“General licenses” mean open season on 22 non-game species
LONDON, Edinburgh––Birds are in steep decline over Europe, as they are over the U.S. and Canada, reports the British-based organization BirdLife International, monitoring bird populations since 1922––but the chief cause of the European bird crash appears to be simply that hunters, including the British royal family, are shooting birds in unsustainable numbers.
Global warming, habitat loss, pesticides, and declines in the populations of the winged insects that many birds feed upon are all factors in Europe, as in the U.S., but the most immediate factor, BirdLife International research indicates, is the almost unrestrained annual massacre of as many as 25 million birds around the Mediterranean Sea, parts of Northern Europe, and the Caucasus, where hunting regulation ranges from lax to non-existent.
Persecution motivated by “predator control”
“Drivers differ between countries, regions and species,” BirdLife flyway conservation officer Willem Van den Bossche recently told media.
“Most birds are illegally killed for food – culinary delicacies rather than subsistence – and so-called ‘sport’,” Van den Bossche explained, “but persecution motivated by ‘predator control’ is also important for birds of prey.”
For example, Van den Bossche mentioned that in the United Kingdom, hen harriers, an officially protected species, are ten times more likely to die or “disappear” in areas managed for red grouse shooting than elsewhere.
Paying £3,000 to shoot puffins
British hunters are also contributing to the rapid decline of puffins in the wild, reported Tim Wyatt of The Independent on July 29, 2019, “signing up for special tours, some costing as much as £3,000, to go puffin hunting in Iceland, where they can bag up to 100 birds at a time.
“Populations of the popular seabird are declining across their habitats, with numbers in Iceland dropping by about 1.5 million in recent years,” Wyatt wrote. “Since 2015, the birds have been listed as ‘vulnerable’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, meaning they face a high risk of extinction in the wild.”
Britain and Scotland pride themselves as nations of bird-lovers, but the upstart organization Wild Justice, independent journalist Jason Endfield, and longtime Animal Concern Scotland chief executive John Robins, among others, are now causing widespread consternation by pointing out that the British and Scottish institutions entrusted with protecting birds for more than a century have actually been complicit in facilitating bird massacres contributing to heavy losses of multiple species, including supposedly protected and even endangered species.
What is a “general license”?
Mediterranean nations have notoriously allowed and even encouraged ecologically unsustainable bird massacres for as long as shotguns, nets, and quicklime to set glue traps on branches have been widely accessible. Only the declining ability of birds in less accessible habitat to continually recolonize the most heavily hunted areas has––until lately––kept population losses from becoming evident.
Brits and Scots have historically imagined themselves to be above allowing bird massacres damaging to whole populations, even if the British royals are among the most profligate bird shooters on record.
Governing bird shooting in England and Scotland, respectively, are agencies called Natural England and Scottish Natural Heritage. Both issue “general licenses” allowing the holders to cull birds more-or-less at will. Though the pretexts for the culling are supposed to be for reasons other than sport, reality is that those reasons tend to be at best questionable.
Throughout 2019 the general license system has been legally challenged as never before, but so far to little avail.
Robins in an October 4, 2019 email to Animal Concern Scotland membership charged that a public consultation set to close on October 9 about how Scottish Natural Heritage manages the “general license” system “is a useless whitewash.
“For years,” Robins fumed, “we have been calling for a total review of this scheme and yet again we get nothing but the usual tinkering with the details of what birds can be massacred, literally, without written permission, and those you need written permission to kill.
The Scottish Natural Heritage “general license” scheme “allows the killing of an unlimited and unknown number of circa 22 species of native wild birds in Scotland every year,” Robins explained. “The number of birds killed probably easily exceeds 100,000 per annum and causes localized near extinction of some species.”
“They don’t know how many, who, or why”
Scottish Natural Heritage “has confirmed that they have no idea of how many birds are killed every year under the general license scheme,” Robins wrote. “They also don’t know who is killing the birds and why they are killing them.
“What we do know is that under the general license scheme, gamekeepers slaughter unknown thousands of native birds to artificially increase the number of non-native pheasants so that ‘sports’ shooters can kill any of those pheasants who don’t end up as roadkill,” Robins said.
Earlier in 2019, recalled Robins, Andrew Lee of the Scottish Government Environment and Forestry Directorate indicated that there would be public consultation on general licensing, but when the current consultation period was announced, the announcement specified that “We are not consulting on the principal of general licenses. We are consulting on how the individual general licenses work, what they should cover, and how they are worded or set out.”
No questioning “Victorian attitude”
Robins called this “The routine consultation at which Scottish Natural Heritage asks gamekeepers and farmers what they want to shoot without restrictions, and the large bird conservation groups [explain] what, if any, birds they want taken off the general licenses because of population decline.
“This consultation will not even question the Victorian attitude which persists at Scottish Natural Heritage, which allows gamekeepers to kill unrestricted numbers of around 20 species of native birds,” Robins objected.
“This consultation will not result in requiring gamekeepers and farmers to prove they have tried all humane deterrents before killing birds.
“This consultation will not result in requiring farmers to provide one iota of evidence of crop damage or livestock injury before killing birds.
Will not require reason for killing crows
“This consultation will not result in requiring householders to provide a good reason before they trap corvids [crows and close relatives] in their gardens and then kill them by bashing their brains out against a wall.
“This consultation will not result in bird cullers having to record the number and species of birds they kill.”
Earlier, Robins mentioned, “For at least thirteen years we have been trying to stop the Scottish government general license free-for-all. Down south of Hadrian’s Wall a group called Wild Justice looked at the same system as it operates in England. They took a different approach. Instead of lobbying politicians, they mounted a legal challenge which appears to have been very successful in around thirteen weeks!”
Wild Justice took “American” approach
Wild Justice, formed by BBC Springwatch presenter Chris Packham, with fellow conservationists Ruth Tingay and Mark Avery, took the “American” approach of suing the government, briefly overturning “general license” provisions that allowed shooting crows, jays, wood pigeons, and 13 other bird species on flimsy pretexts or none.
But that success was transient.
Explains the Natural England web site, “On April 25, 2019, following a legal challenge by Wild Justice, Natural England revoked three general licenses to kill or take certain species of wild birds to prevent serious damage to livestock, foodstuffs for livestock, crops, vegetables, fruit, growing timber, fisheries or inland waters, and prevent the spread of disease; preserve public health or public safety; and conserve wild birds, flora and fauna.
Same guano, different agency
“Natural England subsequently issued three new general licenses to kill or take carrion crows, to prevent serious damage to specified types of livestock; Canada geese, to preserve public health and/or public safety; and wood pigeons to prevent serious damage to crops.”
After the National Farmers’ Union, the British Association for Shooting & Conservation and the British Game Alliance objected that the new general licenses were too restrictive, British secretary of state Michael Gove transferred the authority for issuing general licenses to kill wild birds in England to the Department of Environment, Food, & Agriculture.
New general licenses were then issued which allow holders to kill carrion crows, jackdaws, magpies, pigeons, rooks, Canada geese and monk parakeets in the name of preserving public health and safety; expands the list of target species to include jays, Egyptian geese, ring-necked parakeets, sacred ibis, and Indian house crows, if the killing is done “to conserve wild birds and flora or fauna”; and adds wood pigeons but deletes several other species if the pretext for the killing is to protect livestock, crops, vegetables, forests, or fisheries.
Adds the Natural England web site, “Users can continue to apply to Natural England for an individual license for control of herring gulls, and now for lesser black-backed gulls. Due to their poorer conservation status, these species have not been included in the new general licenses. Natural England is developing a new class license for these species to be ready in good time for next year’s breeding season.”
Pointed out Jason Endfield, “In just two years, between 2017 and the first few months of 2019, Natural England issued licenses to kill more than 7,000 herring gulls. The population of this beautiful bird has collapsed in the U.K. in recent years. The very survival of the herring gull is threatened to such a degree that the iconic bird is classified as being of primary conservation concern, and has been included since 2009 on the ever growing Red List of species at risk.
“Is Natural England biggest threat to survival?”
“We have known about the rapid population decline of the herring gull for more than ten years,” wrote Endfield, “yet it has been earmarked for widespread extermination by Natural England, the government sponsored body tasked with ‘protecting biodiversity’.
“Is Natural England itself the biggest threat to the survival of this red listed bird? The figure of 7,000 herring gulls, for whom Natural England has issued kill licenses, represents 5% of the entire U.K. breeding population of this species.
“And this total does not even include licenses that Natural England issued for removal of herring gull eggs or nests,” Endfield pointed out, “nor does it include licenses issued to control the birds in order to protect another species. The agency’s onslaught against this much misunderstood bird has been relentless.”
Gulls allegedly menace trucks & bulldozers
Through Freedom of Information requests, Endfield discovered that the Natural England rationale for killing herring gulls includes a statement that, “The presence of gulls, which scavenge on waste food at landfill sites…creates a public safety risk for operatives working on the sites, including the obscuring of the vision of drivers when gulls take flight in large numbers immediately ahead of site vehicles.”
Continued Endfield, in an ongoing series of blogs looking at targeted species one by one, “We are losing our native birds at an alarming rate––and the agency set up to ‘to protect England’s nature’ seems to be complicit in their decline.”
For example, mute swans have enjoyed royal protection in Britain since the 12th century, at least on parchment and paper, but “hundreds of their eggs are being destroyed under licenses issued by decision makers at Natural England, who also allowed a small number of the birds to be shot as they posed a threat to air safety,” Endfield wrote.
“Licenses issued between 2014 and 2018 granted permission for nearly 2,000 eggs to be taken from mute swan nests and destroyed by oiling or pricking. Reasons given for this disturbing practice included ‘preventing serious damage to growing timber’ and ‘to preserve flora and fauna,’” Endfield said.
How mute swans might seriously damage growing timber was left unexplained.
15 times more grouse shot now than 50 years ago
Though disappointed that their spring victory against the Natural England general licensing scheme was short-lived, Packham, Avery and Tingay of Wild Justice went on to allege that British government has improperly failed to consider the impact on native wildlife and habitat resulting from “the massive and unregulated increase in the number of pheasants and red-legged partridges put into the British countryside for shooting each year,” summarized Patrick Barkham of The Guardian.
Pheasant and partridge releases on hunting estates have reportedly increased from circa four million a year in the early 1970s to as many as 57 million per year now.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs averted another Wild Justice lawsuit by agreeing to “review the way game birds are released on or near protected areas,” Barkham wrote, adding that “The review will not affect this year’s pheasant and partridge shooting season.”
“Aspergers not affected”
Bird shooters in April 2019 sought to intimidate Packham by leaving two dead crows hanging outside his home and gluing shut his security gate,” Barkham recounted.
Responded Packham, to Barkham, “People like me with Asperger’s are not affected by this sort of thing. It doesn’t weaken our resolve. We’ve seen it with the trolling of Greta Thunberg. We don’t care about that sort of stuff. It’s a complete waste of time, but it is unpleasant for my family.”
Released to be shot each fall on hunting estates in Scotland are about 700,000 red grouse.
Recalled Observer columnist Kevin McKenna on August 18, 2019, “Some of these estates were taken at around the time of the Reformation by marauding aristocrats. Laws were hastily enacted to thwart any future attempts at redress or restoration. This is why the pattern of land ownership in Scotland remains fixed along feudal lines, and why more than half of Scotland’s land is owned by fewer than 500 individuals and their families.
“The cost of maintaining these lands is largely met by turning them into themed killing fields for moneyed adventurers. These people pay tens of thousands of pounds for the pleasure of shooting the wild creatures bred purely to satisfy their bloodlust. Nothing is allowed to get in their way and that includes Scotland’s grandest birds of prey.
“Research commissioned by the Scottish government in 2017 and conducted by Scottish Natural Heritage,” McKenna mentioned, “found that almost a third of golden eagles tracked by satellite died in suspicious circumstances. In the majority of cases, the eagles were found on land intensively managed for driven grouse shooting.”
Where is the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds?
Where, amid all the killing, is the venerable Royal Society for the Protection of Birds?
As Wikipedia succinctly explains, “The origins of the RSPB lie with two groups of women, both formed in 1889. The Plumage League was founded by Emily Williamson at her house in Didsbury, Manchester, (now in Fletcher Moss Botanical Garden), as a protest group campaigning against the use of great crested grebe and kittiwake skins and feathers in fur clothing. The Fur, Fin and Feather Folk was founded in Croydon by Eliza Phillips, Etta Lemon, Catherine Hall and others.”
Merging to become the Society for the Protection of Birds in London in 1891, the members agreed upon two bedrock principles: “That members shall discourage the wanton destruction of birds, and interest themselves generally in their protection,” and “That lady-members shall refrain from wearing the feathers of any bird not killed for purposes of food, the ostrich only excepted.”
Headed in title by Queen
Those principles, however, were rapidly compromised to near meaninglessness when the organization accepted royal patronage in 1904, becoming the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds of today, headed in title by Queen Elizabeth II, 93, since her coronation in February 1952.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds boasts that it has more than 1,300 employees, 18,000 volunteers, and 195 youth volunteers, helping to maintain 200 nature reserves.
“Found no evidence”
But Prince Harry, grandson of Elizabeth, the most outspoken alleged conservationist among the royal family, on November 6, 2007 escaped prosecution for allegedly killing two hen harriers on an October 24, 2007 expedition with two friends at the royal palace in Sandringham, after Norfolk police failed to recover the remains and found “no forensic or ballistic evidence,” according to a Crown Prosecution Service statement.
“Witnesses also heard unexplained shooting in the area before the three suspects said they were present at the scene, so other people cannot be ruled out,” the Crown Prosecution Service statement added. “The three suspects, who were interviewed by police, all denied that the birds were killed by them.”
Not excluded appears to have been the possibility that the shooting, reported by a conservation warden who was specifically monitoring harriers and said he saw the harriers fall, might have been by a Sandringham gamekeeper.
Prince Philip, husband of Elizabeth and grandfather of Harry, reportedly killed 15,500 captive-raised birds at Sandringham in a five-week spree coinciding with the distribution of one of the first fundraising appeals that he signed as a founding patron of the World Wildlife Fund.
During a six-week spree at Christmas 1987, after Philip became titular head of the World Wildlife Fund, he and his sons Charles [father of Harry], Andrew, and Edward broke Philip’s previous record for sustained bloodshed by shooting nearly 18,000 captive-raised pigeons, pheasants, partridges, ducks, geese, and rabbits at Sandringham.
Introducing Harry and his brother William to hunting at the ages of seven and 10, respectively, against the wishes of their late mother Princess Diana, Prince Charles and friends reportedly shot 12,000 pheasants at Sandringham at Christmas 1991.
Royals sell remains
In October 2001 the royals began offering bagged partridge and pheasant shot by family members for sale at the Windsor Castle gift shop. Selling “game,” for a commoner, would be illegal, as it is throughout the U.S. and Canada.
The Queen herself was photographed in the act of clubbing a wounded pheasant to death with
her walking stick at a Sandringham shoot in January 2004. Later in the year Philip and several friends blasted birds at Sandringham in front of children from a nearby school, many of whom belonged to the school bird-watching club.
The toll at just one of four palaces
As recently as 2013, according to Animal Aid, members of the royal family killed 7,129 animals just at their Windsor estate, where they reputedly hunt less than at Sandringham and Balmoral, Scotland.
The reported toll at Windsor Estate included 3,901 pigeons, 772 jackdaws, 191 crows, 118 parakeets, 70 magpies, 55 rooks, and nine jays.
Also killed were 1,161 rabbits, 325 squirrels, 159 foxes despite the little enforced 2005 ban on fox hunting, 145 rats, 127 muntjac (a small deer), 56 roe deer, 28 hares, nine moles, and three mink.