legislators then thought ‘Well if there are exceptions they might be for this range of reasons’ and then attempted to write down those exceptions which cover things like damage to livestock, impacts on human health, impacts on air safety etc. That list exists and it’s quite a sensible list. And the legislators then thought that the way to maintain protection, but to allow some exceptions where appropriate, was that anyone who thought they had a genuine reason for killing a protected species must apply for a licence where their case can be judged.
This seems to me to be a perfectly good system in principle, and it may be a perfectly good one in practice too. My bet would be that it works reasonably well most of the time – but that is a guess.
What would working well look like? A good licensing system would require applicants to describe the problem and what steps they have taken to deal with the problem with non-lethal means (eg scaring the birds away or catching them and releasing them alive). I think a good licensing system would reject frivolous or unwarranted applications and that is an area which I reckon it would be worth exploring in these days when landowners and farmers appear to be the key stakeholders of our statutory conservation agencies. The licences would be issued proportionate to the problem so that mass culls wouldn’t be allowed for a problem caused by an individual or small number of birds. There would be checks on the compliance of the licensee with the conditions of the licence and licencees would have to report on what they had done and how many birds had actually been killed.
I suggest that rather than these issues being revealed through FoIs the statutory agencies should publish this information annually in the interests of openness. Why not?
And should there not be a fee involved in applying for such a licence in these days of reduced budgets? I have to pay for a new passport, why don’t landowners have to pay for the costs of processing a licence to kill Linnets? And why should the applicants’ names be withheld?
The last part, about transparency, is important to me. It seems strange that the licensing of an otherwise illegal activity on such a scale is not reported upon by the public body responsible for the licensing system and responsible for nature conservation, that is why I was quoted in the Guardian article as saying;
Avery called for Natural England to be more transparent and publish all its licences every year. “Why don’t they tell us what they’ve done each year, or are they ashamed of it?” he said.