The government is facing a legal challenge over its newly updated shooting licenses for England, which classify game birds as livestock and so allow wild birds to be shot to protect them.
Campaigners have said the licenses give an unfair advantage to gamekeepers, as they allow the birds to be defined as livestock when shooters want to kill other birds to protect them, but are otherwise considered wild birds so the estate owners are not liable for any damage to the game birds cause.
This year, Natural England declared that when receiving any food and shelter from landowners, birds such as pheasant and partridge count as livestock. They now give explicit permission for shooters to kill carrion crows, jackdaws, magpies and rooks to protect the game birds.
General licenses give broad permissions to shoot certain species of wild birds to protect livestock, aid conservation, and preserve health and public safety. They are permissive licences, meaning users do not need to apply for them but they must comply with their terms and conditions when undertaking licensed acts.
Wild Justice, the campaign group run by Mark Avery and Chris Packham, has started a legal challenge against this clarification of the rules.
They claim the new definition of livestock is unlawful as it is significantly wider than that used in the Wildlife and Countryside Act.
The license says: “’Livestock’ is as defined in section 27(1) of the 1981 Act). For the purpose of this licence, this expression also includes gamebirds kept in an enclosure or which are free roaming but remain significantly dependent on the provision of food, water or shelter by a keeper for their survival. This does not include supplementary feeding.”
But Section 27(1) Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (the “1981 Act”) defines “livestock” as any animal which is kept:
“(a) for the provision of food, wool, skins or fur;
(b) for the purpose of its use in the carrying on of any agricultural activity; or
(c) for the provision or improvement of shooting or fishing;”
Their legal letter to Defra says: “Accordingly (as seen by the word ‘also’), footnote 7 seeks to apply – for the purposes of GL42 – a definition of ‘livestock’ which is wider than that defined in section 27(1) of the 1981 Act.”
Wild Justice added: “We are unaware of evidence that the species listed on the general license do cause serious damage to gamebirds at this stage of their lives. Any damage should be capable of being reduced by netting release pens.
“If, extremely rarely, any such damage occurs, then lethal control is obtainable through application for a specific license.”
This group has previously brought successful challenges against the legislation and in 2019 managed to get it suspended. Wild Justice has since managed to secure changes including removing all gull species, and the places the licenses can be used no longer include sites of special scientific interest and other nature reserves.
Wild Justice said: “Any license authorizing killing of wildlife should be clear about when it can be used. Defra’s general license 42 fails that test. In any case, why is Defra fiddling with definitions of livestock while wildlife declines?”