"A Significant Public Health And Safety Risk" Says Natural England As It Justifies Its Decision To Kill Red-Listed Herring Gulls
*Environment Agency is linked to decision, claiming that 'excessive gull numbers' are 'undesirable'
*Licence holder is a 'bird control business' - but doesn't seem to know one species from another.
*Hundreds and hundreds of birds killed - and applicant refers to them all as 'seagulls'
So finally, after many people contacted their MPs (thank you!) and after I submitted a complaint to the ICO, Natural England responded to my Freedom Of Information request relating to the example Herring Gull kill licence.
I've been wading through the documents they sent me and trying to make sense of what still seems to be utterly senseless killing.
This licence was just one of many that the agency issued to kill red-listed Herring Gulls (and as we now know dozens of other species too).
I wanted to know the reasons behind the decision to grant these kill licences. That's how this particular FOI request came about.
Though there is a bit of an overload of information, I'd ask you to please bear with me, both now as I provide an initial overview, and later as I examine the details of this and other licences further.
"Public health and safety risk" - Natural England's answer? Shoot the birds.
In 2015, Natural England prepared a 'Technical Assessment' of this particular application to kill Herring Gulls (and additionally Black Headed Gulls which were also on the same licence application).
This licence was a renewal, permission having been granted for the applicant to kill Herring Gulls since at least 2010, a year after the species was red listed as being of critical conservation concern.
Natural England approved the killing to take place at "a number of landfill sites in Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, Dorset and Hampshire", where according to the application, scaring and other methods of control had not been considered effective enough.
They issued the following judgement as part of their assessment.
"The presence of gulls, which scavenge on waste food at the landfill sites, creates not just a public health [risk] (transfer of disease, especially via droppings, on and off site) but also creates a public safety risk for operatives working on the sites, including the obscuring of the vision of drivers when gulls take flight in large numbers immediately ahead of site vehicles."
They decided that the answer to this 'problem' was to shoot the birds.
Among the licensing criteria that Natural England include in their assessment is a question: "Is there clear evidence that the species in question is causing or is likely to cause serious damage?" to which they have answered 'yes'. This seems to me to be a highly contentious response.
In its conclusion and justification for issuing the licence, Natural England state that "The HG [Herring Gulls] and BHG [Black Headed Gulls] on these landfill sites present a significant public health....and public safety risk...The EA [Environment Agency] has made representations to the landfill site owners / operators about excessive gull numbers, which the EA consider could breach the terms of the operating licence."
They add, "The licensed shooting of a limited number of gulls, as an enhancement to existing scaring techniques clearly reduces the numbers of adults and juveniles frequenting the landfill site..."
Is the Environment Agency behind disturbing plan to kill the gulls?
And that brings me to perhaps one of the most illuminating pieces of information that has emerged so far; in the case of this example licence at least, the Environment Agency seems to be the driving force behind the whole sorry situation. Yes, the Environment Agency, whose original 'vision', was that they "...want people to have peace of mind, knowing that they live in a clean and safe environment, rich in wildlife and natural diversity - one they can enjoy to the full, but feel motivated to care for".
Rich in wildlife and natural diversity? But presumably that doesn't include Gulls then?
The Environment Agency is, like Natural England, a non-departmental government body, sponsored by DEFRA. So it's not surprising that the two bodies might work closely together.
But that in itself suggests the absence of an independent free-thinking outlook.
The presence of a large number of gulls is 'undesirable' - Environment Agency
The documents sent to me by Natural England include copies of the licence, renewals and various notes and returns.
The notes (of which there are many), state (as I mentioned earlier) that "The EA [Environment Agency] has made representations to the landfill site owners / operators about excessive gull numbers". What constitutes 'excessive' and who decides the figure?
They also state that "Environment Agency staff carry out spot-checks on the landfill sites and consider the presence of [a] large number of gulls undesirable...."
Licence holder is a 'bird control business' - who doesn't know one gull from another...
The actual application for this Herring Gull kill licence (and the subsequent renewals of the licence) is apparently linked to one individual man, described by Natural England as someone 'who runs a bird control business'. He has the contract to kill the gulls at a number of landfill sites in the South West. But he doesn't appear to know much about birds...
In a letter he wrote to Natural England in 2014, he referred to 'seagulls' three times and also to 'Lesser Black Headed Gulls' As we know there is no such thing as a 'seagull', let alone the, hitherto unknown, Lesser Black Headed Gull... all of which illustrates that the person pulling the trigger is very unprofessional and ignorant. Who knows whether he did in fact shoot the actual species for which permission had been granted or just hundreds of random 'seagulls'?
And shouldn't Natural England have picked up on this huge error?
"Help in the future would be larger culling numbers..." says licence holder
In 2013, the same licence holder wrote to Natural England and said "we have to keep the site management and the Environment Agency happy but stay within your licence. Help in the future would be larger culling numbers or speed to increase licence conditions". He added that "to help us through the most active periods this year we spent more time culling corvids." Nice people....
Of course Natural England has withheld any information that might identify him.
At least they thought they had..... I seem to have found a clear reference to his identity within the documents that they sent me - which, considering that Natural England is always so vociferous about the need to protect an applicant's privacy, shows a shocking lack of attention to detail and illustrates that the agency doesn't actually protect the applicant's identity very well at all. I won't be so bold as to disclose the applicant's identity here, he is after all only the person contracted by the companies that run the landfill sites.
But although we don't need to know the identity of the person who carries out the actual killing, especially when it is an individual, we have every right, in my opinion, to know who is asking for the lethal control of our birds, whether it be local authorities or, as in this case, the companies responsible for running landfill sites. And quite why the Environment Agency has so much sway in the whole process is very questionable.
The public must be allowed a voice, every bit as loud as that of the EA.
Is Natural England's famous 'five point test' just guff?
This licence of course is just one of very many that the agency issues to kill Herring Gulls - and, as we know, dozens of other species of our native birds too.
The red-listed status doesn't seem to mean very much when Natural England is making decisions. Though they are keen to tell me, often, all about their 'five point test' when assessing applications to kill birds, it might appear to some of us that the test really isn't very robust given the shockingly high numbers of birds killed.
Independent monitoring body urgently needed
So, these are my first impressions of the information. I'm sure most of you will be just as frustrated and angry as I am that all this information does is to underline the fact that Natural England, and quite probably other government agencies too, are not acting in our best interests.
We need to have a say in the licensing decisions.
And to know that those carrying out any actions under licences are competent.
There needs, urgently, to be a totally independent body established to oversee Natural England's shambolic licensing system, and we need full transparency over each and every licence - without having to chase overdue FOI requests.
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