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Wild birds are protected under UK law, but licences may be issued which allow lethal control to be used in certain conditions for particular statutory purposes. Since the 1990s, general licences have been issued which allow authorised persons to exercise lethal control on a number of wild bird species without the need to apply for specific licences. Since 2008, these licences have been issued by Natural England, the statutory body with responsibility for the natural environment.

In April 2019, Natural England announced that three general licences for the control of wild birds would be revoked. This followed a legal challenge by advocacy organisation Wild Justice, which argued that the conditions in the relevant legislation had not been met and the licences which had been issued were therefore unlawful.

The revocation at short notice of the previous general licences caused, according to one specialist publication, “uproar in the farming community”. Natural England began to issue new licences with clarified conditions but, following criticism of the approach being taken, the then Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Michael Gove, announced that he would assume responsibility for issuing general licences.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) launched a public call for evidence and, following its outcome, subsequently issued further general licences which Wild Justice once again challenged. Defra stated its intention to lead “a review of the longer-term general licensing arrangements” before the expiry of the current licences in February 2020, and Wild Justice subsequently “parked” its new challenge pending the outcome. As of October 2019, this review includes a further public survey and a planned series of stakeholder workshops.

General licences have also been issued by authorities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In July 2019, Scottish Natural Heritage launched a consultation aimed at ensuring that its general licences are “sufficiently enabling whilst being proportionate”, which closed in October 2019 having received over 700 responses. Natural Resource Wales announced in September 2019 that legal advice had shown its existing licences were “not lawful and had to be changed”, and it revoked and reissued certain licences in October 2019.

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