Archive for June, 2019

The fiasco that followed Natural England’s decision to withdraw General Licences for control of certain species led to a consultation on how this area of wildlife management is conducted. It also allowed Dr Nick Fox to raise some very pertinent issues in his submission, showing how we need a much better approach from our legislators.



My name is Dr Nicholas Fox, OBE, BSc, CEd, PhD. I have been a professional applied zoologist for 41 years. I farm five lowland livestock farms in Wales, an upland livestock farm in the Northumberland National Park and a lowland grassland farm in Wiltshire. I breed and hunt with falcons. I have specialised in the ethics of wildlife management and welfare since 1995, both in UK and internationally. Through The Bevis Trust http://www.bevistrust.com we try to reconcile the needs of food production and of wildlife in a farming context. I am responding as a private individual who has used these licences since they started.

Historical Background

British wildlife legislation has been a piece-meal patch-up approach since at least 1830. There is no underlying ethical consistency and much of the legislation has been reactive or political with very little understanding of the factors influencing wildlife demographics or welfare. As a result, one class – birds – has received considerable attention whereas other groups such as insects, amphibians and reptiles have had almost none; this despite us losing perhaps 75% of our insects in the past 25 years or so. Currently about 83% of our human population is urban, with little or no practical experience of wildlife management and welfare issues, yet is a voting majority to influence them.

The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 was intended to fulfil UK’s obligations under the EU Birds Directive. If we leave the EU, theoretically we will no longer be under this obligation and will be able finally to undertake the long-awaited review of this out-dated Act. Currently it has massive inconsistencies and presumptions. To manage wildlife effectively requires a science-based approach to factors that both increase and depress populations and an understanding of how species influence one another. Too often our approach targets the wrong priorities by starting with the individual. But to face the uncertain future of climate change we must prioritise the systemic issues before addressing individual issues, thus:
1. Planet Earth and sustainable global systems.
2. Shared regional resources, the ‘commons’.
3. Habitats for full biodiversity.
4. Single species management programmes.
5. Individual animal welfare.

This is not to say that individual welfare or species welfare does not matter, of course they do. But as a simple example, there is no point in getting exercised with a protectionist approach about Otters if another policy has allowed the rivers to dry up or be polluted. We therefore need joined up thinking right from the top, including limiting human impact on wild habitats. For example, a ‘Right to Roam’ might work at low pressure, but at higher pressures the continual disturbance makes an area untenable for ground-nesting species such as Curlews or Lapwings. The birds either give up trying to nest, or if they succeed in laying eggs, constantly being disturbed off their nests exposes the eggs or chicks to predators and the population goes into an irreversible decline. A Wildlife Trust has recently bought two fields neighbouring one of our farms. Now it is used almost hourly for exercising dogs, with the unintended consequence that the Skylarks, Hares, Lapwings and Grey Partridges cannot settle there any more. Our current legislation is failing these species at the systemic level.

An example of unintended impact or by-catch through lack of systemic legislation is electrocution. In our study of electrocutions in Mongolia we found that on average, one Saker falcon is killed per week per 10km of power line. Below is a sample of 600 falcons collected. In Britain I have had six falcons electrocuted yet Britain has no legislation for safety for wildlife on power lines. Most British power poles are lethal.


Why kill wildlife?

To address the issue of legislation controlling the direct killing of wildlife, one needs to understand why animals are killed. The General Licences under consideration are based solely on the premise of pest control, for various purposes, yet this is by no means the only consideration. Until now, users have not raised the issues because as long as there was a legal route, their motivation did not particularly matter. Consider the following:

Reasons for killing
P= Population Management
F= Food
R = Recreation

Numbers killed
1 = 10 – 100
2 = 100 – 1,000
3 = 1000 – 10,000
4 = 10,000 – 100,000
5 = 100,000 – 1 million
6 = 1 million – 10 million
7 = 10 million – 100 million
8 = 100 million – 500 million

Reasons for killing, methods and numbers of some wild animals killed annually in the UK.
(from Fox, N. C. and H. Macdonald. 1997. Welfare Aspects of Killing or Capturing Wild Vertebrates in Britain. The Hawk Board.)


In these examples above, one can quibble about the exact figures; they are not particularly relevant. The point is to understand why animals are killed. Cross-checking then to the legislation affecting each, it is easy to see that some of the legislation is non-existent or ineffective. Numerically the domestic cat has by far the largest impact on wildlife numbers and welfare. There are no controls at all on cats. Section 14 is ignored. Our small mammal, reptile and amphibian populations are fading, with local extinctions widening to reductions in range, yet the responsibilities of cat-owners are not addressed for political reasons.
Looking at the other species, people who intentionally kill wildlife do so for three main reasons: pest or population control, recreation and food, (or derivatives such as skins or trophies). These reasons are not mutually exclusive, for example Rabbits and Woodpigeons are killed for all three reasons. People have different views on these reasons. For example, Buddhists think that animals should not be killed even as pests. In Mongolia we find Steppe Eagles nesting on the open ground, undisturbed by passers-by. But in Britain we kill flies, wasps, cockroaches, slugs, rats, mice and so on without any controls, and we are happy to dose livestock for internal parasites so that chemicals such as Ivermectin enter the ecosystem.

Other people believe that animals should not be hunted for sport or recreation. Fishing is a major sport in UK and about 35 million gamebirds are bred and released for shooting each year. Proponents quote the commercial benefits or the consequential conservation benefits.

Other people believe that animals, including farm animals, should not be killed for food. Each group vies to impose its opinions onto other groups who think differently and there is then the ethical question of how to decide whose opinion to follow – perhaps using a democratic process (which is in huge disrepute at the moment) – or whether actually individuals should be free to follow their own consciences.

Moving in closer on these issues:

Food. If one accepts killing and eating animals for food then the criteria to bear in mind are sustainability and welfare. Can the population sustain the harvest rate indefinitely and are the methods used humane? Are there inconsistencies, such as halal killing of animals even to supply non-religious markets? In the case of wild animals killed for food, such as some in the current discussion, is there any justification for a legal restriction provided that sustainability or welfare are not compromised? We buy 16,000 Woodpigeons each year to feed to our breeding falcons.

Recreation. If one accepts killing for recreation then, in addition to the criteria of sustainability and welfare, it makes sense to make it as ‘efficient’ as possible. This means maximising the number of people/days of recreation while minimising the impact or numbers of animals killed. Under recreational criteria one kill per person/day is more ‘efficient’ than 10 kills per person/day. Driven shooting is less ‘efficient’ than rough shooting, which is less ‘efficient’ than falconry, which is less ‘efficient’ than photography. Cat-keeping is the least ‘efficient’ in recreational terms because the deaths involved do not accrue significant enjoyment to the owner, more likely the reverse.

The WCA is inconsistent in that it acknowledges that certain species are hunted recreationally – as ‘game’. The game species are treated less restrictively than other species. Thus one can shoot a Blackcock in season without a licence, but you cannot shoot a Carrion Crow or a Starling without a licence. This raises huge anomalies. When the legislation was drawn up, the needs of the shooting sector were considered but other sectors weren’t. Falconers hunt corvids and some gulls recreationally as well as for pest control. The Woodpigeon is a major recreational species for shooting, but not acknowledged as ‘game’. We therefore need to rid ourselves of the old 1830 Victorian concept of ‘game species’ and consider ‘huntable species’ as a whole. The ‘Wild Justice’ intervention was on the basis that General Licences are being used to kill some birds recreationally, and yet paradoxically, Wild Justice did not address the species which can be killed recreationally, the game birds.

Pest control. Before 1981 there were few legal restrictions on pest controls. To this day there are no restrictions on hunting Rats and Mice. In 1981, to comply with the Birds Directive, pest birds were protected, then General or Species Licences enabled them to be killed in certain circumstances. These restrictions were not applied to ‘game’ species. You do not have to prove that a Snipe was pecking the eyes out of your sheep or decimating your wheat before killing it. We thus have an absurd legal situation. Cat-owners don’t need to comply with any of it; they can just let their cats kill anything they like, anywhere, at any time of year.

Under the conditions of the General Licences for pest control, one is restricted to certain situations: to ‘protect’ farm livestock, or air safety for examples. Let’s look at the ‘pest’ concept:
Animal pests, unlike plant pests, can move around quickly. They can be a pest in one place but not in another. In Britain it is illegal to set a Larsen cage trap for Magpies in a garden because a garden is not agricultural. You must set it on the other side of the hedge in the field, because Magpies can only be killed for ‘agricultural purposes’. There is also the question of density. Woodpigeons in low numbers do not do significant damage, but in hordes they can devastate a crop, so people kill them. The situation thus merges from ‘pest control’ to ‘population management’.

Knowing that a Woodpigeon can devastate crops, isn’t it better to kill them before they damage the crop? Isn’t a pre-emptive strike the best strategy? The whole point of the exercise after all is to grow a good crop, rather than to kill pigeons. Or should one wait until the crop is ruined, and then kill the pigeons? That seems a bit futile. Or maybe scare them away so that they raid someone else’s field? But not all the pigeons are feeding on your own field; should one only kill the pigeons that you catch in the act right there, on the field? If you had to apply to a civil servant for a licence to kill the pigeon, how long would it take for the licence to arrive and in what way is the civil servant better placed to make the decision than you are? The civil servant has not even seen your field.

What if you go to town and build a massive pigeon ‘cliff’, full of human apartments. And when the pigeons come and make a mess, first you decide to deter them so that they go to someone else’s pigeon ‘cliff’, but then when there are too many to deter, you decide to kill them. But you are too squeamish to do it yourself and you don’t want the tenants to see either, so you employ a professional pest controller to do it for you. So, legally, did you kill the pigeons, or did he? After all, like the prison guard at Auschwitz, he was simply doing what he was paid to do. If you hire someone else to do your work, does that exonerate you? And then, when you look at the pile of dead pigeons, some have got rings on; they were owned by someone, private property (different legislation). And some are clearly phenotypically rare, protected Rock Doves. Same species, but killing them is illegal (The WCA glosses over their scientific classification). The Rock Dove, like the Scottish Wild Cat, is being lost through uncontrolled genetic introgression with domestic species.

Who has broken which law? If we shift the time baseline back a hundred years, maybe the site where you built the block of flats was a field, producing food, or an area of woodland hosting wildlife. If you go back further, maybe it was a wetland, alive with wildlife. Britain has lost about 85% of its wetlands now, so that humans could use the land. If we shift the baseline forward fifty years instead, will the block of flats still be there? Few high rise buildings, however ‘sustainable’ survive that long. Who, really, is the pest? And, referring back to my list of priorities, what does this portend for the future of our planet?

In pest control, as in hunting for food, the efficiency strategy is one of minimum effort for maximum gain. The difference being that in hunting for food, retrieving the prey is essential, whereas in pest control it isn’t. The aim of pest control is to eliminate the pest, as quickly and cheaply as possible. It is critical to understand this, because it affects the ‘ethics’ of the hunter. When hunting for food he will minimise risk and only shoot where he has a good chance of retrieving the body. Pigeons are good to eat. But in pest control, people will shoot at long ranges, in the forlorn hope that a stray pellet may cause the prey to die later. Obviously this can create a lot more suffering. I have seen people shoot at foxes with No. 5 shot in shotguns at 80 metres. There is no way this will kill outright; there is insufficient penetration. The pellets will lodge under the skin and may get infected because each pellet pulls in a little tuft of fur in with it. We saw this in our fox shooting study; while people imagine ‘skilled marksmen’ killing cleanly, this is a fantasy. In pest control the prime motivation is to get rid of the pest. Welfare is secondary, or not at all.

What if, despite our best efforts to control the pest, their numbers do not go down or their ‘pesty’ activity does not decrease? Maybe instead of reducing the total population, we are just creaming off a harvestable surplus on a sustainable basis? Or maybe our efforts are insufficient and too localised and as fast as we kill off the pest on our patch more flood in from elsewhere. Maybe we should focus our efforts on late winter when the population is at its lowest and our impact will be maximal? In some situations pest control might be a waste of time and effort, or financially unjustified. But in others, such as Mice and Rats in the house, it is a question of keeping our fingers in the dam. Wild boar were re-introduced into the Forest of Dean on the Welsh border a few years ago. Their numbers increased year on year until local people started complaining about them. But others wanted them left alone. The Forestry Commission carries out a low profile culling operation but it is failing to meet its targets for a balanced population. So gradually the pigs are destroying the forest ecosystem because the wildlife management regime is not robust enough. It is our human demographic planet problem in microcosm.

Crows have pecked out the eye and torn the udder of this ewe, then ripped out the tongue of the lamb before it was born. I had to shoot her. Should I have shot the crow before it attacked the sheep? How would I have known which crow to shoot? Or should I be trying to grow soya on a Welsh hillside instead of sheep?


Similarly, at the end of July each year, we thin out the young Canada Geese just before they fledge. In this way we keep a tolerable number of geese, but prevent them getting out of hand. Is this pest control? Or population management? What – exactly – are we ‘protecting’? It’s a job I hate doing, but let it slip and the Canada Geese start to crowd out the other waterfowl species.

Non-lethal Methods

There are lots of non-lethal methods for deterring wildlife pests. One can shout ‘BOO’! Or cover your garden with concrete or polythene. Or put up a scare crow. Or use bangers. Or falcons. Or drones. Or distress calls. Nets. Lasers. Even running around a field waving a piece of paper labelled ‘General Licence’ might do the trick! The concept is clearly ridiculous. Would one need to prove that one had used just one of these methods, in which case shouting ‘Boo’ would do? Or all of them? This aspect of General Licences must have been dreamed up by someone in an office. It is a completely and utterly unenforceable farce. By all means employ deterrents, but you don’t need licences for that. How would you know which birds are the ex-deterred ones and which ones are the yet-to-be-deterred ones?


The welfare of individual animals is a criterion running through much of our wildlife legislation, sometimes at the expense of the welfare of populations or of habitats. But often, even at the individual level, legislation misses its target because welfare issues are not properly understood. There is also a common misunderstanding of the difference between ‘suffering’ and ‘cruelty’. Briefly, suffering is about pain experienced by an animal, whereas cruelty is about another deriving enjoyment from that suffering. When licensing certain methods for killing wildlife, British law is totally inconsistent. For example it is legal to kill a Rabbit with a dog, but not a Hare.


A comparison of the methods and criteria

Again, one can quibble over exact figures (the data are for 1997), but the overall picture is indisputable. If you are interested in natural predation look at column 1, at enforcement, column 2, and if you are concerned about animal welfare, look at the last four columns. Our current legislation has little significant bearing on animal welfare. The Hunting with Dogs Act ignored fox welfare in favour of political prejudice, despite the high rates of suffering entailed in alternatives such as shooting.

(see Fox, N. C., N. Blay, A. G. Greenwood, D. Wise and E. Potapov. 2005. Wounding rates in shooting foxes [Vulpes vulpes]. Journal of Animal Welfare 14: 93-102.)


A large amount of wildlife legislation is unenforceable and a waste of time. In rural areas the police will not investigate burglaries, thefts, squatting or fly-tipping, let alone wildlife offences. I had a falcon shot by a gamekeeper, on film, in front of 20 witnesses including a JP, and the police would not prosecute. How many prosecutions have resulted from the existing General Licences and statistically, what impact have these had on the species in question? Anything at all? It is a paper exercise tying people up in the red tape which politicians periodically announce they are going to get rid of, but never do. Look at UK’s procrastination on International Humane Trapping Standards. Look at the muddle of species and trap designs. But Rats and Mice, not being fur-bearing mammals, are still trapped at all times of year in huge numbers without restrictive legislation of any sort, in houses throughout the land. Is a Rat less sentient that a ‘fur-bearing’ Stoat? Who cares?

The Hunting with Dogs Act damaged wildlife legislation almost terminally. Everyone knew it was a political move. It is therefore widely ignored. Because police are virtually inactive in rural Britain it has always been peer-pressure encouraging people to broadly keep within the law. When the law is clearly politically motivated, respect is lost, peer-pressure falls away and the whole legal edifice crumbles. If the General Licences fail to provide the cover that is needed, for example for a gamekeeper to protect game birds, then the obvious option is for the keeper to have a few chickens as well. The he can ‘protect’ them as livestock.

The reality is that these licences were brought in to provide a let-out clause for our obligations under the Birds Directive. They are totally unenforceable and incomprehensible, and the current legal challenge has arisen over a back-door attempt to impact game bird shooting. This is not the way to approach wildlife legislation. Wildlife deserves better than to be a political football, a victim of who shouts loudest on the social media. The Natural England civil servants meanwhile, rather than facing the legal challenge themselves, passed the legal hot potato straight on to the thousands of end-users, potentially criminalising everyone while saving their own skins.


Given the pointlessness of the whole General Licensing situation, but bearing in mind our obligation to comply with the Birds Directive, I would either re-instate the General Licences as they were, on the basis that by the time a legal challenge has ground its way through we will have left the EU, or move the affected species across into the ‘Game Bird’ box, as Huntable Species. If this requires changes in statute law, then perhaps now is the time for a proper review of the WCA. Whichever you do, it doesn’t really matter. Events have gone too far. Respect has been lost. People will ignore the carefully worded Licences, or not understand them. Who’s going to enforce them anyway? Will Crows become extinct if they lose all protection? Of course not! Could we for once, instead of agonising over points of law which are beyond the concern of almost everybody, focus on legislation that will have significant benefit for all wildlife and the entire planet?

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