A couple of weeks ago I spent an afternoon in court.  It is rare for the RSPB to mount legal challenges and even rarer for us to go to the Court of Appeal so it felt right to pop along and listen to the debate.  I am glad I did especially as earlier this week we received the good news that the panel of Judges found in our favour.  They concluded that the former Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, was wrong to decide that culling a quarter of the bird populations listed within a protected site in north-west England wouldn’t affect the site’s conservation value.

This is a long-running saga which I covered previously here.  

The Judges were reviewing Mr Paterson’s decisions on the Ribble and Alt Estuaries Special Protection Area, which is a site designated under the Birds Directive as being of European importance for certain species of bird, including its nesting population of lesser black-backed gulls.

John Markham's image of a lesser black-backed gull

The site is adjacent to Warton Aerodrome. BAE Systems, who operate the Aerodrome, were understandably concerned about risks to air safety from the breeding birds using the Ribble and Alt Estuaries Special Protection Area.

Having explored all possible non-lethal alternatives to reduce the risk to air safety, BAE Systems had sought permission to cull part of the breeding gull population in the Ribble and Alt Special Protection Area to reduce that risk to a safe level.  In May 2013, the Secretary of State agreed to allow part of British Aerospace’s request and directed Natural England to consent a licence to cull 552 pairs of breeding lesser black-backed gulls . This was in addition to existing consents to cull 500 pairs of herring gulls and 200 pairs of lesser black-backed gulls at the same site.

We felt that the original decisions created a deeply concerning precedent for similar sites in the UK and therefore challenged those decisions by means of a Judicial Review.  This challenge was heard last May but was unsuccessful.  We were disturbed by the decision and sought an appeal.

Following the Court of Appeal’s Judgment, we will work with Natural England and BAE Systems to balance air safety risks with the conservation of lesser black-backed gulls and the breeding seabirds assemblage, including herring gull.

To be clear, we recognise the air safety risk, but we believed the Secretary of State’s conclusions were based on a fundamental misunderstanding of wildlife protection designed to conserve the UK’s best wildlife places. If this decision was allowed to stand, it would have had huge negative implications for future decisions concerning our best wildlife sites.

Separately, we will be taking Defra up on its offer of further discussions concerning the declining national status of these two gull species, both of which are undergoing significant national declines, including at their other major colonies in England. Alongside Natural England, we look forward to developing a national conservation strategy that will secure these birds’ long-term recovery and conservation.