Guest post by Grahame Madge, Media Officer for the RSPB

Do a random survey and ask people to name their favourite British bird and without thinking most people will tell you it's the robin. Of course it is: people love robins. They have them on tea-towels, Christmas cards and cake tins. So a suggestion from Natural England to include the 'gardener's friend' on a list of species which can have their eggs and nests destroyed in certain circumstances was always going to be highly controversial. And people have been contacting us in their droves about whether we're going to object. Our answer: yes, of course.

Robin by Kaleel Zibe (rspb-images.com)

Natural England has been consulting on the system of General Licences - a provision of the Wildlife and Countryside Act allowing people to control so-called problem species without needing to apply for a specific individual licence.  General licences are proclaimed to everyone via the internet and there is currently no recording of what action is undertaken under their cover.  There are no checks and balances.  In contrast, individual licences are issued to a specific person, the problem is assessed, alternative solutions are considered and the number of birds or nests destroyed (as a last resort) are carefully limited and recorded.  In its consultation, Natural England proposed adding the robin (and starling and pied wagtail) to a General Licence for the preservation of public health and safety.

Now we accept that in certain, rare circumstances nesting birds can cause safety concerns. If a robin pair chooses to nest in a flue, then you can see the risk. However, there are only a handful of nesting robins, pied wagtails and starlings causing such concerns each year. So why the need for such wide ranging measures for such a limited problem? This is a very large sledgehammer to crack a very small nut, and that's what we've told Natural England. We also know that Natural England can be brilliant at issuing specific licences swiftly for those extremely rare occasions when the birds may cause a potential problem and timely action is needed.

We believe that placing these birds on a general licence could encourage an abuse of the system, potentially leading to the needless destruction of countless birds' nests for dubious reasons of nuisance rather than real safety issues. In the case of the red-listed and rapidly-declining starling this could have had a conservation impact on a bird that's seen its number halve in 20 years. So we believe this is sending out the wrong message when we should be encouraging people to give nature a home.  The costs of issuing individual licences where there are real problems is minimal - surely our favourite bird and declining species are worth such protection.

But Natural England's consultation actually included some very good suggestions.  We have always had a number of concerns about the general licences.  To their credit, Natural England are starting to ask these questions too.

Why is there no accountability within the General Licencing system as no-one needs to provide any information about the number of birds or nests taken under the licence? The level of killing is unregulated and unrecorded.  Natural England are looking to explore a system of reporting and asked for views on whether this should be voluntary or mandatory.  Experience suggests that only a compulsory system stands a chance of working.

What is the justification for some of the species on the General Licence?  Are they really a widespread problem that merits widespread killing?  Natural England have questioned the evidence for retaining jay and jackdaw.  We agree and would take rook off the list too.

What encouragement is there for people to consider other solutions before reaching for the gun?

Natural England have suggested some improvements to the wording of the General Licence, we welcome this but they could go further and require users of the licence to keep a record of what alternatives to killing wildlife were looked at.  This would focus attention on the legal requirements of these licences.

So there are some important proposals in Natural England’s consultation that we welcome but robins on the General Licence - no way!

See our full consultation response here: 7624.RSPB licence consultation response_2014_final.pdf

Anonymous
  • We were thrilled when starlings nested in our roof again for the first time in 8 years. Since their last stay we've had a freesat dish installed which is now covered in droppings and clearly a health hazard for any visiting engineer. We could kill the starlings or simply warn the engineer to wash his hands - sledgehammers and nuts indeed!

  • I'm very concerned that this has even been considered and if this get's the go ahead, i fear this might be the thin edge of the wedge. In my opinion this present Government has been the least conservation minded in this modern era since the second world war. All other Governments of whatever pattern since the first wildlife conservation protection laws happened in the 1950's, have been quite good in protecting the countryside and wildlife. I really fear for the future of wildlife if this ever get's passed into law.

    Regards,

    Ian