John Bryan emphasises the importance of being up to speed with the latest General Licences, and the conditions of use to look out for
Anyone involved in vermin control should be familiar with the broad legislation, such as the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) and the Animal Welfare Act (2006). Both of these deal with the principles and policy of animal welfare and protection. Luckily, government bills usually take time to get passed, have wide consultation, and are well covered in the shooting media. So, by the time they become law, many of the fieldsports organisations and magazines will have created handy guides, and there will be lots of articles to make you aware of what it means on the ground.
However, on a more practical level, there are two key publications that change more often and lay down some very specific rules about vermin control. These are something you need to make an effort to keep up to date with.
One of them, which I will be covering in a future article, is the Spring Traps Approval Order. Sometimes referred to as the STAO, this legislation details which traps can be used and, just as importantly, how and where. This month I wanted to raise the profile of the General Licences instead, which are renewed every year at the end of December. So by the time you read this there will be new ones in force and there may well have been a few changes!
The easiest way to think about UK wildlife legislation is that almost everything starts off protected. There are then specific variations that allow individual species of animals and birds to be controlled in explicit ways. That’s a little over simplistic, but as a general rule of thumb it works quite well.
Part of this system to allow some things to be controlled is the idea of licences. For some species of birds (such as crows, magpies, and wood pigeons) the populations are very large and the likelihood of them being a problem is well understood. If everyone who needed to control these had to apply for an individual licence there would be a huge amount of paperwork for everyone, so instead there are a series of General Licenses. These are issued every year and you do not need to apply to use them.
Anyone who has a particular issue caused by a species not on the General Licences can apply to the appropriate authority for permission to carry out control. A common example is fisheries that are sometimes granted licences to control cormorants that have taken up residence on their lakes. This type of license must be applied for individually and is usually very specific. It may state both the numbers of birds that can be taken and the methods that can be used.
Make no mistake – although you’ve not had to apply for it, when you are shooting pigeons over the stubbles, or trapping magpies in your Larsen, you are still operating under the terms of a formal licence and breaching the terms of it is an offence. It is your responsibility to know what those terms are and to stick within them.
The key things to know about General Licences are:
- They’re not available to everyone.
Each licence states who is eligible to use it, typically covering things like landowner’s permission. However, in most cases there is now also a condition preventing use of the licences by any person who has been convicted of wildlife crimes after 1 January 2010. Before you take any action on the strength of a General Licence be satisfied that you are eligible to do so.
- They are species and method specific.
Each General Licence states in detail which species are covered and which control methods are allowed. This can be very clear-cut. For example: allowing the use of call birds in the control of some cases, but not others.
- They are regional (and they do vary).
One of the benefits of devolvement of government is that England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland all now issue their own licences and so can amend them to suit local conditions. A species that has reached pest proportions in one area can be controlled while still remaining protected in another. What that does mean though, is that you need to check the licences for anywhere that you control vermin, particularly if you’re on a regional border or you travel to go shooting. It’s also not sensible to rely on second hand information that may not be specific to where you operate.
For example, in 2013 the ‘serious damage or disease’ General Licence in Northern Ireland allows the control of the house sparrow, starling and three species of gull, but not the Canada goose. In contrast, the equivalent Natural England General Licence allows control of the Canada goose and two species of parakeet, but does not include the sparrow, starling, herring gull or greater black-backed gull, which all remain protected.
The issuing authorities are:
Welsh Assembly Government
Northern Ireland Environment Agency
- They are renewed anually (and do change).
Unlike most wildlife legislation, the General Licences are renewed annually and they do change. Species can be added or removed, methods approved or revoked, and eligibility criteria amended. Every January, get into the habit of obtaining a copy of the latest version from the internet and reading it and keeping it as a reference.
- Require justification to use.
Each General Licence allows control for a particular purpose – it’s very clear and is stated in the title, for example ‘To kill or take certain birds to prevent serious damage or disease’. If you’re operating under a General Licence make sure you know which one applies to that particular circumstance and why you are controlling the birds. It won’t always be the same one for all your vermin control.
The Natural England licences most commonly used in vermin control are:
- To kill or take certain birds to prevent serious damage or disease – WML-GL04
- To kill or take certain birds to preserve public health or public safety – WML-GL05
- To kill or take certain birds to conserve flora & fauna – WML-GL06
- They have conditions.
All General Licences include conditions of use and it is your responsibility to read these, to comply with them, and to ensure that your situation is covered. Don’t be put off by the all the notes that are included at the end as these often really do help to clarify what’s required.
While it’s important to treat the General Licences seriously, they are there to make things simpler and to give clarity on the legal control of birds. To keep the right side of the law it’s sensible to be prepared before you go out:
Decide which licence applies and check that you have an up-to-date version.
Check the conditions and ensure that you know how you will comply.
You are not legally obliged to carry a copy of it, but make sure you understand it, and it never hurts to have a copy handy if challenged. Demonstrating a clear understanding of the law and how it applies to the situation on the day can go a long way to closing down any problem.
And remember, failure to comply with the terms of a licence could lead to a conviction, preventing you from ever using them in the future.