Philip Reynolds of Sporting Gun put a series of questions to Dr Mark Avery of Wild Justice, the wildlife campaign group, following the latter’s challenge to Natural England over the issue of general licences. Here are his answers.
Sporting Gun: What provoked you to initiate your legal challenge to Natural England (NE) about the general licences when you did?
Wild Justice: NE issued the licences on 1 January each year and to seek a judicial review one has to go through various steps inside three months – so we didn’t have any option about the timing. But if you mean ‘why this year?’ the answer is that we think the general licences stink!
Sporting Gun: It would appear that you think the general licences were used as cover for unnecessary rather than legitimate killing? Is this the case and, if so, what is your evidence for this?
Wild Justice: Not quite, we believe that they authorise legitimate killing but were seen as authorising any killing of the species listed. We have no problem with lethal control, after non-lethal means are considered and shown not to work, for the purposes set out in law. A farmer preventing serious damage to crops should be able to kill pigeons but that isn’t how users of the general licences have seen them. And a whole industry of pigeon shooting has sprung up which, at the moment, we believe, is unlawful.
Sporting Gun: It would seem that it was not your intention to cause the confusion and difficulties of the past few weeks with your legal challenge and that the fault lies with Natural England for precipitately withdrawing the licences in the face of your challenge. Is this correct and would you really have been prepared to wait until 31 December 2019 for the licences to be reviewed?
Wild Justice: Almost! We asked NE to admit that the licences were unlawful. We asked this on 13 February and as we understand it NE had legal advice on 21 February which said they were unlawful – you’ll have to ask NE about the two-month delay and the ridiculously short notice of revoking the licences. We didn’t ask for them to be revoked, we didn’t ask for a review, we asked that NE undertook not to issue flawed unlawful licences in 2020.
Sporting Gun: Were you surprised that Natural England took the course of action it did on April 25?
Wild Justice: We certainly didn’t have any warning of it – so, yes, it came out of the blue for us. For all we knew, we could have been fighting this case in the courts all through the summer, autumn and winter.
Sporting Gun: Were you pleased it acted sooner than you had perhaps envisioned?
Wild Justice: Given the legal advice that we now know NE received on 21 February we are surprised they didn’t act both quicker and with more warning for those affected. To be honest there would have been a big fuss whenever it had happened – don’t you think?
Sporting Gun: Do you welcome Defra’s subsequent intervention?
Wild Justice: Time will tell. We don’t know what Defra will do. We’ll be watching them closely.
Sporting Gun: Were you surprised at the negative reaction from the rural community, shooting, conservation organisations?
Wild Justice: There wasn’t any negative reaction from what we would recognise as conservation organisations. You didn’t mean BASC and GWCT did you? And who represents rural communities? The three of us live in rural areas so we don’t accept the premise of your question. Some of the reaction was certainly negative because there was a lot of misunderstanding of what was happening. We don’t think the shooting press did a great job but the farming press was much better. The Daily Telegraph was utterly bizarre. It was all very interesting but when it all calms down we hope that the law will have been implemented sensibly and better for wildlife, and certainly farmers won’t really have been greatly inconvenienced. The same might not be the case for recreational shooting.
Sporting Gun: Do you think that reaction is misplaced and a misunderstanding of your intentions?
Wild Justice: We cannot possibly know what people think are our intentions – but many of them claim to know ours.
Sporting Gun: Do you think the term conservation is a term co-opted and abused by whoever wants to serve their own ends and agenda?
Wild Justice: Yes. It’s obviously more complicated than that, but, in short, yes.
Sporting Gun: Do you think that people in the rural community are killing birds with impunity writ large or do you think that most people are doing it, or feel they are doing it for legitimate reasons, such as protecting crops and other bird species?
Wild Justice: Yes to all three! There has been a lot of unnecessary, unjustified, unlawful casual killing of wildlife going on. But there has also been a lot of completely lawful pest control (although we really don’t like the word pest very much) happening. The whole business of protecting other bird species is a complex scientific issue. Although some people may have killed jays because they feel they are helping conserve songbirds there is practically no evidence to back this up. Wild Justice calls for Defra NOT to issue general licences for the purposes of killing jay, jackdaw, rook and magpie to conserve wild birds.
Sporting Gun: You say that one of the unforeseen consequences of your challenge is the shooting of woodpigeons, which you say is much abused. To avoid confusion, would you object to woodpigeons being placed on the ‘quarry list’?
Wild Justice: We’d reserve our position on that. It would depend on the details. The necessity to use non-toxic ammunition might help get our acceptance of it. It would be an interesting move.
Sporting Gun: Are farmers right to regard them as a legitimate pest?
Wild Justice: Yes, at times, for some crops. Not everywhere and any time. And that’s what farmers tell us too.
Sporting Gun: When you say that there is only a conservation problem if Species A is responsible for a sustained decline in Species B over a period of time, upsetting the ecological balance. Could you tell us over what timespan you would judge this and who would compile the objective, definitive scientific data?
Wild Justice: Timescale would depend on the biology of the species. This is a scientific question and needs scientific data.
Sporting Gun: You say that intensive agriculture in the UK is part of the problem and encourages crows. What do you think should be done to change this?
Wild Justice: Loads! We could fill your pages for weeks. But just to get your readers thinking (and we know this isn’t agriculture) how about a drastic reduction in releases of reared game birds – or fox and crow food, as they could be known.
Sporting Gun: You also say the release of game birds is a problem that encourages crows. What is your solution to this?
Wild Justice: Drastic reductions in release numbers. Pheasant shooting has a massive image problem already – you know it makes sense. The market for shooting is completely disconnected from the food market. And, again, why is it OK to shoot a poisonous metal into food? Come on! Sort it out!
Sporting Gun: You have, for various reasons, described Defra’s intervention as from 4 May as a “mess”. What in your view is the workable way forward for all sides out of this “mess”?
Wild Justice: We have described the whole thing as a mess actually. Let’s we how Tory leadership candidate (we guess) Michael Gove sorts this one out!
Sporting Gun: Isn’t this ultimately a case of different worldviews and entrenched opinions and never the twain shall meet?
Wild Justice: Ultimately this is about the law. We haven’t changed it at all but our successful legal action means that people killing birds will have to stick to the rules. We note with some dismay shooting organisations (not as far as we have seen farming ones) calling for the status quo ante – which was unlawful – to be returned. How daft is that? People with guns must obey the law, and government agencies must give effect to the law. And we’ll be doing our bit too.