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Bird Control Licences

Volume 818: debated on Thursday 3 February 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the GL42 general licence to kill or take certain species of wild birds to prevent serious damage, updated on 1 January, what assessment they have made of the numbers of wild birds that will be killed annually to protect game bird interests.

My Lords, I declare my farming interests as set out in the register. An assessment such as the noble Baroness describes is not required, as control of wild birds under GL42 has already been assessed to carry a low risk to the conservation status of those wild birds.

My Lords, the Minister may have seen coverage over the weekend of Nottingham magistrates’ court sentencing a gamekeeper for bludgeoning two buzzards to death inside a cage trap. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has recently highlighted the systemic problem of raptor persecution in the UK in a report that included more than 70 recommendations to improve action on wildlife crime. How do the Government intend to take forward the recommendations of this report, especially its recommendations on licensing gamebird shoots, with the buzzard case as a very recent example on what happens when there is no real accountability in the shooting industry?

There are very strict sanctions against wildlife criminals in this country: unlimited fines and up to six-month custodial sentences can be awarded where people commit these hideous acts. They represent a very small proportion of a sector that does enormous good for conservation and wider natural wildlife benefits in this country.

My Lords, three years ago I spent some days walking on the Pennine Way, west of Leeds. I was so thrilled to see clouds of lapwings and a great number of curlews on large parts of it. Suddenly one would get almost to a desert, where all one saw were crows. The difference, of course, was that where the lapwings and curlews were, there were keepers, whereas where the crows were, there were not. I would be delighted to take the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, with me to walk the same area if she would like. Does my noble friend think that an area with just crows is better for biodiversity than a place where ground-nesting birds, such as lapwings and curlews, flourish?

I am enjoying the image of the noble Baroness and my noble friend enjoying a walk in the countryside. There are three legs to the stool of nature conservation: providing habitat, providing good feed sources and legal predator control. When those three are put in place, extraordinary things happen. It helps us hit our 2030 target of no net loss of biodiversity.

My Lords, shoot owners contribute £250 million and volunteers contribute 3.9 million volunteering days every year. What assessment has the department made of the value of this contribution to our country’s environment?

There are various data sources about the value of shooting to the wider rural economy. There are, of course, other measures that have shown the wider conservation benefits of properly managed countryside. In order for lapwing numbers to thrive, you need to be fledging 0.7 chicks per pair. It is very interesting to see where, in the country, that is being achieved and where it is not.

My Lords, do these fines also apply to the sovereign base areas in Cyprus? In 2016, more than 900,000 songbirds were illegally poached in these sovereign base areas. Thanks to the Ministry of Defence, that poaching was reduced down to about 250,000 in 2019. Can I simply ask my noble friend whether he will ensure that, notwithstanding other commitments of the Ministry of Defence, they will continue this counter-poaching operation in the sovereign base areas?

We are all grateful to my noble friend for kicking this off when he was Armed Forces Minister. What is happening in the sovereign base areas is excellent, but it needs to be copied in other places such as Malta. For those of us who are passionate about seeing the turtle-dove recover in this country, we are going to have to take action. International action will have to be taken to prevent this amazing bird being shot, and there are many other species of songbird which, unfortunately, are killed in this way.

My Lords, the weight of captive-bred released non-native gamebirds in the UK is the same weight as that all of the native birds in the UK. These eat reptiles in particular. I was speaking to a herpetologist who was very concerned about the impact on reptile populations. But a fifth of the pheasants released are estimated to be eaten by foxes. Those foxes, with their artificially inflated population, also eat many native birds. Would the Minister acknowledge that we would possibly see many more lapwings and other ground-nesting birds if those foxes were not being fed by those gamebirds?

There is an enormous amount of data on the diet of predators such as foxes, and I do not think it is as simple as the noble Baroness makes out. In the vast majority of areas, there is a net gain for biodiversity by the moderate actions of shooting estates. There are, of course, individual cases where they may be a net negative, but in the vast majority of the country, game covers and hedgerows and management of woodland create extraordinary habitats. That is an investment which does not cost the taxpayer anything but is of huge benefit to our natural capital.

My Lords, I refer to my interests in the register. I am an organic sheep farmer, among other things, and we are worried all the time about crows pecking out the eyes of young lambs. We are also worried about pigeon families setting up in our sheds and causing disease in our organic ewes. Can the Minister confirm how important general licence 42 is to operations such as ours, to allow us to control the birds and give our sheep the opportunity for life?

The species of birds on general licence are ones for which it is estimated that there would be no impact to their conservation status if they were controlled. Certain species are controversially not in the general licence, such as rook and jackdaw. This is constantly being looked at by Natural England. It is very important to understand that they are controlled not just for game bird management but very often for the protection of crops and livestock. We must be mindful of that and make sure that farming businesses around the country have the protection that they need.

My Lords, independent scientific research in numerous case studies by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust shows that proper game bird management has a net benefit to songbirds and biodiversity in general. How will the Government be compensating farmers and land managers for increasing those songbird numbers?

Under our environmental land management schemes farmers will be rewarded for doing what we call public goods, and that includes creating habitat for wildlife and protecting species which will otherwise, on our watch, become extinct. I could go on about the curlew, as I do every day in Defra, a species for which you can map the point at which it will become extinct in a decade or two’s time. We do not save it then, we save it now, and so we must deploy every measure that we can, whether it is in government grants or activities that we allow land managers to perform to protect them.

We should be grateful to the noble Baroness for initiating a brief but enlightening debate. I thank my noble friend for his answers, but can he add another factor? Game is about the most nutritious food that you possibly can eat. If the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, had a few more pheasants, she might find life a bit more agreeable.

My Lords, it is not my position at the Dispatch Box to prescribe noble Lords’ diets, but I entirely agree with my noble friend about the health-giving benefits of natural food.

My Lords, following on from the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, and as someone who really enjoys pheasant, in many cases game birds are shot and not used for food at all but put into landfill. Have the Government any plans to reduce that practice?

There may be cases where that happens, but I imagine that it is very rare. Recently, the British Game Alliance was created, which has sought to develop new markets for this very healthy food. I do not have any evidence of what the noble Lord talks about but, if he can produce it, I will be happy to discuss it with officials and with Natural England.

My Lords, predator control is necessary for many reasons, including maintaining populations of rare ground-nesting birds. Does the Minister agree that, besides this, the revocation of the general licence would have a serious negative effect on the rural economy and the levelling-up agenda, placing at risk much of the £2 billion and 74,000 jobs that game shooting contributes to the countryside?

The question suggests that there has been a change in government policy. There has been no change in the definition of species that can be controlled under licence since the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. My noble friend is right that, whatever people feel about the rights and wrongs of shooting predator species, the value that it brings to some of the most remote parts of these islands and to maintaining the rural economy is huge.