RSPB Cymru welcomes changes to General Licences

Fersiwn Gymraeg ar gael yma.

Natural Resources Wales has introduced changes to the General Licences, which allow certain birds to be killed. Head of Species at RSPB Cymru, Julian Hughes, explains what this means and what we think about the changes.

 Licences to kill

All wild birds, their eggs and nests (while in use) are protected by law. That is a really important principle, and one for which generations of RSPB campaigners have fought. The 1954 Protection of Birds Act secured this protection for most species, and for all birds in the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

The law allows the killing of a bird or the destruction of an egg or nest under certain circumstances. That’s also a principle that the RSPB supports, as this is sometimes necessary. There are rules to this licensing system, so that birds should be killed only as a last resort.

If you need to remove a wild bird, you must apply for a licence and demonstrate that this is necessary. The reasons include:

  1. a genuine and serious problem exists
  2. non-lethal alternatives do not work
  3. killing the bird will resolve the problem
  4. it will not adversely affect the conservation status of that species.

What are General Licences?

There are a small number of species that NRW considers cause such a widespread problem that a landowner does not have to apply for an individual licence. The landowners could operate under a ‘General Licence’, providing they followed a few rules. Species on these licences include widespread birds such as woodpigeon, carrion crow and jay.

Over the years, RSPB Cymru has challenged the inclusion of several species on the General Licences, resulting in the removal of several declining birds, including red-listed bullfinch and herring gull and amber-listed lesser black-backed gull.

What has changed?

Earlier this summer, in the wake of a legal challenge to the General Licences in England, NRW reviewed the evidence used to issue the licences in Wales, and it has made a number of changes that came into effect on 7 October – you can read more detail here.

What does the RSPB think?

We welcome the revision of General Licences by NRW. It’s a move in the right direction, using more robust evidence to underpin the decisions that it has to make as the licensing authority.

In particular, we welcome that the new General Licences:

  • don’t allow Rooks to be killed – their population in Wales has declined by 57% since 1994, and a review by the British Trust for Ornithology found no evidence that they are an important nest predator and weak evidence that they cause widescale damage to agricultural interests;
  • have looked at evidence of both impact and the effectiveness of alternatives;
  • provide greater clarity about the reasons for killing protected birds;
  • do not apply to protected areas for wildlife, such Special Protection Areas and some other SSSIs, and a 300-metre buffer zone around these areas. Here, a more detailed assessment is required through application for a specific licence, and we agree that’s right too.

What will this mean for bird conservation?

The most contentious change among shooting organisations is that the old ‘fauna and flora’ General Licence has been replaced by one that allows killing of predators to protect the eggs and chicks of birds of conservation concern. This is a step forward – people should only be killing protected birds for a justifiable reason and when no alternative is effective. The licences are not there to allow shoot managers to produce bigger bags of pheasants or red-legged partridges once they’ve been released; that would be illegal. And there is no case for killing one list of protected Green-list birds in order to benefit another list of protected Green-list birds.

Some people tell me that killing birds such as crows and jays is “essential”, but there is little evidence that killing native predators is necessary for bird conservation at a broad scale. In a few cases, killing a predator can make an important difference, especially when combined with improving habitats – examples include removing carrion crows to reduce predation of curlew and lapwing eggs and chicks. Curlews and lapwings are at real risk of disappearing from Wales because of big changes in how their breeding areas are managed, and when pushed into a corner, predation can become a much bigger factor.

The population of jay in Wales is increasing, while those of carrion crow and jackdaw are stable, and magpie numbers have been falling since the turn of this century. We don’t have good trends prior to 1994, and if numbers of these generalist predators are much higher than historically, we have to look at what is driving this. And that is likely to be complex.

The RSPB does, as a last resort, kill a small number of birds as part of its conservation work. We publish these figures each year, one of the few (if not the only) organisation to do so. In Wales, we make little use of the General Licences, and in recent years this has primarily been through working with farmers as part of a Curlew Trial Management Project.

A commitment to further review

The changes made by NRW are right and very welcome, and we are pleased that NRW has committed to a more thorough review in 2020 in consultation with a range of stakeholders. We don’t agree with everything included in the new licences and believe there is some way to go before they are fit for purpose. We’ll continue to press for a better system, with effective monitoring.

The new General Licences allow several species to be killed in the absence of credible evidence of their impact at a wide scale. Are magpies or jackdaws responsible for declines in populations of other birds? The evidence that they affect populations of birds is weak, a fact recognised in NRW’s report, so we are disappointed that their killing will continue to be permitted under the General Licence.

The list of birds set to benefit from removal of predators is too broad. It currently includes all birds of conservation concern in Wales, irrespective of whether there is any evidence that they will benefit from killing predators. In some cases, their population in Wales is so localised (and largely on protected sites) that individual licences are more appropriate.

And NRW does not monitor the number of birds killed, or the circumstances of that control, under the General Licences, so it cannot know the impact of the killing.

There will, we are sure, be loud shouts from some quarters that these changes put at risk birds in Wales. We don’t agree. Well done to Natural Resources Wales for taking a thoughtful approach to its duties to protect all wild birds. We look forward to working with you on future changes to ensure that killing birds really is a last resort.