Questions have been raised about how much Defra Ministers knew of Natural England’s (NE) plans to revoke general licences for controlling wild birds.
The body took the unprecedented move of pulling the licences, which allowed farmers to shoot birds to protect lambs and crops, on April 25 because of a legal challenge from campaign group Wild Justice.
After widespread media coverage of the decision, which infuriated farm groups, Defra Secretary Michael Gove asked officials to investigate what had gone wrong.
Farming Minister Robert Goodwill also told Farmers Guardian he was ‘very concerned’ about the way the situation had unfolded and how NE may have acted.
But giving evidence to MPs on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee yesterday (May 22), NE’s interim chief executive Marian Spain made clear Defra Ministers were aware of the situation when the court case was conceded.
Defra officials had also been warned there was a serious problem as early as February 21, when NE was first given legal advice which suggested the licences were unlawful.
Ms Spain said: “Between the pre-action protocol letter arriving, the formal advice being served and us taking the decision, there was a period of about six to eight weeks.
“During that time we took our own legal advice and we sought advice from Defra. Our lawyers consulted their lawyers on their legal advice, because in this instance we are acting on delegated powers from the Secretary of State, so Defra are the ultimate policy decision-maker.”
Ms Spain also told MPs NE was unable to discuss the issue with anyone until the legal challenge was settled in April, despite being aware of the risk to licences for at least two months.
But George Dunn, chief executive of the TFA, said: “I do not accept that at all. It would be perfectly acceptable for NE to say there is a risk, we cannot go into details about what the litigant is claiming, but we need to be ready to respond and to work alongside organisations like the TFA, NFU and CLA to put in place measures which will allow the necessary control of wild birds.”
Defra has now taken control of issuing licences, but progress has stalled, with the department failing to meet NE’s deadlines for making new licences available.
Fears are growing that farmers will have to provide evidence to Natural England about the need for them to lethally control birds.
Guy Smith, deputy president of the NFU, warned it would be very difficult to show pigeons and crows had to be shot without proof of damage to crops or livestock.
“The question is, who can provide the evidence to show the need,” he said.
“As farmers we know it, but collectively somehow that evidence is going to have to be put together.”
TFA chief executive George Dunn expressed surprise that NR did not already have a weight of evidence to support the licences, because the licence giver has always had to be convinced non-lethal means were not practical.
“We have been saying to our members if they are going to be using lethal means under the general licences, they need to have sufficient records to show the reasons why they are using lethal means,” he said.