A Licence to kill

[singlepic id=294 w=320 h=240 float=left]Shame has now landed at the doorstep of Natural England, the Government’s statutory wildlife protection agency. Instead of protecting England’s wildlife heritage as they were set up to do, Natural England have used their statutory  powers instead to protect the interests of shooting estate landowners and an alien game species by permitting the legal destruction of  the eggs and nests of buzzards to support a pheasant shoot, according to documents released under the Freedom of Information Act. Why Natural England needed to issue a licence is curious, why not simply take a gun and  follow in the footsteps of gamekeepers and do the job properly? It is indeed a sad day for England’s wildlife heritage when a statutory government organisation tasked with protecting wildlife in England finds it necessary to make a criminal act legal just to satisfy the sporting interests of game shooting. Natural England have now lost ALL credibility by tying their true colours to the mast, if they had any decency those involved with this shady deed should pack their bags and join the National Association of Gamekeepers where they clearly belong.

The action sets a historic precedent, being the first time such action has been licensed against any bird of prey to protect game shoots since raptors gained legal protection decades ago. Buzzards are recovering from near extinction and now number 40,000 breeding pairs, while 35m pheasants are bred each year for shoots.

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It is also less than a year after the wildlife minister, Richard Benyon, abandoned related plans citing “public concerns”. Benyon, whose family estate in Berkshire runs shoots, cancelled plans to spend £375,000 on testing control measures for buzzards around pheasant shoots after a public outcry in May 2012. “I will collaborate with all the organisations that have an interest in this issue and will bring forward new proposals,” he said at the time.

The destruction of the nests, which took place in the last few weeks, was only revealed after the event through a freedom of information request by the RSPB.

“We were proceeding collaboratively and that is why we are so angry now,” said Martin Harper, the RSPB’s conservation director. “Most people would prefer to see buzzards soaring in the sky. They are big, majestic creatures in the wild and we don’t have many of them in the UK: they are England’s eagle. The fact the licence process takes place without public scrutiny is wrong.”The licences were issued by the government’s licensing body, Natural England (NE) and permitted destruction of up to four nests and the eggs they held. “The law allows action to be taken against protected species to protect livestock, which includes any animal kept for the provision or improvement of shooting,” said a spokesman for NE. “We rigorously assessed the application [and] were satisfied the case met the criteria.”

The locations of the destroyed nests were not made public. NE stated the issue was “emotive and sensitive” and cited “public safety”. NE issued the licences despite its own expert reviewer stating: “There is no body of published evidence demonstrating that the presence of buzzards is likely to result in serious damage to a game shoot.” A related application to kill sparrowhawks was rejected.

The National Gamekeepers Organisation (NGO) was closely involved in winning the licences and had threatened NE with judicial review if they were not granted. “We believe the long-standing licensing process was correctly used in this case,” said a spokesman. “A few buzzards had been consistently killing a large number of pheasants. Most birds of prey are now at or near record levels in the UK, so conflicts with game management and farming are bound to occur from time to time.”

Pheasants are not native to the UK and were introduced to stock shoots, but the biomass of the population makes it now the single biggest bird species in the countryside. The growing popularity of shoots in the Victorian era saw buzzards poisoned, shot and trapped until just 1,000 pairs were left, but protection in recent decades has led to a partial recovery.

Jeff Knott, the RSPB’s bird of prey expert, said: “The buzzard has full legal protection, so why are we undermining this when all the available evidence shows they are not a significant source of loss of pheasant chicks.” An independent study commissioned by the British Association for Shooting and Conservation found that, on average, 1-2% of pheasant poults released were taken by all birds of prey, Knott said, adding that a third of all pheasants are killed on the roads. The NGO spokesman said the buzzard control project was cancelled last year after the RSPB’s campaign would have provided evidence of predation: “They can’t have it both ways.”

A spokeswoman for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said: “After a thorough assessment, Natural England granted a licence for the removal of a small number of buzzard nests. Buzzard populations are thriving in the UK and this licensed action had no effect on their population.”

Labour’s environment secretary, Mary Creagh, said buzzards had recovered under the previous government: “This latest revelation blasts a hole in ministers’ empty words about protecting Britain’s iconic native species. It is astounding the government has granted licences after ministers were forced to U-turn last year.” She also criticised Benyon: “Who exactly do ministers think they are there to serve? ”

A key criterion for the granting of the licences was that all non-lethal control methods, such as creating places for pheasants to hide and diverting buzzards away by leaving food out, had been unsuccessfully tried. But the NE expert who reviewed the application reported: “Overall, there is a pattern of [non-lethal] methods being employed inconsistently.” The reviewer also noted that “the efficacy of [nest and egg destruction] is untested”. Harper said the RSPB was considering its legal options.

The government has previously been criticised for favouring grouse shooting in the Pennines, after NE abandoned plans to ban the burning of peat land on a grouse moor and withdrew from a related legal action against the Walshaw Moor estate.

28 comments to A Licence to kill

  • skydancer

    So Natural England grant licences to kill Buzzards and take away the licences of the North West Raptor Group to protect birds of prey in Bowland , it says everything about this government quango which says on their website, they safeguard englands natural wealth for the benefit of everyone, all they are here to serve is rich landowners.

  • john miles

    Hats off to the person who leaked the info to the RSPB. At least one of the Natural England staff can justify their job! keep ‘rocking the boat’ we will soon have these fascists out of a job.

  • David Le Mesurier

    Why allow them to destroy the eggs, why could they not have been taken and hatched in an incubator and the young then hacked back somewhere else, or used for falconry.

  • che

    Hence the disappearance of the Hen Harrier and the dramatic decline of the Peregrine Falcon from all the Bowland estates.And also the cleansing of the Eagle Owls.

  • tweedler

    Just reading this posting and i find the comment made by the Natural England spokesman very concerning, this is what he says, “the law allows action to be taken against protected species to protect livestock, which includes any animal kept for the provision or improvement of shooting”.
    Does this answer the question of what has happened to Hen Harriers and Peregrines on the Bowland estates, have licences been issued to gamekeepers employed there to remove eggs from nests and destroy nests,so to protect the livestock for shooting.

    • bubo bubo

      Very concerning indeed tweedler,and even more concerning is the fact that NE was threatened by the Gamekeepers Organisation, have they threatened them about birds of prey in Bowland?, as Mr Knott from the RSPB says a third of pheasants are killed on roads by motorists, does this mean NE will be granting licences to eradicate motorists to protect the provision or improvement of shooting .

    • David Le Mesurier

      I did not think pheasants were classed as livestock in law ? Editor’s comment. You are correct, they are not.

      • David Le Mesurier

        On what grounds then can they issue the licence since the law allows for a licence to be issued to protect livestock and if a pheasant, once it is released, is not classed as livestock then there is no case in law to allow for the licence to be issued is there ?,

  • RobM

    Skydancer is absolutely right the NE in the summing up of the NE, it comes under the jurisdiction of one Richard Benyon MP who last year wanted to cull Buzzards and whose family just happen to have an estate which runs shoots the only thing that prevented this was the massive public outcry.
    Last night he Benyon was at the launch of a document produced by a host of conservation organisations which highlights the crisis our flora and fauna are facing I wonder if anyone like me has seen the speech he made full of the usual insincere ministerial bullshit. Not a man with a sincere bone in his body as far as I’m concerned and certainly not a man to trust.

  • harrier man

    Absolutely shocking and disgraceful situation it really makes my blood boil to here this what a mockery this organistaion is.

  • nirofo

    For those who do not know about it already, there is now an on-line petition on buzzard licensing running and being circulated among the Scottish Raptor Study Groups members. The link is

  • che

    New e-petition: licensing of upland grouse moors and gamekeepers
    Tired of waiting for the grouse-shooting industry to get its house in order? Frustrated that the government isn’t doing enough to address the widespread problem of raptor persecution? Well here’s y…

  • skydancer

    If the RSPB have any credibility left regarding birds of prey ,they will stand up to NE on this one and condemn this very loudly not just a few weasel words and then hope it goes away.

  • che

    Skydancer…. They safeguard Englands natural wealth (The Rich) say’s it all.

  • john miles

    If these pheasants are ‘livestock’ you should phone the police as soon as you see a pheasant on the road! Like wise if you hit a pheasant on the road you can sue the owner of that pheasant. You can not have pheasants as livestock as they are in a pen and as soon as they are released they become wild birds!!

  • Falcoscot

    Until we get a fair legal system in this country it’s almost impossible for the average person to take on government over issues like this, it’s only NGO’s like the RSPB who have the money to take on something like this in the courts.
    I’m not anti commercial shooting but I am anti raptor persecution, for any reason, I’m just amazed in this day and age that game farming/shooting has such an easy life when it comes to releasing thousands of farm reared birds into the countryside with virtually no health assessment at all and no accountability as to where birds are reared and where they are released. Farmers have to account for movement of cattle and sheep, and even horses have passports these days, why does the game farming/shooting industry have it so easy ?

    • nirofo

      “why does the game farming/shooting industry have it so easy ?”

      Easy one to answer, most of them are not only land/estate owners, or members of shooting syndicates, they are also ministers in government, Judges, Sheriffs, barristers, chief constables etc. What hope for the Raptors with that lot running the roost.

  • Teri Browett

    I just emailed Richard Benyon re this issue and this is the reply I got!

    Your email has been sent to Richard Benyon’s constituency email address but this relates to his Ministerial role. Please resend to defra.helpline@defra.gsi.gov.uk . Your email will not be read or responded to on this email account.

    These people have forgotten they are public servants

  • tweedler

    Natural England should have been put on the so called bonfire of the quangos, which never seemed to happen, so they are looking after the landowners which happen to be MPs top civil servants etc, to try and keep their jobs, and they dont care what us the tax paying public think, we only pay their wages after all.

  • harrier man

    As John Miles stressed if you hit a pheasant you can sue the landowner, especially as a hit can cause serious damage to your vehicle.

  • Another shocking example of the current government’s support for the shooting lobby…

  • Roderick Leslie

    Whilst I don’t think Natural England have covered themselves in glory, it is inconceivable that this was an entirely independent decision on their part – we already know the Minister’s leanings from Buzzardgate and after that debacle no civil servant would have gone ahead with this without a nod and a wink.

    This Government (and the SNP in Scotland) have done everything they can to shut the experts out of the public eye. It backfired quite spectacularly over the forest sales fiasco when Ministers shut the Forestry Commission out of developing the policy, resulting in the shadow minister being better briefed (above board, by the forestry unions) than the secretary of state.

    The level of dishonesty involved in this after Buzzardgate is mind boggling. But who will lose in the end ? Almost certainly the shooting industry who, like the conservative party, have forgotten that politics is about winning over the middle ground. This is the sort of thing that will push well informed people from a neutral to antagonistic position – and all over less than 10 Buzzards. Quite an irony when as far as I can work out the likeliest reason for Buzzards being the species that has extended its range most between BTO atlases is reduced persecution. When are the people who don’t illegally kill raptors on their shooting estates going to stand up to the minority who are undermining their sport, their businesses and their reputations ?

  • Jimmy


    Interesting comments from the gamekeeper in question about wildlife crime – or was it a slip of the tongue??

  • This is a lot of talk and I agree that raptor killing should not be licensed nor condoned for any reason. However, posting messages etc. online will not have any influence on policy or the habits of gamekeepers. Is there anything to DO? I would be willing to sign a petition if there was one that I could access. I am not against shooting as such, but I do think there is a lot of dodgy business that goes on.
    PS. Please would someone send me surplus dead pheasants, (legally shot, of course) or supply institutions etc. with free meat. I am quite partial to game as long as it does not come with a Kill-Wildlife-Tag and, whatever They say, landfill gets more than its fair share.