Time to bring back
the Pest Birds List?

Conor O'Gorman

Conor O'Gorman

Conor O’Gorman has worked in a variety of conservation, policy and campaigning roles at BASC over the last 16 years. A zoology graduate with a PhD awarded for grey partridge research, he has over 25 years’ experience in conservation and land management.

In light of Wild Justice’s latest attack on general licences, Dr Conor O’Gorman shares his views on getting back-to-basics for pest bird control.

It is thirty years since the UK’s pest birds list was replaced with general licences to comply with EU legislation.

The government had been threatened with legal action by the European Court of Justice because it had not imposed a closed season during the breeding season of these pest species.

BASC was instrumental in finding a solution to the problem. Working with the farming community, we persuaded the government to secure a change in EU law to gain an exemption from the rules through a general licensing system.

The principle was simple – to permit people to continue to carry out necessary all year-round control of thirteen bird species, including woodpigeon, magpies and carrion crows, with no added burdens. 

The legal complexities were the responsibility of government to administer and shooters only needed to know what species were on the list to ensure they were acting lawfully.

Initially, the general licences system worked well for all involved. However, mission creep was inevitable with devolution and separate general licences being issued by the devolved governments in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

An unworkable situation

For many years, things were relatively straightforward, albeit with some tinkering with the species lists.

In fact, it was such a low-key legal instrument that I can recall BASC needing to remind the conservation agencies in Wales and Northern Ireland to re-issue the annual general licences several weeks and even months into the year.

However, things really started to go pear-shaped after the 2014 ‘shoo before you shoot’ debacle.

Legal challenges by Wild Justice since 2019 have underlined just how unworkable the situation has become, with the latest missive being an argument against wording clarifying the term ‘kept’ in relation to gamebirds when livestock.

This is certainly a situation far removed from 1992, when Ministers assured stakeholders that the introduction of general licences was a legal device but one which would continue to allow necessary control with no added burdens.

A potential solution

So, with Brexit, I find myself thinking that perhaps it’s time to get back-to-basics and return to the Pest Birds List? The vehicle for change could be the Brexit Freedoms Bill.

BASC policy is to work with the devolved administrations to make the existing general licences system work as best that it can for end users. This includes continuing to fight legal challenges from Wild Justice.

We support farming, conservation and society in controlling pest species of birds, so surely it is not too much to ask to have certainty that our activities are lawful through a simple list of pest birds?

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