Bird control licences: Advice for members

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The NFU's in-house survey collecting evidence from members to inform Defra's review of general licences to manage wild birds in England has now closed.

The NFU will use this evidence to submit a response to Defra's review.

You can still respond directly to Defra, by completing its online survey before 5 December.

I responded on this issue in May - do I need to respond again?

Defra's current call for evidence is looking for detailed information. If you have examples that you did not previously supply, you should do so now to ensure that Defra receives your evidence.

If possible, you should submit evidence of:

  • Which corvid species cause damage – i.e. is it crow, rook, magpie, jay?
  • The extent of the damage – i.e. number of lambs maimed or killed, amount of crop damage etc.
  • The cost of damage – in pounds, emotional damage, impact on business.
  • The effectiveness of non-lethal controls – do they work? What are the limitations?

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:

Guy Smith_64958

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

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Angela Sargent, Derbyshire

NFU member Angela Sargent grows corn and keeps livestock on her mixed farm in Derbyshire.

She said:

"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.

He said:

“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_62087

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.

He said:

“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.

Record keeping

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.

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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:

Some of this information is accessible to NFU members only and you will be asked to log in.

How to log in: Use your membership number or the email address associated with your membership to log in. If you've forgotten your password, you can click here to reset it or contact NFU CallFirst on 0370 845 8458.

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.

Bird scarers

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.

Download the NFU Bird Scarers Code of Practice.

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.

Last edited on: 26:09:2019

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NFU members: Have your say

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  • Posted by: Richard AndrewsPosted on: 24/04/2019 17:13:14

    Comment: Ridiculous. What is the world coming to. We grow peas and at this time of year pigeons can be a real pest.
  • Posted by: Henry CollinsPosted on: 25/04/2019 10:41:49

    Comment: Crazy that Wild Justice have managed to force NE to withdraw these general licences. Doesn't Chris Packham and co realise the harm that carrion crows et al do to ground nesting birds or how quickly a flock of pigeons can decimate emerging peas? I hope the large volume of licence applications from farmers can be processed speedily.
  • Posted by: Charles HardingPosted on: 25/04/2019 12:37:15

    Comment: Last year whilst looking round the sheep at lambing 3 carrion crows were pecking at a newborn lamb. After chasing them off I discovered they had pecked all around its navel and pulled its intestines out. I had to shoot the lamb. I will find it difficult not to kill a crow if I find the same happening again. We often find them with pecked eyes and a skinned tail. Should we tolerate this?
  • Posted by: Ian StewartPosted on: 25/04/2019 12:40:45

    Comment: More than ridiculous - totally absurd. Did pigeons become an Endangered Species when I wasn't looking? You can't spray, you can't use bangers (if too close to houses) and now you can't shoot this massively overabundant pest . What do they want us to do? Get kids to wave flags? (HSE Regs would kill that one.) And just remembered, this is the 21st Century and am fresh out of peasants. A Justifiably Grumpy Farmer.
  • Posted by: Anthony WooldridgePosted on: 25/04/2019 13:01:44

    Comment: Is the licence required per farm, per farmer or per shooter?
  • Posted by: Jeremy ChamberlaynePosted on: 25/04/2019 13:16:33

    Comment: I think Guy Smith missed an opportunity to say how concerned the NFU is about the damage that vermin and predators inflict on many endangered species of wildlife, which our members are always striving to conserve.
  • Posted by: VIVIAN STEERPosted on: 25/04/2019 13:23:41

    Comment: What I find amassing is the fact that none of these species are endangered but the small birds and mammals that they feed on are.Then there is the impact on food production and the safety of the food. Nature and the countryside is effected by man and this is another example of that influence being done by the wrong man in an office who does not see the results of their decision
  • Posted by: Ian GrantPosted on: 25/04/2019 14:00:22

    Comment: What is the point in countryside stewardship taking land out of production with the formation of scrapes for lapwing production for natural England to stop trapping corvids and magpies that will eat the chicks at this time of year.Packham and Avery want their heads testing.
  • Posted by: susan wardPosted on: 25/04/2019 14:28:39

    Comment: how come the NFU have allowed this to happen without anyone knowing? And more importantly what are the NFU doing about it?
  • Posted by: Gordon NechvatalPosted on: 25/04/2019 14:48:44

    Comment: In all this mess, what is the situation in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland? I do not see any information on this topic in the Q&A the NFU has posted
  • Posted by: Robert LewisPosted on: 25/04/2019 16:15:08

    Comment: The NFU appear to be coming from behind on this issue.The organisation should have been aware of the proposed change to legislation,alerted the membership and lobbied more effectively.A disappointing result,very weak.
  • Posted by: Tom ManningPosted on: 25/04/2019 19:36:02

    Comment: This really shows how the future of farming is going to look. With the revocation of essential chemicals, the vegan lobby, and the focus on 'public goods' and the environmental vocal groups having priority in the media and government. Things are changing fast. The NFU run the risk of becoming irrelevant even if they think that anyone in Westminster listens to them.
  • Posted by: Georgina LeylandPosted on: 25/04/2019 22:10:43

    Comment: This is the most ridiculous thing ever thought up. Clearly those concocting these rules and regulations know nothing of farming, and probably live in the town with a park and a few sweet pigeons coo-ing about. I suggest Chris Packham and his tree huggers should go and look at a field of rape decimated by pigeons, lambs like ours with their eyes pecked out or navels pulled out by crows, or the carcasses of lambs left behind by badgers, for that matter. He clearly has no knowledge of real life on a farm. There will be many many people in total disbelief to read this, and no, it is not April 1st. This absurdity should be revoked immediately.
  • Posted by: Harold MartinPosted on: 26/04/2019 12:23:16

    Comment: How ridiculous, Chris Packham as no grip on reality, if we don't control the Magpies on my farm we will have no small birds left and the farmer will be blamed for their loss.
  • Posted by: NFU web teamPosted on: 26/04/2019 16:13:10

    Comment: The NFU was in immediate contact with Natural England as soon it became clear this week that licences were to be revoked. You can find the NFU's activity on this topic here: https://www.nfuonline.com/news/latest-news/nfu-activity-on-natural-england-decision-to-revoke-general-licences/
  • Posted by: Andrew ChessonPosted on: 27/04/2019 10:47:23

    Comment: Hang on chaps - according to the briefing notes there will be new general licences issued but presumably they will include a requirement to investigate non-lethal options first, which is not unreasonable. I have emailed Wild Justice to establish exactly what their views are but we should be trying to engage rather than assuming they are out to get us, and whoever hung dead crows outside Chris Packham's house should be ashamed of themselves.
  • Posted by: Charles AveryPosted on: 30/04/2019 11:08:59

    Comment: In any other Industry there would be a consultation period before any changes are made. The Unions and those affected would be asked for their input? Scientific studies would have been carried out and taken into account. Does this reflect on how the Government, DEFRA and Natural England respect the farming industry and the NFU in particular? You would think that the NFU should have known about this?
  • Posted by: Charles AveryPosted on: 30/04/2019 12:48:25

    Comment: Further to my recent comment, it would appear that we should move our farms to Scotland. Then we might keep our licences, get free care for the elderly, free university tuition, free prescriptions, free hospital parking etc etc.
  • Posted by: Charles AveryPosted on: 02/05/2019 09:58:44

    Comment: No comments for two days? What is happening?
  • Posted by: victor trumanRPosted on: 07/05/2019 16:51:52

    Comment: Rooks Wood Pidgeons & Crows Magpies rare all vermin & cause serious damage to crops, young livestock and small Birds why would anyone with any sense wish to protect these species that will take out all what we have tried to protect all my life
  • Posted by: Peter GaddPosted on: 08/05/2019 08:57:56

    Comment: Please see below a copy of my response.
    Please encourage others to put their thoughts to Defra ASAP.
    Rt. Hon. Michael Gove,
    Secretary of State,
    Defra,
    London.

    Dear Michael Gove,
    I write in response to your call for evidence relating to the revocation by Natural England of general licences GL04, GL05, and GL06.
    I write as an individual and as a working farmer with the need to protect crops and vulnerable bird species from predator bird species.
    Initially I want to say that being aware of the potential legal challenge by Wild Justice myself, some 6 weeks or so prior to the revocation of the licenses at 36 hours notice, I feel that, notwithstanding the legal counsel opinion given to Natural England, the decision was flawed from the start.
    Natural England should have either gone direct, or via Defra; to the Government’s legal officials and explained the position and their concerns. Maybe then, licences could have been retained whilst advisory minor changes were made with thoughtful consideration.
    Given the situation, Natural England should have been given time to fully consult with stakeholders at length rather than have a knee-jerk revocation.
    As Natural England had known about the potential of a challenge some weeks prior, why had they not started consulting much earlier with key stakeholders to off-set some of the chaos that has recently ensued?
    It appears that there has been a complete lack of appreciation of the seriousness of the issue at the early stage inside Natural England, and a failure to address the need for being prepared in the eventuality of having to revoke licences at short notice. This has been proved in recent days obviously.
    I wonder if you consider the staff at Natural England sufficiently competent to deal with these issues, because it is becoming abundantly clear in my mind they are not!
    One only need to read the advice on scaring and deterrents in the new woodpigeon GL31 licence to get the impression that staff are wholly inept and lack understanding of the realities out in the field.
    To s
  • Posted by: Peter RivettPosted on: 09/05/2019 17:57:52

    Comment: Natural England have too much power, the licence application form is like a criminal interrogation and questions our integrity and judgement to act sensibly and effectively in protecting our crops and livestock, conscientious gamekeepers have had their jobs and tools of their trade neutered and outlawed by this Quango board of Muppets who cream off millions from our BPS payments every year

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