OneKind has spoken up in defence of persecuted wild birds in response to a Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) consultation on General Licences in Scotland.
As a rule, it is illegal to kill any wild birds, but certain groups including farmers and gamekeepers view some species as pests and routinely control them by both non-lethal methods, such as egg removal and scaring, and lethal methods such as trapping and shooting. Widespread killing is carried out under the authority of the General Licences, which are not issued to individual applicants but are simply published on the SNH website.
Earlier this year, Wild Justice issued a ground-breaking legal challenge to Natural England (NE), the licensing authority for England, on the basis that NE was not acting lawfully in issuing similar licences. The relevant legislation – the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 – only allows the authorities to issue any licences for killing wild birds if it is convinced that there is “no other satisfactory solution” to doing so. When considering individual applications for licences to control specific birds for specific reasons, it is relatively simple for an authority to prove that there is no satisfactory alternative to the proposed action. But the General Licences, in all the UK administrations, go much further that: they allow unregulated trapping and killing of a wide range of species, mainly corvids, pigeons, geese and gulls. There is no individual application process – the users simply have to act in accordance with the conditions on the licences. There is no accountability, no recording of the numbers of birds killed and no animal welfare monitoring.
So, as things stand, it is perfectly legal in Scotland, England and Wales to catch a magpie, confine it in a small trap placed on the ground in full view of predators, in conditions that are stressful and aversive. This can be done at any time of year – the depths of winter, the heat of summer, or during the breeding season when a captured bird may have dependent young.
The Wild Justice challenge was based on legalities, but it addressed the basic injustice that was being inflicted on thousands of wild birds every year, without being subject to fundamental review and consideration. Unsurprisingly, OneKind supported the challenge. NE was obliged to accept that its General Licences were unlawful – they were withdrawn and the position remains under review, with interim licences in place for some purposes in England.
We met SNH officials over the summer and they explained that they were confident the Scottish licences were legally sound. We have submitted, in our comments, that some text on the licences appears to contradict this position. We would have liked to see a fundamental review of the General Licences, not only considering their legality but the wider principles behind such a system, including issues of animal welfare. An opportunity has been missed.
Most of the consultation focused on the species that can be controlled under the General Licences. SNH commissioned independent research from the British Trust for Ornithology which has shown that the supposed impact of certain species – rooks, for example – on human or conservation interests does not justify including them on a General Licence. The review can be read here. Based on what this research says, and other comments from experts such as Wild Justice, OneKind has called for over a dozen species to be removed from various licences.
But our main focus has been on animal welfare – it’s our day job, after all. We have pointed out the extreme suffering imposed on both decoy birds and the targets lured into traps by their presence. To capture and confine highly intelligent birds such as crows can only have a detrimental effect on their mental and physical wellbeing. Crows in cage traps often display what appears to be stereotypical behaviour – a likely indication of stress. Larsen traps in particular expose the decoy bird to considerable stress and mental suffering, confining it close to the ground in full view of predators. Birds have been found with feathers worn down to stumps and bleeding carpal joints, from flying against the side of the cage and attempting to perch on wire.
It is unacceptable that such primitive methods are not only practised, but condoned by the state, in the 21st century. OneKind has called for a ban on all use of decoy birds. Shooting may be quicker and appear less inhumane (at least in comparison with trapping and then killing by beating with a stick or neck dislocation) but it imposes welfare costs too. There is no requirement for shooter competence or any requirement to pick up birds after shooting – so the rate of birds that suffer wounding is simply unknown.
We have also questioned, in particular, the ethics of deploying a General Licence to allow the killing of wild birds that threaten pheasant and red-legged partridge, which are reared by humans then released in huge numbers for sport shooting. With grouse shooting, too, high numbers of generalist predators are killed under auspices of General Licence 1 to benefit the interests of the shooting community.
It is unlikely that this consultation, with its limited scope, will lead to full and fundamental review of the General Licence system. However, OneKind hopes that some of the essential points relating to animal welfare and an ethical approach to wildlife management will be taken on board. No doubt ours will not be the only voice raised in this way.