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General Licenses and pest control

It’s that time of year when it’s tempting to say that another season is over and the gun safe is locked for a final time. However, that’s misleading – pheasants may be off the menu, but now’s the time to get pest control under way.

If you are planning to take part, it’s worth checking on the wording of the general licences so that, if anyone questions your shooting, you have the right answer. Absurd as it may seem, if you and I are shooting pigeon in the same field, and are challenged, you could be approved and I could be hauled off to court just for saying something different. You explain that you are doing it for crop protection, which accords with the terms of the general licence, and you are acting perfectly legally. I say that I’m shooting for the sport and it’s a case of, “You do not have to say anything, but it may harm your defence…”

Take care in Scotland
If you’re shooting in Scotland you need to be particularly careful because Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) left it to the last minute to consider changes to the existing licences, which have to be renewed every year. It has inserted a particularly nasty clause that the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) has raised as a matter of serious concern.

Under its provision, SNH would be able to remove the general licence from any individual or any geographical area where it had “good reason to believe wildlife crime was taking place”. The BASC’s opposition to this is unequivocal. Granting civil servants a legal power to impose arbitrary and damaging restrictions on businesses and livelihoods in the absence of a criminal offence is simply unacceptable and open to abuse.

The government is under a duty, as part of the human rights legislation, to ensure proportionality, and this form of collective punishment is neither proportionate nor necessary. By the time you read this, the matter should have been resolved, but it does emphasise the point that, wherever you live, it’s vitally important that you read and understand the general licences – in Scotland this is a legal requirement. You’ll find them on the BASC website.

Eat what you shoot

Before I’m accused of bashing Scotland, I praise its decision to allow dead wild geese to be bought and sold in Orkney. Just because a species is a pest, you can’t be absolved from the obligation to eat what you shoot. Rats, mink and crows could be considered exceptions, but I’ve eaten alleged fox curry, and it wasn’t too bad. Geese, however, are palatable and so it is only common sense to make them available as food when crop protection demands a far bigger bag than the average wildfowler could stomach.

This opens the door on a far wider discussion: nature is infinitely adaptable; statutory laws are not. Regulations introduced with the best of intentions can easily become irrelevant and occasionally achieve the opposite of the desired effect. It could be argued that the excessive protection granted to badgers is the root of the present problem. Before protection they were far from rare and bovine tuberculosis was not rampant. But, because of the justifiable revulsion at badger baiting, humane control was swept away. Many will question whether that was in the long-term interests of the species – or of hedgehogs and ground-nesting birds.

Adaptive management
In exceptional cases the blanket protection given to raptors can also be counter-productive. When I first became a falconer, more than 40 years ago, it was possible to take birds from the wild under licence. I learnt with a buzzard and was later licensed to take a merlin. Unfortunately a fox got to the chosen nest before I did. But ringing round some estates beforehand, to find a nesting pair, I was horrified at the amount of illegal persecution. Times have changed since then. Last year
I was with a friend, flying his peregrine on a celebrated grouse moor, and I was pleasantly surprised at the number of merlins that we saw.

But there is undoubtedly a clash of interests where some other birds of prey are concerned. On grouse moors, hen harriers are an obvious example. One sensible suggestion is that owners and statutory bodies should agree on a limit to the number of pairs a moor can support and then relocate surplus birds.

It is surprising that protectionist bodies, that are so keen on reintroducing birds, have not seen the logic of relocating harriers to other parts of the country. Since hen harriers have a global distribution, they obviously do not need grouse moors alone to survive. According to the British Trust for Ornithology’s magisterial Bird Atlas, which has just been published and is an exemplary work of great authority, there are 662 breeding pairs of hen harriers in the UK. That hardly justifies the label “threatened with extinction”, which is so often attributed to them.

All of these threads – selling geese, taking birds under licence for falconry (which has now been introduced in Ireland) and relocating harriers – can be brought together as a single concept: adaptive management.

This is already being applied in a limited way to goose shooting in Scotland and it is the dominant influence on shooting, or hunting, in many parts of the world.

Flexibility needed
In Sweden, for example, the elk population is closely monitored and an annual quota is determined. In many parts of the US, the numbers of waterfowl that may be shot are similarly decided on an annual quota basis. Most of us quite rightly resist the notion of bureaucrats in green wellies telling us what we can and cannot shoot, but there is a place for a flexible system of legislation that recognises how wildlife needs responsible management.

To some extent this is the function of the general licences, so it is a pity that SNH’s bureaucrats are undermining sensible regulation by seeking to impose conditions that are too sloppily written to make good law, and do nothing to protect wildlife or enhance biodiversity.