ENGLISH FARMERS and land managers have reacted with outrage to the abrupt revocation of their general licence to control pest species of birds.

As of Thursday, April 25, Natural England is revoking the three general licences for controlling certain wild birds, in reaction to a legal challenge from conservationists suggesting that the way the permits are issued could make their use unlawful. NE has said, however, that it is already working on new licences that will allow pest control, albeit under different legal terms.

Scottish Natural Heritage told The Scottish Farmer that its English equivalent's move had come as a surprise, and that there were no plans to change Scotland's general licences, which operate separately under Scotland's different legal system.

SNH did admit, however, that it would be following the case raised against the English licences carefully to see if there are any implications for Scotland: "If any changes are required, we would seek to ensure a period of consultation with everyone involved and allow sufficient time for any adjustments to take place."

The lack of consultation down south was a particular sore point for land managers. No sooner had 'Wild Justice' – a new lobby and campaign group set up by TV presenter Chris Packham – sought a judicial review of the general licensing system on the grounds that the culling of certain bird species was being sanctioned by Natural England, without it first having satisfied itself that alternative non-lethal means, such as scaring, had failed to work, than the quango acted to remove the licences covering crows, magpies, rooks, jackdaws and jays, feral and wood pigeons, and some 'invasive non-native species' such as Canada geese.

Such was the suddenness of the move that industry leaders warned that farmers, gamekeepers and pest controllers were right away at risk of breaking the law if they shot woodpigeons and carrion crows without knowledge of the change, and without applying for a specific individual licence.

Countryside Alliance chief executive Tim Bonner said: “Whatever Natural England’s legal advice, the withdrawal of open general licences at incredibly short notice is completely impractical and irresponsible, and will result in thousands of people unknowingly breaking the law.

“It could not have come at a worse time, with new born lambs vulnerable to attack from crows, crops needing protecting from pigeons and red-listed bird species susceptible to attacks from corvids.”

His counterpart at the Tenant Farmers Association, George Dunn, said that it was unacceptable that 'such precipitous action should be taken without proper consultation, risk assessment and due regard to the businesses that will be affected'.

“Why has it been deemed necessary to remove the existing licences before you have got the new licences in place?” he demanded of NE? “It was clear that populations of the 16 bird species had not suffered since the general licence system had been introduced in the 1990s, so what was the justification for changing it?”