In December 2020 the NFU submitted evidence to Defra's consultation on the future of General Licences. The NFU's evidence was submitted from hundreds of farmers, calling for the new regime to be fit for purpose, more transparent and accessible for farmers. With temporary measures expiring in February, the NFU's evidence told how the current system prevents damage to crops costing thousands of pounds, and horrific attacks by crows on livestock, particularly lambs.
Read on for more guidance and resources as well as a round up of the NFU's work on this issue to date. Click on the links below to jump straight to more information:
NFU Deputy President Guy Smith said:
“The general licences play a vital role in allowing farmers to control birds such as pigeons and crows to prevent serious damage to crops and livestock.
“Earlier this year, the NFU and its members worked hard to pull together a comprehensive response to Defra’s call for evidence about the impact of Natural England’s decision to revoke three general licences.
"We’ll be responding again to this latest call for evidence and encouraging our members to submit their evidence to demonstrate the devastating damage that wild birds can cause, showing why our members need to control wild birds for certain purposes.”
Why is this issue so important? NFU members explain the challenges and impacts
Angela Sargent, Derbyshire
NFU member Angela Sargent grows corn and keeps livestock on her mixed farm in Derbyshire.
"It’s about balance. We are in HLS and ELS and grow wild bird seed so the conservation aspect of the farm is very important, but bird control must go hand in hand with this.
“Birds have devastated some of the crops but lambing has been the main problem. We had a sick ewe, who was unable to stand, so to avoid any trauma we decided it was better to treat the ewe in the field. After treatment, I returned to find the ewe alive, but the eyes had been pecked out. This is what you’re up against.
“It's important for us as farmers to keep bird licences, among other issues, high on politicians’ agendas at the moment. When members complete the NFU survey they know that the data will help the NFU respond on all our behalves as one collective voice. I would urge members to complete the NFU’s survey to make their views known.”
Graham McLeod, North Devon
NFU member Graham McLeod runs 600 lambing ewes on the edge of Exmoor. He knows only too well the damage that can be done by members of the crow family.
“I normally lamb the ewe hoggs outside and I have to be there at daybreak. If I’m not and I’ve got lambs being born they will be attacked. Tongues get taken and a couple of times if a ewe is struggling we’ve had lambs killed before they’re even born.
“Crows and magpies will take the cords from the lambs’ navels and disembowel them, pulling organs out while they are living. Pulling guts out through the back passage is another favourite spot for them.
“Without proper access to controls we would lose at least 5% of our lambs in pretty horrific circumstances, easily.
“I responded to the Defra survey back in May and I’ve just responded to the new one as well. Farmers need to get their act together and do the survey.
“There’s a real danger that without proper licences farmers will be made criminals. It’s a no-brainer; they are not going to stand around and let these things kill baby lambs. That’s how important this is. I generally only shoot crows at lambing time and I know they’ve got to survive, but too many can have a massive impact. It’s a necessity.
“And don’t forget this is about wildlife too. I’ve seen pairs of carrion crows where one will harry a mother duck and the other will take the ducklings one by one, taking the whole brood within a day. Magpies are up and down the hedges taking song birds including migrants, mostly their chicks and eggs. It’s what they live on. Then you get people saying wildlife decline is because of ‘farming practices’. I’m sorry, but it just isn’t.
“The public needs to know what damage is being done to farm animals and to wildlife and why proper general licences are so important.”
Will Dickinson, NFU Council member, Hertfordshire
NFU Council member Will Dickinson has a good relationship with his MP and has discussed the importance of general licences to his business on multiple occasions. However, he thinks it’s still important to contribute to the new consultation, and is encouraging fellow farmers to do the same.
In the Hertfordshire countryside, pigeons are a perennial problem that affects his crop and the animals he cares for on his 800 hectare farm. The use of general licences is important to his contracting business, which he works in partnership with a neighbour. They manage arable, sheep and cattle, as well as 200 horses on livery, on land that goes up to houses in the local village, so shotguns must be used carefully.
“Half of our land is protected woodland, and the field size is 10-12 acres with hedgerows around them. There’s a lot of places where a lot of pigeons can roost.
"We’ve had noise abatement notices before now, and with the liveries we can’t just leave bangers in a field as they might go off when people are going past with horses.
“We have some lads who go pigeon shooting and when they do go they can see people on the horse so they know to stop. Our only defence is to hope it rains right after we’ve drilled [the crop], and hopefully during the winter, snow protects it.”
“I keep animals because I love them and like looking after them, but one had its eyes pecked out and worse, but was still alive.”
Why is Defra carrying out this review of the bird control licencing system?
On 25 April 2019, following a legal challenge by Wild Justice, Natural England revoked three general licences which enabled users to kill or take certain species of wild birds (GL04, GL05 and GL06).
Following an initial call for evidence in May, Defra issued three new general licences (GL34, GL35 and GL36) on 14 June which are valid until 29 February 2020, pending its review of longer-term licensing arrangements.
This survey, which runs until 5 December, is being carried out by Defra in partnership with Natural England to gather evidence on the control required under general licence, and asks for specific details to inform the future licensing system. All the information submitted will be considered alongside the evidence received during Defra’s previous consultation in May.
Alongside the survey, Defra and Natural England will be conducting a series of workshops with interested groups in the autumn, covering particular topics such as activity on protected sites.
Defra Secretary of State Theresa Villiers said:
“I completely understand the scale of interest in this important issue and the real concern of users who need to have confidence in the licensing system.
“I want to encourage users and other interested parties to take part in the process. This will help us ensure our licences strike the right balance between the protection of wild birds and the important actions users need to take to protect livestock or crops, and for conservation purposes.”
What information does the Defra survey ask for?
The survey is split into six sections.
Purpose ‘to conserve wild birds and to conserve flora and fauna’
This section asks you to identify which wild bird species you consider need to be controlled for the conservation of other wild birds, other animals or plants, and to provide evidence to support your view.
Purpose ‘to preserve public health or public safety’
This section asks you to identify which wild bird species you consider need to be controlled to preserve public health and safety and to provide evidence to support your view.
Purpose ‘to prevent serious damage to livestock, foodstuffs for livestock, crops, vegetables, fruit, growing timber, fisheries or inland waters’
This section asks you to identify which wild bird species you consider need to be controlled to prevent damage to livestock and crops, and and to provide evidence to support your view.
Alternatives to lethal control
In this section, you will be asked about alternative measures you have used, or know about, to killing or taking wild birds under a general licence. It also asks for evidence you have about how well these alternative measures work.
In this section, you will be asked if you keep records when acting under any of the three licensing purposes above.
Your views on the role of general licences to manage wild birds
In this section, you can provide your views on any issues not covered in the rest of the survey in relation to the current general licensing system and what you consider to be the key issues in relation to the general licensing of wild birds, and the way the system of general licensing operates.
What work is the NFU doing on behalf of members?
The NFU submitted a comprehensive response to Defra’s initial call for evidence about the impact of Natural England’s decision to revoke three general licences, pulling together input from hundreds of its members.
It will also be responding to Defra's latest call for evidence. The NFU recommends that the new licencing system should be designed in line with five key principles.
Straightforward: It is vital that general licences are sufficiently certain, clear and unambiguous given that non-compliance may lead to a criminal prosecution.
Practical: Licences must be designed to work practically on the ground and pragmatically with a farm business.
Transferable: Licences must be able to be used effectively by land owner, land manager, tenant or pest controller. NFU members continue to report that the authorisation required is not sufficiently clear.
Evidence: There must be clarity on the record keeping requirements for farmers to demonstrate serious damage and of the non-lethal methods being used.
Species: Each general licence should allow control of a range of species to prevent serious damage or disease. A species by species approach can be very difficult to implement on the ground.
Read more about the NFU's work to date on bird licences:
More on this topic:
A guide to identifying corvids
This short video from the British Trust for Ornithology provides useful assistance in identifying crows, rooks and ravens, along with their smaller cousins, jackdaw and chough.
If you're using gas guns as a deterrent to help control and limit the damage caused by birds, here's a guide to using them responsibly to avoid noise complaints from neighbours.
The NFU code is often used by local authorities as a source reference for their guides on the use of gas guns. By adhering to it, you can reduce complaints of nuisance from the public and limit avoid any enforcement action by local councils.
Some simple steps to help make gas guns more effective and to limit any disturbance include:
- Thinking about location – place guns as far away as practicable from neighbours, point them away from neighbours and use baffles.
- Thinking about timing – avoid using them before 7am or after 10pm – and alter timings to take account of seasonal changes. As a general rule never use before sunrise or after sunset.
- Avoiding use on Sundays.
- Checking timers work and are set correctly. If using a photoelectric cell check that it is clean and preferably have a mechanical timer as well as a backup.
- Ensuring that your neighbours know who to contact if the gun develops a fault so that it can be put right.