Campaign group Wild Justice has branded Defra’s latest General Licences ‘unlawful’ and threatened to take the Government to court if it attempts to extend them at the end of February.
Last year, the department took the unprecedented decision to abruptly revoke three General Licences which allowed farmers to shoot birds to protect lambs and crops after a legal challenge from Wild Justice.
As a result of the negative publicity which followed, former Defra Secretary Michael Gove stripped Natural England of its responsibility for issuing licences and set up a review into the licensing system.
In the interim period, a series of new temporary General Licences were issued by Defra itself to ensure farmers were able to continue to control pests and protect red-listed species.
But now Wild Justice, which has three directors – BBC Wildlife presenter Chris Packham, campaigner Mark Avery and activist Ruth Tingay – has threatened the Government with further legal action and called on Defra to move to a system of individual licences.
In a letter to Defra Secretary Theresa Villiers, the group’s solicitors wrote: “Should Defra, for whatever reason, not be in a position to issue new licences at the end of February, we consider Defra ought, rather than extend the June 2019 General Licences and January 2020 General Licences, extend the existing individual licensing system to apply to the species currently listed on the general licences…
“In the event, however, that Defra either extends the current licences for a further period, or issues new licences in their place which again fail to comply with the requirements of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, Wild Justice will promptly seek the intervention of the courts to provide clarity to Defra.”
Tenant Farmers’ Association (TFA) chief executive George Dunn hit out at the fresh legal threats from Wild Justice, telling Farmers Guardian the group was ‘completely misguided’ in its continuation of action against Defra and Natural England.
“A thorough review of the licensing system has taken place and the licences which have been issued as a result are proportionate in the context of the legislation and the fact the birds involved are pests whose populations are not under stress,” he said.
“These birds cause significant damage and we must be able to mitigate this on a reasonable basis.
“The licences in force do this and there is no need to tie up significant resources in developing an individual licensing system.”