Defra has forced a shooting licence U-Turn after taking over from Natural England following a fiasco in which farmers were banned from protecting their land from pests.
Earlier this year, Natural England revoked three general licences which let farmers and conservationists shoot “pest” birds on a list of 16 including crows, magpies and pigeons after a legal challenge from BBC presenter Chris Packham’s campaign group Wild Justice.
This caused outrage and chaos in the countryside, as pigeons were able to decimate spring crops and crows could peck the eyes of lambs unchallenged.
Natural England then began to issue some shooting licences – but these were allocated slowly on a bird-by-bird basis and conservationists argued the licences were too stringent and not fit for purpose.
After widespread anger from the farming community, environment secretary Michael Gove took control from Natural England and started a consultation into the licences.
A month later, he has reinstated three licences almost identical to the original but with a new stipulation that they do not apply in certain protection zones.
Individual bird licences must be sought in these few cases.
Many have said that the licensing fiasco wasted the time of farmers and caused chaos for no reason. Tim Bonner, the chief executive of the Countryside Alliance, said: “The terms of the new general licences are almost identical to those revoked in April.
“The Wild Justice Judicial Review has therefore achieved absolutely nothing other than to remove protection from livestock, nesting birds & other wildlife during the most vulnerable period of the year”.
He added: “Whilst we remain very concerned about the initial decision by Natural England to revoke the general licences we are grateful for the Secretary of State’s intervention.
“Since Defra has taken back control of the licences we have seen significant progress and for most people managing most species the situation is now back as it was.
The discussion does not, however, stop here and we will seek to resolve the outstanding issues as part of the planned consultation later this year.”
Game Farmers’ Association chairman Dominic Boulton said: ”This is good news.
Our members will now be able to get back to business and control problem birds as before. Livelihoods had been threatened by NE’s revocations but the situation is now much improved.”
Defra has revealed that its call for evidence found that farmers and conservationists faced widespread issues while the general licences were revoked. Over 4,000 stakeholders responded to the survey.
The problems faced included crow attacks on lambs and ewes during lambing, the risk of predation for eggs and fledglings of birds of conservation concern, and public health issues caused by pigeons in urban areas.
A spokesperson said the full report with a response from the government will be issued shortly.
Environment Secretary Michael Gove said: “I recognise the scale of interest and concern that was generated by Natural England’s decision to revoke three general licences and I am grateful to those thousands of individuals and groups who shared their experiences in responding to the call for evidence.
“The three new general licences announced today seek to minimise some of the negative impacts that the withdrawal of the previous licences had.
But this is a temporary way forward and does not cover European protected sites, where the law is more complicated and we continue to engage with stakeholders.
“We will shortly set out details of a wider review of general licences, to provide a long term licensing solution which balances the needs of users and wildlife.”