Unlike in previous years the licence does now not cover the release of gamebirds in or near to Special Protection Areas (SPAs), meaning it is illegal to release gamebirds in those areas without an individual licence.
The release of gamebirds (pheasants and red-legged partridge) and their potential impact on European Protected Sites (EPS) in England was subject to a legal challenge.
Legal proceedings were brought due to a lack of information or assessments by the relevant government agency, rather than any specific evidence of an issue with the releasing of gamebirds in relation to these sites.
EPS sites include Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) designated for flora and fauna and Special Protection Areas (SPA) for birds.
In practice, these sites are also Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), so if any activity is likely to cause damage, consent is needed from Natural England (NE). Additionally, any activity that occurs outside of an SSSI that damages that site can be prevented by a stop notice.
Introduction of GL43
Following a legal challenge in 2021, the government proposed an interim licensing regime, alongside a prohibition of the release of gamebirds on or with 500m of an EPS.
BASC and others responded to the consultation on the proposals and engaged with civil servants to negotiate a workable interim regime and annual general licence.
GL43 was introduced in 2021 and renewed in 2022 with little change. GL43 permits release on and within 500m of EPS, up to certain density figures, provided other aspects such as relevant consents (as these sites are also SSSI and could be required) are in place. The density figures are based on GWCT guidelines and are referenced in The Code of Good Shooting Practice.
The legislation is subject to a sunset clause which ends in May 2025, after which time this legal requirement (and licensing requirement) ceases. By this time the relevant government agency should have carried out the relevant assessments.
Alongside GL43, which is issued by Defra, there is an individual licensing route for those who cannot comply with its conditions; most notably if greater densities are planned to be released. This individual licensing regime is overseen by Natural England (NE).
GL43 does not have to be applied for, but users must comply with the conditions set within the licence which includes reporting if you are releasing 50 or more common pheasants or red-legged partridges within an SAC or its buffer zone.
It is also important to remember that because these EPS are also Sites of Special Scientific Interest, depending upon the designation of the individual site permission or consent as it is known can also be required. Find out more here.
Current issues with GL43 and what to do next
The 2022-23 version of GL43 expired at the end of May, initially without a replacement.
However, GL43 was subsequently reissued and is now valid for a two-year period. Importantly, it is no longer applicable to SPAs or within a 500m buffer zone around these sites.
Therefore, anyone who wishes to release gamebirds on SPAs and within 500m of these sites in England, must apply to NE for an individual licence, without which release in these areas will not be lawful.
BASC has continued to engage with Defra regarding GL43 and we will be exploring all avenues – including legal action – to resolve the issue of the exclusion of SPAs on GL43.
Our advice is that anyone who currently needs to apply for an individual licence should not delay and should do so as a matter of urgency. This has been reinforced by Defra now stating: “We strongly recommend that all those who plan to release in SPAs and their buffer zones apply for a licence without delay.”
In addition, Defra has issued advice for individual licence applications which can be read below.
Natural England has updated its current online gamebird licensing advisory tool for 2023 to help shoots decide whether to apply for an individual gamebird licence or not.
This is not a mandatory part of the application process but can help if you are unsure whether your shoot will be releasing within the SPA or buffer zone. In addition, you are welcome to seek advice directly from Natural England, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org .
In the unlikely event that Natural England need further information from the applicant they will expediate this by arranging a telephone call.
The licence application form is very simple and only requires the following information to complete it:
- A six-figure grid reference for the centre of each release pen or partridge release area
- The size in M3 of the release pen or area. (10,000m3 is one hectare)
- The number of birds in each release
- A short explanation of the shoot’s management technique to allow a better understanding of how the operation works and how it might impact the SPA features.
If you are planning a shoot and need a licence, please do apply through the Natural England process.
You can also make contact with the Defra team at GLEnquiries@defra.gov.uk, so that you can be included in further briefings, drop-ins and updates and offer further support.
Decisions on applications
Natural England and Defra have been developing, and continue to develop, measures that will speed up the application process. A decision can then be taken on a case-by-case basis and, where possible, identification of targeted and proportionate conditions to allow a licence to be issued.
Ministers will take all individual licensing decisions on applications submitted to Natural England for releases on or within 500m of Special Protection Areas under this arrangement.
It is the intention to keep the change to GL43 under close review and modify the General Licence as necessary; in particular, should the level of risk of avian influenza to protected birds reduce to acceptable levels. The Secretary of State has asked Defra’s Chief Scientific Adviser to lead this work.
The new GL43 is valid for 24 months to provide as much as clarity as possible and acknowledging the requirement to report on the effectiveness of the legislation in 2024. Defra will continually review the AI situation and its impact on the GL43 licence, alongside all available evidence, and modify the licence should evidence support this.
There are details on how to identify the specific sites where such an individual licence is needed and also how to apply for one in the FAQ section below.
If you are a BASC member and require further advice or assistance, please contact your regional team. Please also let us know of any issues you face because of the late change to the content of GL43, as this will help us demonstrate to the government the impact of the decision.
There is advice on the BASC website here which includes an updated mapping tool so you can easily find specific sites and designations. Alternatively, you can use the common pheasant and red-legged partridge releases map. You can also find a map of these sites from a link on the general licence itself.
If you look at GL43, there is a link to Natural England’s online advice service to check whether you need to apply for an individual licence. Please note there is currently wording on this service that may dissuade people from applying for an individual licence on certain SPAs not listed. BASC would urge anyone who needs a licence not to delay submitting an application because of this.
Defra has also stated that the use of this online advice service is not a mandatory part of the application process but can help.
If you cannot use the online service, please email email@example.com. Defra has provided an application form which should be completed and submitted directly to NE at the above email address. Download a copy of the application form here.
You should apply for an individual licence to NE. However, Defra has also provided an email address where you can contact them should you wish to: GLEnquiries@defra.gov.uk. This is to allow for them to “…include you in further briefings, drop-ins and updates and offer further support.”
Do not contact Defra as an alternative to completing the application process via NE.
The Secretary of State has confirmed Ministers will take all individual licensing decision applications submitted to Natural England for release on or within 500m of Special Protection Areas under this arrangement.
We are continuing to engage with Defra to seek a change in approach as we believe their intended approach is unlawful, unnecessary and would have serious implications.
We have engaged with politicians to seek influence to address this situation.
We encourage anyone affected to contact their MP and highlight the economic impact this would have for them, including any job losses and broader impacts on rural businesses.
Release outside of these sites is not affected by this legislation. However, it is important to note that you must comply with other applicable legal requirements, such as completing the poultry register and caring for the gamebirds in line with welfare legislation and SSSI rules.
It is also important that as well as complying with the law, both in relation to this interim licensing regime and wider, we should also comply with established best practices for sustainable shooting, as detailed in the Code of Good Shooting Practice and the relevant sector codes of practice.
Work out the impact of disruption or inability to shoot this season, and a rough figure of the amount spent on the shoot (birds, equipment, lease, wages, etc.). Does this put any full or part-time jobs at risk? What local businesses will also suffer?
Then email or call your local MP and make it clear what the economic impacts will be for the shoot, pubs, hotels, etc., in your constituency due to a lack of consultation and a potentially unlawful licence.
If you need assistance or advice on how to do this, please contact your English regional team.