Bird control licences: Advice for members

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On 12 February 2020, Defra announced that six general licences for the control of wild birds will be reissued on a temporary basis ahead of new licences coming into force on 1 August 2020. The licences will be reissued from 1 March to 31 July.

No action is required by licence users beyond the ongoing requirement to act in accordance with the licence conditions. Defra intends to publish new licences in early July to allow users to become acquainted with the changes before they officially come into force on 1 August.

The six general licences are:

  • GL26 Carrion crows: licence to kill or take them to prevent serious damage to livestock
  • GL28 Canada geese: licence to kill or take them for public health and safety
  • GL31 Woodpigeons: licence to kill or take them to prevent serious damage to crops
  • GL34 Licence to kill or take wild birds to conserve wild birds and to conserve flora and fauna
  • GL35 Licence to kill or take wild birds to preserve public health or public safety
  • GL36 Licence to kill or take wild birds to prevent serious damage to livestock, foodstuffs for livestock, crops, vegetables, fruit, growing timber, fisheries or inland waters

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.

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NFU Deputy President Guy Smith said:

"This extension will come as a relief to farmers who now have certainty that they will be able to control pest birds, such as carrion crows and woodpigeons, during such an important period. The next few months will see young, vulnerable livestock in fields and crops emerging so it is crucial these general licences were extended.

“The NFU believes that Defra should introduce a new general licences regime that is fit for purpose, more transparent and accessible for farmers. We do not believe that Defra should introduce individual licences that replace the current arrangements. In our view, this would result in the creation of an overly complex system which would not deliver the necessary level of protection for farm animals and crops.

“General licences are vital for farmers and we are still waiting for clarity from Defra as to what the new licences will look like after July.”

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:

Latest updates, advice and NFU activity:

January 2020: Changes to licences for the lethal control of herring gulls and lesser black-backed gulls 

On 30 January, Natural England published changes to licences for the lethal control of herring gulls and lesser black-backed gulls in England. In rural areas, where populations overall are known to be in decline, Natural England will set upper ‘safe’ number of birds that could be killed. Upper ‘safe’ levels have not been identified for lethal control in urban populations of gulls, as these are faring better.

What do I need to do?

Natural England has issued a class licence to permit any wild bird control necessary to preserve air safety which covers herring gulls and lesser black-backed gulls.

Beyond this, Natural England will license gull control through individual licences. Natural England will consider the strength of need in each licence application individually. Any control undertaken for purposes such as preventing serious damage and conserving wild birds and flora or fauna will need to be targeted.

If you need to carry out licensed activities you need to submit individual licence applications in February and March in preparation for the bird breeding season. This period will enable Natural England to assess the cumulative scale of control across the applications submitted and take this into account in prioritising the licences to be granted. Natural England will continue to accept licence applications outside this period and will issue licences where there is an imperative need.

Click here to go to the Gov.uk website for an application form and further guidance on how to apply for a licence.

Natural England has also published a Q&A for licence users and applicants - click here to download it from the Natural England website.

Applications that have already been made will still be considered by Natural England. In these cases, Natural England will contact applicants if any further information is required in order for Natural England to assess the application.

December 2019

In December 2019, 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.


 

General licences and European protected sites

Current general licences do not apply to European protected sites, or to land within 300 metres of those sites. 

If you need to carry out control in or near protected sites you should apply for an individual licence. 

If you have a licence that has expired, or is due to expire, you will need to apply now to retain control in March. This process can take up to 30 days. 

An individual licence is also required for control of any bird species not on the general licence list (including herring gulls and lesser black backed gulls).

Visit gov.uk for details on how to apply for an individual licence. 

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.”

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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). It subsequently issued three licences (GL26, GL28 and GL31) to cover some of the species and purposes covered by the original licences that were revoked. 

Then, following an initial call for evidence in May 2019, Defra issued three interim general licences (GL34, GL35 and GL36) on 14 June which were valid until 29 February 2020, pending its review of longer-term licensing arrangements.

The Natural England licences (GL26, GL28 and GL31) remain in place, because they allow for specified activity on European protected sites which are not covered by Defra’s licences.

A Defra online survey to gather key information from stakeholders closed on 5 December 2019, receiving more than 4,400 responses from organisations, licence users and other stakeholders, including a response from the NFU on behalf of members. A series of consultation workshops with stakeholders were also held.

What information did the Defra survey ask for?

The survey was split into six sections. 

Purpose ‘to conserve wild birds and to conserve flora and fauna’

This section asked people to identify which wild bird species they consider need to be controlled for the conservation of other wild birds, other animals or plants, and to provide evidence to support their view.

Purpose ‘to preserve public health or public safety’

This section asked people to identify which wild bird species they consider need to be controlled to preserve public health and safety and to provide evidence to support their view.

Purpose ‘to prevent serious damage to livestock, foodstuffs for livestock, crops, vegetables, fruit, growing timber, fisheries or inland waters’

This section asked people to identify which wild bird species they consider need to be controlled to prevent damage to livestock and crops, and to provide evidence to support their view.

Alternatives to lethal control

This section asked about alternative measures used and asked for evidence of how well these alternative measures work.

Record keeping

In this section, respondents were asked if they kept 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, respondents were asked to provide their views on any issues not covered in the rest of the survey in relation to the current general licensing system and what they 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 also responded to Defra's wider consultation in December 2019, including evidence gathered through an NFU member survey. 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 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:

Individual licences:

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: 13:02:2020

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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: 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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