Bird control licences: Advice for members

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New general licences for the control of wild birds come into force on 1 January 2021.

General licences in England are currently issued by Defra. There are differences in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. There is no need to apply for general licences, but anyone controlling pest bird species under general licences in England is required by law to abide by the terms and conditions of the licence.

The main licence relevant to farming is GL42: “the general licence to kill or take certain species of wild birds to prevent serious damage”. GL42 is valid from 1 January 2021 to 31 December 2021.

GL42 allows an authorised person (the owner or occupier of the land, or any person authorised by them) to kill the wild bird or damage or destroy nests or eggs for the purposes of preventing serious damage.

The general licences require “reasonable endeavours must continue to be made to achieve the purpose in question using lawful methods” (ie. wherever possible non-lethal methods of control should be attempted). Defra advises users to keep a record of problems and the use of other lawful methods.

The general licence clearly defines the birds that can be controlled for certain purposes. Under GL42 these are:

  • Direct attacks on livestock: carrion crow, jackdaw, magpie, rook
  • Serious damage to livestock foodstuffs: carrion crow, feral pigeon, jackdaw, rook, wood pigeon
  • Serious damage to crops, fruit and vegetables: Canada goose, carrion crow, Egyptian goose, feral pigeon, jackdaw, Indian house crow, monk parakeet, ring-necked parakeet, rook, wood pigeon.

Methods that can be used under this licence include destroying eggs and nests, shooting with a firearm or using a cage trap (for the latter you must comply with GL33 "Trapping wild birds: standard licence conditions").

There are also new conditions on how the licences can be used on and around protected sites.

As in the previous system, users will need to ensure they have the appropriate consent from Natural England for activities that may cause damage to protected features on Sites of Special Scientific Interest.

Where species can no longer be controlled under the general licence for certain purposes, an individual licence will be needed from Natural England. These species have been removed because of lack of evidence of widespread need and so an individual licence application will require specific evidence of need, proportionality and whether alternatives have been considered.

As well as GL42, there are two other general licences: GL40 “licence to kill or take for conservation purposes” and GL41 “licence to kill or take for public health or safety”.

The three new general licences are:

To comply with conditions of the licence, you must follow the standard licence conditions in WML-GL33. GL33 also provides advice on trapping and the use of decoy birds.

Click here to visit the Gov.uk website for more information on both general and individual licences and the circumstances in which they may be used.

Vice President Stuart Roberts_69979

NFU Deputy President Stuart Roberts said:

“We have been clear that the new general licences regime must be a straightforward system that enables farmers to control a range of species in order to prevent serious damage to livestock or crops.

“It’s encouraging that Defra has taken this on board and the new licences appear to fit within these principles. This early publication, two months before they come into force, will give farmers much-needed clarity and time to familiarise themselves with the new licences.”

What has the NFU been doing?

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. Following that there were a series of consultations and draft licences, and responsibility for this passed to Defra.

During this period, the NFU engaged with Defra & NE to ensure new GLs were fit for farming. The NFU submitted a comprehensive response to Defra’s Call for Evidence on 14 May 2019.

In December 2019, the NFU submitted evidence to Defra's consultation on the future of GLs. 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. 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.

The NFU recommended 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 landowner, 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.

Control of stoats

Natural England introduced a new general licence for control of stoat on 1 April 2020. It is no longer lawful to use certain types of traps and stoats may only be caught in spring traps or live traps listed in the new general licence.

The licence to trap stoats to prevent serious damage to livestock (GL39) can only be used to prevent serious damage to the following types of livestock when they are vulnerable to stoat predation:

  • domestic poultry and waterfowl,
  • gamebirds and wildfowl while they are held captive within a fenced pen, and
  • rabbits farmed for the provision of food.

The licence to trap stoats to conserve wild birds (GL38) is here. Defra has produced more guidance about the licences.

See also: Changes to the control of stoats come into force.

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.”

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.”

Read more about the NFU's work on bird licences:

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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: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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

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