Act now to save general licences

If you haven’t got the time to read this article in full, here is the short version: before you do anything else, grab your phone and send an email to wildlife.consultation@naturalengland.org.uk stating that you are a gamekeeper, that the General Licences are vital to your work, and that you support the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation’s position on the subject of the consultation regarding those same Licences. Done that? Great, now you can get out and feed your birds.

Still reading? Good. Settle down with a nice cup of tea and I’ll explain. As a gamekeeper, you’ll know that the General Licences are all that stands between us and a plague of crows, magpies, woodpigeons and what-have-you devastating our crops, songbirds, wild game and anything else they fix their beady eyes on.

How we arrived at this point is a long and convoluted story which involves campaigning bird preservationists, weaselly European politicians and bumbling British lawmakers. But here we are, tied up in a bird’s nest of red tape that says every bird is protected unless it’s not, and we can only control corvids and pigeons under the terms of the General Licences.

That means, for instance, that you mustn’t shoot our most sporting quarry, the woodpigeon, for sport. So for goodness’ sake wipe that smile off your face when you’re having a good day’s decoying. You’ll need to wear a gritty expression of grim determination, so any antis watching can see that you’re regrettably doing a tiresome job of pest control and not enjoying it one bit.

Likewise, we all need to make sure we are complying with the relevant General Licence when we operate a ladder trap or Larsen trap, shoot out a crow’s nest, or any one of the other chores that are part and parcel of the gamekeeper’s everyday life, and a vital part of maintaining a healthy balance in the countryside.

Of course it’s important that we adhere to the law. Even if we don’t like it, it’s the law, full stop. But the General Licences come up for renewal each year, giving Natural England (or their equivalents in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) the irresistible opportunity to tinker with them – and providing a chance for meddling anti-shooting organisations like the RSPB to campaign for changes.

And boy do they try. Every year the RSPB writes a long and devious argument to NE suggesting that this or that bird should be taken off the General Licence, that there should be more stringent controls on when and how pests can be killed, and that we should have to send in detailed returns to NE listing exactly how many pigeons, crows, rooks and magpies we have shot.

In past years we have had the odd nasty surprise when the General Licences were renewed, with a sneaky change to the wording slipped in at the last minute. Shooting and gamekeeping organisations have argued, quite rightly, that if changes are contemplated then there should be a proper consultation, with time for shooters to respond and for NE to consider their feedback properly.

The phrase ‘Be careful what you wish for’ springs to mind – because that’s exactly what NE have done. We have until 19 May to provide our responses to the consultation, giving NE plenty of time to consider everyone’s views before making what could be some sweeping changes to the General Licences for 2015.

What’s more, they’ve come up with their own set of proposals for how the new General Licences might look in future. Their proposals have a distinct whiff of lentil-munching about them. Some of the ideas are perfectly sensible, such as permitting the control of greylag geese to protect crops. But there’s a whole raft of proposals that are downright stupid – changes that would hamper the work of gamekeepers across the country as they go about their daily wildlife and conservation management.

Make no mistake, this could be disastrous for gamekeeping, not to mention the potential harm to farming, songbirds and the countryside in general. The most notorious proposal is the requirement to ‘shoo before you shoot’, but there are others. If NE’s proposals went unchallenged, we would see jays, jackdaws and hooded crows becoming protected species, restrictions on the use of decoy birds in Larsen traps, a requirement that you should ‘read and understand’ the General Licences before you use them, and the ‘trial’ introduction of voluntary bag reporting that would inevitably become a requirement before long.

These are daft and impractical suggestions that need to be nipped in the bud. Think of it like a crow’s nest that needs a good blast of heavy shot before any of those silly ideas hatch and start causing mayhem in the countryside.

NGO chairman Lindsay Waddell didn’t mince his words on the subject: “The consultation on pest bird licensing in England isn’t all bad news. There are some sensible parts. But it contains a lot of daft, ludicrous and impractical stuff too, including the now infamous ‘shoo before you shoot’ clause. Don’t forget this would also apply to all bird trapping.”

He urges every NGO member to read the organisation’s detailed response on the NGO website, and to make a personal and individual reply to Natural England before 19 May. “Contact your gamekeeping friends and ask them to do the same,” he adds. “How we get to do our job in the future may well depend on it. Please do it today.”

I know all too well that a keeper’s life is a busy one, and you have more immediate problems than writing an email about something that might or might not happen next year. But this is important – very important. Like that crow’s nest, if you put it off now it will only lead to a whole lot of trouble in the future, and be much harder to deal with.

Here’s what you need to do. Before 19 May, go to the NGO website at www.nationalgamekeepers.org.uk, and scroll down the front page to the part headed ‘NGO’s crucial response on General Licences’. Click on the link to see the NGO’s response, then send an email to wildlife.consultation@naturalengland.org.uk and say that you have read and you support the NGO’s response.

It’s better if you make your reply personal and individual, but it doesn’t need to be lengthy – just two or three sentences will do. Explain why General Licences in their current form are so important to you, for game management, pest control, crop protection and conservation. If you are a member of the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation then say so, and state that you support the NGO’s response to the consultation.

And that’s it. In less time than it took to read this article, your voice will be counted and you’ll have made a valuable contribution in the fight for common sense over pest control and the General Licence system. Do it now!

Under one of the proposed changes, jackdaws would become a fully protected species and off the control list allowed by the Licence

Under one of the proposed changes, jackdaws would become a fully protected species and off the control list allowed by the Licence

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