Natural England has temporarily revoked three general licences for controlling certain wild birds.

As of yesterday (Thursday April 25) licenses which cover 16 species of bird including several members of the crow family, Canada goose, some gulls and pigeons have been revoked. The organisation is due to start issuing new licences from April 29.

Previously, the government issued a list of 16 birds it was permissible to kill under general licence if they were causing damage to property or crops, or posing a health and safety issue. Under the old laws, farmers did not have to ask permission to kill these birds, record their deaths or give reason for shooting them. The new laws will mean that farmers will need to apply for an individual license to kill birds that are causing damage.

Reason for the changes

The licensing changes have been made in response to a campaign by an organisation called 'Wild Justice' led by environmental campaigners including Chris Packham. The campaign argued that because landowners did not have to apply to the government for a licence before killing birds, there was no way of telling if there was a humane alternative to shooting or if it was done for good reason, which meant the licensing was unlawful.

The group say that the aim is to get everyone to sit down and talk, and agree on a system that is legal, fair and based on science.

Chris Corrigan, the RSPB’s director for England said in support of the license changes: “This is a positive step in the right direction. We need an open and transparent system of licensing that everyone can be confident in, and is being used appropriately.

"It is important that licences are only issued when there is no other option, and when non-lethal alternatives have been exhausted. Any new system that Natural England now develops should be based on this principle.”

Mark Avery, ex RSPB said: “We’re not saying that none ought be killed but we’re saying that killing ought to be legal and well-thought through and regulated.”

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Canada geese were previously permissible to kill under general licence.

Farming responses

Farmers have argued that this time of year is the worst time for the licenses to be revoked as the birds will be destroying newly sprouting crops and it is also the time when ewes and lambs are vulnerable.

NFU deputy president Guy Smith said in response to the changes: “The NFU has significant concerns about the abrupt withdrawal of these general licenses.

“They are absolutely necessary at this time of year when crops are particularly vulnerable to pests. For example, a flock of pigeons could decimate a farmer’s field of crops.

“We understand Natural England will be reissuing the licenses from 29 April and for the NFU it is a matter of priority that they do that. It is incredibly disappointing that farmers and growers find themselves in this position, particularly at this time of year.”

The NSA chief executive Phil Stocker said: “I don’t believe this is a decision that Natural England would have wanted to make but its hand has been forced by a legal challenge behind which lies Mark Avery (ex RSPB) and the BBC's Chris Packham.

"It’s extremely disappointing to see people without a practical understanding of land management and livestock farming being able to frustrate things in this way and not consider the reasons behind the need to quickly and humanely control birds that are causing animal welfare problems.

“It is common for Corvids to peck out and eat the eyes of sheep unable to defend themselves, take the tongues of new born lambs so they cant suck, and even tear their stomachs out.

"It is disappointing that 'animal rights' extremists have been allowed to force the hand of Natural England and in doing so have a negative impact on the welfare of other animals.”

Extreme reactions

Yesterday morning on the day that the licenses were revoked, Chris Packham tweeted an image of the gate at his New Forest home, showing that two crows had been killed and hung from it overnight, an act he described as opponents "lashing out".

What is believed to be his address has also appeared in an online post urging people to dump dead lambs at his property, and an online petition has been set up for him to be sacked from the BBC.

In response Chris said: "All it does is strengthen my resolve to make the UK countryside a better place for wildlife and the people who live and work there."

Chris called for farming organisations to comment on whether they condoned the act.