Shooting for a level playing field

Dr Marnie Lovejoy

Dr Marnie Lovejoy

Dr Marnie Lovejoy is head of environment law research at BASC. Holding a PhD in law, Marnie has practiced and researched law in both the UK and Switzerland, and is the former associate head of Portsmouth Law School. Her work at BASC focuses on the regulatory frameworks governing wildfowling, wildlife licences, gamebird release, and habitat management, with the aim of promoting and strengthening sustainable shooting.

A review of the Habitats Regulations provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to level the playing field for shooting activities on or near protected sites, explains Dr Marnie Lovejoy…

An uphill struggle

For decades, wildfowlers in England and Wales have faced an uphill struggle to carry out sustainable shooting on sites protected under to Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) and other regulatory designations. Namely, Habitats Regulations which exist to provide a framework for the management of European-protected sites and species.

Protection through Habitats Regulations has curtailed shooting activities on such sites. The irony is that wildfowling activities long pre-date government-led regulation of our wild landscapes

The problem does not just affect wildfowlers. Shooters engaging in pest control under general licences, those releasing gamebirds in or near protected sites, and ‘keepers undertaking prescribed burning of vegetation have all been increasingly restricted as a result of extant post-Brexit European legislation.

How are the Habitats Regulations implemented?

At the core of the restrictions brought on by the Habitats Regulations lie Habitats Regulations Assessments (HRAs). Essentially, HRAs are legal instruments which look to ensure that development plans or projects do not have an adverse effect on protected sites. 

HRAs are of vital importance in order to protect our environment. However, their application has in recent years become so far removed from common sense that regulators are taking decisions which, sadly, pose greater environmental risks than they mitigate.

BASC has long campaigned for a fair and consistent approach to HRAs when it comes to shooting activities.

Expanding the legal issues

A working group, led by Lord Benyon on behalf of Defra, has now been set up to review the Habitats Regulations and HRAs. The review process provides us with a rare opportunity to alter the existing status-quo that regulates shooting. This chance is one we must grasp with both hands if we are to remove or even lessen the obstacles currently inhibiting sustainable shooting.

With a wealth of expertise and years of experience of HRAs, BASC was invited to present our views to Lord Benyon’s working group early in the review process.

Following our meeting with the working group, we brought together a white paper covering the legal issues surrounding HRAs on behalf of the Aim to Sustain partnership, which can be read here

The paper provides first-hand examples of the legal anomalies and poor application of the regulations by both Natural England and Natural Resources Wales, the bodies responsible for administering them in England and Wales.

A flawed process

Our paper shows that the process of HRAs is flawed to the extent that relevant authorities are taking decisions which actually undermine the very conservation elements they should be protecting.

For example, the curlew, a red listed species, is in decline and increased pressures from generalist predators, such as corvids, is a proven major factor in the bird’s demise. 

Nevertheless, Defra decided to stop allowing the control of rooks in England on the general licence for conservation purposes even though it is a green listed species.

In other words, the regulator prefers that precious curlew eggs are being devoured by a rook than allowing landowners the legal ability to prevent attacks before they happen or to act immediately to shoot or trap rooks as problems arise. This is an absurd outcome based on an unduly restrictive interpretation of our conservation laws. 

Public taxes and resources are currently being wasted on micro-regulating shooting to minor and transient environmental effect. Meanwhile, activities which take place in spaces shared with shooting – and impact the landscape and species around them far more adversely – are falling through the cracks.

For instance, the RSPB, issued a stark warning about the detrimental impact of the increased participation in water sports on the welfare of our waterbirds. This is also regularly mentioned in Site Improvement Plans of our protected sites. There is, however, no regulatory desire to enforce environmental laws against such socially accepted recreational activities. 

Dangerously inconsistent

In short, HRAs are dangerously inconsistent. In addition to this, shooting faces unjustified bias because it can evoke an emotional or political response, or because relevant authorities are making decisions based on the fear of challenges by judicial activists. That’s not to mention also the influence of relentless social media campaigns and the tabloid press, which in turn creates political pressure for quick populist wins. 

Aim to Sustain’s white paper demands that the relevant authorities focus their attention on regulating activities that have the highest impact on our protected sites, rather than those that are the most convenient to be regulated. 

The goal is not a weakening of environment protections, just a fair, proportionate and more efficient process applied equally across different land uses. Alongside a series of recommendations, ultimately, we are seeking reformation of the Habitats Regulations to see shooting regulated on a level playing field.

Embraced not dismissed

Shooters are inherently conservationists. Consider this; shoots and land managers invest £250 million and 3.9 million working days every year on conservation projects. Incredibly however, this substantial, real, lived, on-the-ground experience of these conservation practitioners, such as wildfowlers, is currently being dismissed out of sight by the regulators.

Shooting is viewed as an undesirable activity to minimise, rather than as a passionate and knowledgeable workforce to embrace. If more time were spent building relationships than filling in forms perhaps our protected sites would be in a better position than they are now.

The white paper proposes a way to reward shooting’s conservation credentials whilst protecting the most important and extraordinary habitats in England and Wales. Now is the time to act to counter the challenges faced by the shooting community today to secure the future of sustainable shooting for generations to come.

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