If a 16-year-old can win over NI’s tough politicians, then make sure you have your say on other shooting issues, says Jeffrey Olstead

I should have known better than to try to take a riflescope through security at Belfast Airport. To be fair, the staff were extremly polite, and after referring the matter up several management levels, it was accepted that it was not part of a firearm and could go in my hand luggage.

Quietly mentioning that I was returning from a meeting at Stormont may have helped. That and the three-piece suit. You don’t often catch me in a suit, but then you don’t often catch me rubbing shoulders with Ulster Unionists and Sinn Fein. BASC had brought them together, along with all other shades of political opinion in Northern Ireland, to oppose the absurd restrictions on sporting shooters and firearms dealers. The All-Party Group on Country Sports has united both political, trade and sporting organisations in a common cause and they are taking the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s Firearms and Explosives Branch to task.

One of the hottest issues, however, is the difficulty anyone under 18 faces in taking up sporting shooting. To present a case against this, BASC NI secured the support of one of the most powerful advocates for young shooters — BBC Young Sports Personality of the Year Amber Hill.

In the imposing senate chamber of the Northern Ireland Assembly, Amber calmly and confidently told the All-Party Group about her own shooting career, which began at the age of 10. She described how the sport had helped her develop into young adulthood and then she made an eloquent plea for young people not to be excluded from a major Olympic sport in which the UK has an outstanding record.

To see the impact this modest, slightly-built, 16-year- old had on hardened politicians, and the ovation they gave her when she finished speaking, was amazing. But that wasn’t the end of it — accompanied by BASC’s Northern Ireland director Tommy Mayne, Amber then stated her case personally in a private meeting with First Minister Peter Robinson.

Shooting sports has an extraordinary ambassador in Amber, and she is determined to do her bit to encourage more women and young people to enjoy shooting – even if they can’t all end up as number seven in the world ranking at the age of 16.

Proposed changes to general licences

Compared with the problems in Northern Ireland, the issues facing England and Wales may seem relatively minor but the review of the General Licence provisions raises some serious issues.
Just to remind you of the background, all birds are protected in the UK, but under a derogation from the EU Birds Directive we are allowed to control certain species for particular purposes, such as crop protection, under a series of open General Licences. These are issued annually by each country’s administration and have to be approved by Brussels. For convenience, most of us refer to birds covered by the licences as being on the “pest list”.

In the past, there has only been relatively minor tinkering to the licences, but this year there is a wholesale review. If you visit the Natural England website you will find that the consultation document runs to 48 pages – and it makes interesting reading. If you shoot pigeon, crows or any pest species you need to read this document and then it’s crucial that you make your views known.

That may seem like a typical response — we always tell people to make their views known — but in this case it has a rather unusual significance. Read the bit about “The Assessment of Regulatory Impact”. This is meant to evaluate the impact the proposed changes would have on businesses but instead it concentrates on just one business – Natural England (NE). It considers how much money NE would save by putting a species on General Licence rather than having to deal with
lots of individual requests for licences. For instance, adding greylag geese to the General Licence would save £2,685.

The message seems to be, if you want something put on General Licence blitz NE with requests for individual licences and it will take the cheap option. I’m sure that’s not what NE intended, or would do, but it does demonstrate the power of engaging with the great bureaucracies; if you make yourself a nuisance they will respond.

So what do we have to worry about in these proposals? Well, they are all introduced with the phrase “Natural England seeks views on…” but it’s pretty clear that these are the changes that NE would like to make if there isn’t a sufficient clamour against them. Additions to the General Licences might include greylag geese for crop protection and the ability to destroy mallard nests and eggs for public health and safety. Removals from the pest list could include jays, jackdaws, hooded crows, collared doves and lesser black-backed gulls. Methods of control and penalties for breaking the licence conditions are also up for discussion and a suggestion that Larsen traps should be licensed is included in that. However, two of the most contentious proposals concern monitoring and alternatives to shooting.

After inviting views on voluntary bag returns of pest species, NE says it might conduct a trial, and depending on the result introduce a permanent scheme that could be mandatory. This would mean that you would have to make a return on every crow or pigeon that you shot. Under another provision you could lose the right to shoot under the General Licence if you failed to comply.

The second matter of serious concern is the proposal to amend the wording on alternative measures. At the moment you must simply “consider” non-lethal measures before relying on the General Licence to shoot birds, but NE suggests changing this to a requirement to take “reasonable and appropriate steps to resolve the problem, such as scaring and proofing” before you can shoot under the licence. Think of the problems that creates for crow or pigeon shooting.

BASC is preparing a detailed, science-backed response to all these issues but now, perhaps, you can see why it is important that you, too, respond. You’ll find a briefing on all the proposals — and there are more than just those I’ve mentioned here — on the BASC website. You will also find a link to the consultation and response form on the site.

My response will be conditioned very much by the time of year. It’s spring, the gun is cleaned and put away and out comes the fly rod. So you can bet that when I see the first brood of goosanders on the river I’ll be applying for a licence to control them. If all fishermen did that we might, perhaps, see goosanders in the same position as greylags. Well, we all can dream.