Matt Clarke and Philip Reynolds asked Dr Mark Avery some searching questions on Monday 10 June 2019 following the latest legal challenge to general licences from Wild Justice, the wildlife campaign group that includes Dr Avery, Chris Packham, the TV presenter and naturalist, and Dr Ruth Tingay, the conservationist

Seven weeks after Natural England revoked the general licences GL04, GL05 and GL06 on April 25, following a legal challenge from Wild Justice, the wildlife campaign group has submitted a further challenge.

This latest legal challenge has arrived while the shooting and farming world is still waiting for Defra and Natural England to decide on a permanent solution to the issue of the licences. In the meantime, Natural England has issued three new licences – GL26, GL28 and GL31. It is the new licence GL26 that Wild Justice is challenging the legality of through its solicitors, Leigh Day. In particular, it is focusing on the culling of carrion crows in relation to the protection of pheasants.

The nub of the issue relates to the interpretation as to whether pheasants are regarded as livestock or wild birds and whether, if the former, shooters have the right to cull carrion crows to protect their livestock.

It is an issue with many implications and we asked Dr Mark Avery of Wild Justice a number of questions relating to its latest challenge. Here are his answers in full:

Dr Mark Avery replies

Sporting Gun: You say that you would like Natural England to reflect on the legality of GL26 but surely that is what they have done by revoking the previous licences and issuing the new ones?

Mark Avery: Yes, but we think they’ve got them wrong – again. We ask Natural England, and Defra, to get this right in these and other forthcoming licences. But we ask them to remove the elements of GL26 that refer to gamebirds and start again. Maybe we need that full consultation to get this right. By the way, Natural England and Defra have not spoken to us about these matters.

SG: Your letter takes issue with the legal interpretation of ‘kept’ and that many birds that are currently regarded as being so are in fact wild and therefore not ‘kept’. How would you apply this interpretation to other livestock in view of Leigh Day’s definition of “free-living”, especially with regard to, say, ‘hefted’ sheep in Cumbria and how does that differ from your view of how pheasants are ‘kept’?

MA: Not quite – we think that Natural England have gone out on a limb with an unlawful definition of ‘kept’. We’ve never heard anyone claim that a pheasant in a field, or running about on the road causing accidents, is livestock because it might nip back for a couple of pecks of grain now and again. If your sheep is in my garden then I can probably have a good guess at who owns it and phone you up. If your pheasant is in my garden how do I complain to you about your livestock’s eating of my vegetables? If it’s livestock then we believe that the owner is responsible for it. Did Natural England dream this up on their own or were they pressured by shooting interests? And whichever it was, was this really a good idea?

SG: With regard to the purpose of control under the general licence, how would you propose that a legally practicable way of determining whether there were no alternatives to ‘lethal killing’ be implemented and enforced?

MA: We’re not sure. That’s Natural England’s job. We don’t want to do their job – but we do want them to do it properly. Natural England haven’t sought to speak to us about any of this – we believe they’ve had lots of chats with other organisations.

SG: Do you think your challenge will help focus Natural England and clarify matters for people who shoot to enable them to carry on doing so or is your ultimate goal to outlaw all shooting of game birds for sport?

MA: We aren’t trying to outlaw all shooting of gamebirds for sport, and if we were, this would be a very tortuous route. We are pretty sure that game shooting will continue for a very, very long time. But we do think that shooting needs to be better conducted in many regards. Recreational shooting of wildlife has not done a good job through self-regulation and we want Natural England to do its job in acting as a fair but firm regulator.

Lead shot should be replaced by non-toxic ammunition, stocking densities in release areas should be reduced to the levels of good practice suggested by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, illegal persecution of birds of prey should cease, the numbers of released gamebirds should be greatly reduced and lethal control of native predators should be directed at the appropriate species (certainly not Jay, Jackdaw, Rook and Magpie) by appropriate means. These are things that we often hear sensible shooters say but we see little progress on the ground. And if they all happened tomorrow then shooting would still be happening.

SG: In Wild Justice’s latest legal challenge to Natural England it focuses on the rearing of game (particularly pheasants). You seem to be targeting the shooting community. By singling out a small section of society (shooters) is this a cynical divide and conquer tactic?

MA: We feel shooting is very unregulated whereas farming is quite strongly regulated. There are things we don’t like about the licences already published and the parts of them that relate to farming, but we feel that these could probably be addressed through a review and consultation. It was, presumably, Natural England’s decision to link game rearing and sheep and piglets together in one licence. This may be because of extreme pressure on Natural England from shooting interests. Natural England don’t actually mention any evidence that carrion crows are a problem for game during the period before they are released! A consequence of that is that GL26 is under scrutiny from us for a variety of reasons. You are right to identify the fact that the interests of farming and shooting may not always and exactly coincide.

What do you want to achieve?

SG: Through your challenges of the general licences what do you want to achieve? Is it biodiversity, or something else?

MA: We want public bodies to implement the laws protecting wildlife properly – that is a fundamental part of nature conservation but also of the legal system. Shooting and farming interests exert massive pressure on the likes of Natural England in an attempt to get their way with things and they don’t always have wildlife at the front of their minds. Carrion crows can’t speak up for themselves and we are very happy to take up their cases for them.

SG: What’s next on the agenda for Wild Justice and when do you think you will have achieved your goals?

MA: We expect to be quite busy with general licences for a while. We can’t see that issue going away and we are interested to see what Defra comes up with – whatever it is, it’s overdue. We have taken legal advice about beaver culls in Scotland, though …