While the number of supporters of our petition continues to grow, the lack of interest and engagement from Natural England continues to be a source of frustration and mounting discord.
My revelations about the Brent Geese licences went viral across Twitter, leading to a hasty, some might say panicky, response from Natural England's operations director. He disputed the figures but confirmed that the agency had issued licences to kill thousands of the migratory, amber listed species. The fact that Natural England were nitpicking over the figure didn't go down well with the public, who are becoming increasingly irritated by what they perceive to be Natural England's smug attitude in the face of criticism and questions over their licensing system. "Talk about trying to divert attention from the main issue, by arguing about numbers" was typical of the hundreds of comments I received.
Smoke and mirrors?
But what the Brent Geese episode proved is that when pushed into a corner by the thought of thousands of angry people questioning a seemingly shambolic and horrific licensing system, Natural England were very quick to access some of the data that they have previously led me to believe is 'held remotely'. When I enquired a few months ago about licences issued to kill Coots and House Sparrows, I was told that there would be a delay as it required information, some of which they would 'need to unlock from remote storage'. Many people at the time suggested to me that this response was merely 'smoke and mirrors'.
Anyway, I received a message from Natural England, shortly after I wrote about the Brent Geese, in which they thanked me for updating my blog with their side of the story and adding "if you have specific questions we can answer them."
Well, of course I have many questions and so I immediately asked about a licence the agency had issued for the removal of Blue Tit eggs. They promptly got back to me with an explanation that actually seemed plausible, if perhaps controversial (it was permitted as part of a university research project). But it was a quick response at least and it looked as though the huge and angry public reaction to the Brent Geese licences had finally brought Natural England to the realisation that it would be best to answer questions quickly and openly to avoid further social media storms which might create bad publicity for them.
Killing Blue Tits
Okay, I thought, I'll enquire about another licence. This one, issued in 2018, also involved Blue Tits - only this time it was a licence that Natural England had issued to kill them - 25 of them - and the same licence, approved by the decision makers at Natural England, permitted the killing of several other species including Coal Tits and Great Tits, in addition to Crows, Jackdaws and Jays. Unusually the location of the activity was missing, replaced in the data with 'N/A'.
But maybe there was a straightforward explanation, so I asked them.
Perhaps not surprisingly, my enquiry this time was met with a polite, but certainly less than helpful, response from Natural England's operations director; "could I ask you please to request these from our freedom of information team on the email address you have..." He then added "I am afraid I don’t have the capacity to manage these requests individually." Hmm. Passing the buck perhaps or just a delaying tactic, as obtaining data through a freedom of information request generally takes nearly a month.
We haven't come very far then have we, when a simple request for some fairly straightforward data is not available due to a lack of 'capacity'. The information I asked for is basic stuff, it should be readily available - and if not then why not?
It doesn't seem unreasonable that we should expect Natural England to allocate a member of staff to answer our enquiries. Indeed it seems an entirely sensible thing to do.
This type of information should be available for public scrutiny and this is one aim of our campaign.
What about the killing of Treecreepers, Willow Warblers and Linnets?
I have also spotted another licence that Natural England issued, permitting the killing of a variety of species including Treecreeper, Chaffinch, Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler, Linnet and Goldfinch, among others. The method of capture attached to that licence ("cage trap using a Magpie as a decoy") suggests that the use of Larsen traps was involved. This seems very odd in relation to most of those particular species. The Larsen trap is a highly controversial method of luring birds into a cage, normally employed in the lethal control of corvids but quite how or why it might be used to catch a Treecreeper is mystifying.
I have now asked for details of that licence too....
FOI requests in pipeline
So I currently have three freedom of information requests in the pipeline. One is regarding Natural England's approval to kill Herring Gulls, a second is in relation to that licence they issued permitting the killing of Blue Tits, Coal Tits, Great Tits etc. in the mystery location. And I've also asked them why they granted the licence approving the killing of Treecreepers, Goldfinches, Willow Warblers et al.
When I finally have the explanations, I'll be happy to enlighten everyone.
Meanwhile we are getting more support every single day for the petition from a public whose patience with Natural England really is running out.....
(if you haven't done so already, you can sign the petition HERE)
I received an email from Natural England this evening following my piece about the lethal control licences they have been issuing to kill Brent Geese.
They tell me that they don't recognise the figures in my article, explaining that specific interpretation of the data reveals a different total.
They have provided me with confirmed figures for the number of Brent Geese permitted to be killed under lethal control licences and I am reproducing this information here in the interests of clarity and accuracy.
As you will know, our interpretation of their data led us to believe that they had, from 2014 to 2019, issued licences to kill around 6000 Brent Geese.
They tell me that between 2015 and 2018 they issued lethal control licences to kill 3222 Brent Geese.
Even so, using their guidelines for interpreting the data, we still come up with a figure of just under 4000 (2014/19), (granted, that's less than the 6000 we originally suggested).
The figures Natural England have now provided for the number of Brent Geese licensed to be shot are as follows:-
(They have not included the figures for 2014 and 2018, which I did.)
They were also keen to point out that final reported figures for geese actually shot are considerably lower than the potential number permitted to be killed under licence.
"In fact between 2015 and 2017 we licensed less than one thousand geese per year to be shot and just over one thousand were actually shot in total across the three years. Data for actual numbers shot for 2018 is still being collated."
We will have to take their word for the final numbers actually shot, as we cannot access this information, presumably without submitting a FOI request to obtain further data.
Indeed, one of the main aims of the petition is to make such data freely available for public perusal. Then these questions might not have to be asked....
To quote from the communication I received from them this evening, Natural England tell me that "Licences to shoot Brent Geese are issued to aid scaring to protect agricultural crops which are vulnerable to grazing damage." They go on to say that "Natural England issue licences to control Brent Geese via lethal control to farmers who are able to provide evidence that the geese are causing serious damage to their crops, despite their undertaking non-lethal activities to scare them away."
Natural England are also keen to point out "We do lots of other work for Brent Geese too…..
We welcome spectacular flocks of wintering Brent Geese to our National Nature Reserves such as Holkham and Lindisfarne every year.
We also advise the owners of special wildlife sites such as the Exe Estuary and Essex Coast on how to enhance their land and better meet the needs of Brent Geese.
We help landowners access schemes such as Countryside Stewardship to help support their management for the geese and we work with developers and local authorities to ensure that the needs of wintering Brent Geese are properly accommodated alongside economic growth in places such as the Solent."
There we are.
I assured Natural England that I would reflect their response here on my blog and via Change.org. highlighting the information which they have now provided. Apologies for the discrepancy in numbers, I hope you will all forgive me!
Meanwhile, I will continue to press for change, the current system with its confusing data (!) still needs to be overhauled.
And I continue to call for more transparency and accountability within the licensing system - which will avoid any potential misunderstandings and anomalies in the future.
*Since writing this article, Natural England have been in touch with me and have disputed the figures.
They have confirmed that they issued licences to kill 3222 Brent Geese between 2015 and 2018. In the interests of clarity and accuracy, I have written a second blog post to reflect this, you can read it HERE. Many people have since contacted me and suggested that even a figure of 3222 is unjustifiable, and that issuing licences to shoot an amber listed migratory species cannot be defended under any circumstances.
Every year the beautiful Brent Goose arrives from Siberia, and other areas of extreme cold, to spend the winter here in the UK. The species is amber-listed, being of conservation concern. The RSPB explain that this classification is due to "the important numbers found at just a few sites." In fact the UK population is estimated to be in the region of just 100,000 birds.
So it might shock you to learn that between 2014 and 2019, Natural England issued licences to kill more than 6000* Brent Geese while they overwintered around our coast.
The primary explanation, given by England's nature watchdog for this potential mass slaughter, is that the bird causes 'serious damage to crops, vegetable or fruit', although the Wildlife Trusts tell us that these small geese feed "mainly on Eel-grass and seaweed on sandy estuaries and saltmarshes."
The agency approved the shooting of the birds in various coastal locations across the country, including Kent, Lincolnshire and Essex.
6000* protected, amber listed geese, a species of conservation concern - and yet Natural England deemed it acceptable to approve their mass slaughter while they spent their winter in our country.
Figure could be even higher
The figures come from freedom of information data provided by Natural England themselves, though their figures are so muddled, confused and disorganised that the number of geese killed could potentially be higher.
In addition, among the hundreds of licences issued for the species are some examples which don't even specify a number. So it's anybody's guess as to how many geese were permitted to be killed under those individual licences.
Licensing system is an utter shambles...
Based on the data that they themselves provide, Natural England's licensing is clearly an utter shambles and the agency should be thoroughly ashamed of the system that it relies upon, which is very obviously not fit for purpose. I challenge the agency to take a look at its own statistics and defend the use of a database that is misleading, confused and chaotic.
Just another sorry statistic from Natural England's notorious kill list.
I've been revealing the extent of Natural England's horrific bird slaughter since I obtained official figures earlier in the year. As more and more truly terrifying statistics come to light, we can see the scale of the killing. No wonder we are seeing fewer birds in this once wildlife-rich country.
Natural England smugly ignore growing public protest
Our petition calling for a complete overhaul of the agency is approaching 350,000 signatures, yet Natural England seems to be smugly ignoring the public outcry over its actions.
My attempts to engage with them have been slow and frustrating. I think they are hoping I just get fed up and disappear. I won't.
I will continue to reveal more shocking data in the coming weeks to alert the public to this appalling national disgrace. Perhaps then Natural England will acknowledge the voices of ever more people who are demanding that this failing organisation responds to the widespread questioning of its activities.
Natural England have a stark choice to make: listen to us - or be ready to face an increasingly tenacious public backlash.
346,000+ Sign Petition Demanding Action As Natural England's Licensed Killing Of Beleaguered Herring Gulls Continues....
The story so far......
*Natural England have issued licences to shoot thousands of Herring Gulls
*Population of the species has collapsed
*Dozens of other species on kill list
*A licensing process that is shrouded in secrecy
*An agency that doesn't want to engage with 346,000 petition supporters
It is patently obvious to most of us that we should not be killing a species that is in severe population decline. The fact that the killing is being officially sanctioned by England's nature watchdog is mind-boggling.
I've delayed writing this in order to give Natural England time to respond to a question about their licences, specifically the lethal control licences that they issue to kill Herring Gulls. Although their Operations Director, James Diamond, is polite and approachable, he hasn't as yet fully addressed my concerns (on behalf of the 346,000 supporters of the petition) about Natural England's approval (which as far as we know is ongoing) of licences to shoot this endangered gull.
This chapter of the long running story begins a few weeks ago when I asked, as part of our ongoing discussions, why the agency sanctions the lethal control of this red listed species, whose population has collapsed in recent years. I cited one example licence (from a long list of similar licences) where Natural England granted permission to an applicant in Devon allowing them to shoot 100 of the birds.
Initially Mr Diamond himself placed a Freedom Of Information request on my behalf relating to this example Herring Gull kill licence. I had wrongly supposed that he might have more immediate access to licensing data - being the Operations Director - rather than having to submit a FOI request in order to procure the basic information that I had asked for, but sometimes these organisations work in ways which baffle the logical mind.
Long-winded and frustrating process to get minimal information
When, after nearly a month, the requested information eventually came through, it revealed less than nothing.
I wanted to know for what purpose the licence had been granted. This information was missing. I complained and was advised to submit a further request, which I have since done; but it is a long-winded and frustrating method of obtaining what should be very simple and accessible data.
Is Bureaucracy Hindering Simple Logic?
While waiting for the results of this second request, and in the wake of much public consternation at the Herring Gull licence controversy, I asked again why the agency deemed it appropriate to add to the pressures on this red listed species by sanctioning kill licences at all. I suggested a statement from Natural England might shed light on the reasons why they felt it necessary to kill the birds. Perhaps they could justify this action in some way that would pacify those for whom the whole business seemed less than decent. Natural England has been keen to point out that a review of the licences might happen at some point following a repeat national survey of seabirds, "Once we have that updated information and evidence it seems likely we will need to review again our approach to gull licensing".
But I believe that we do actually have enough data right now to know that Herring Gulls are in severe decline, and many of us agree that Natural England should have already stopped issuing lethal control licences for the species.
Isn't that just common sense?
I suggested this to them but it seems to have fallen on deaf ears.
While I am sure that the agency no doubt carries out some excellent conservation work, sometimes bureaucracy gets in the way of simple logic, it is patently obvious to most of us that we should not be killing a species whose population has crashed. The fact that the killing is being officially sanctioned by England's nature watchdog is mind-boggling.
Should we be worried...?
Let's not forget that Natural England issue kill licences for dozens and dozens of other species too, it's not just the beleaguered Herring Gull that deserves more protection.
Should we be worried that Natural England is in charge of our wildlife licensing system? Should we be worried that it is shrouded in secrecy? And that it is making decisions that will resonate for decades to come?
Yes, I'm beginning to think we should be very worried indeed.
Today I heard from the Operations Director at Natural England, regarding my enquiries about Herring Gull licences.
I had strongly recommended that lethal control licensing for this species be suspended in the light of revelations that numbers of the birds have plummeted dramatically.
My hope was that the agency would acknowledge the obvious plight of the species and refuse to grant any further kill licences.
But while hope springs eternal, what I received was what I expected, a less than clear response to a relatively simple question.
'Likely Review Of Gull Licensing' - But When?
As is usual with the carefully crafted replies one receives from Natural England, there are quite a lot of words that don't say very much. But, as I've also come to note, where there might be a potential change of policy this is hinted at (though never confirmed in black and white....)
So, I honed in on a statement that gives me some hope.
With regard to the future issuing of licences to kill Herring Gulls, they say:
"it seems likely we will need to review again our approach to gull licensing, both individual and class licences...."
The problem is that this 'review' is not imminent.
Currently they tell me they are involved in supporting a seabird census - which will no doubt show a continued decline in the population of the beleaguered Herring Gull. Only after that census has been carried out and evaluated might there be any change in policy.
That could be too late for the Herring Gull.
The Herring Gull was removed from the general licencing scheme in April when those licences where legally challenged by Wild Justice. However, this move only affected the licences permitting destruction of Herring Gull eggs and nests (not the lethal control of the gulls themselves, which was granted only under individual licences - licences which, as I revealed, have been issued in very high numbers).
While this extra protection for the birds' nests and eggs was welcome, it was much too little and too late. Herring Gull numbers had steadily fallen over a number of years while the general licence was in effect. And that is my fear over the potential 'review' hinted at by the agency. We need action to ensure the survival of the species now - not after some census that will only prove what we already know.
Meaningless Words Or Commitment To Change?
In their latest response, the agency tell me that:
"Natural England will now be developing a class licence for control of herring and lesser black backed gull nests and eggs ahead of 2020. This will allow action to be taken where justified, but will operate under tighter restrictions and reporting requirements that General Licences. Control of birds will only be permitted through individual licences."
This unfortunately suggests no significant change to the current system at all.
They assure me that they "will very carefully consider the conservation status of the species in our licensing decisions."
Meanwhile, as I write, it is still possible to apply for a licence to kill Herring Gulls and I have not been told of any more stringent conditions that must be met in obtaining such a licence. So currently Herring Gulls are still being killed in potentially high numbers - and the only way to find out just how many is to use a freedom of information request. This is entirely unsatisfactory as I have said many times before.
The Promise: To Publish Details Of All Licences In Full This Year
The agency's Director of Operations, James Diamond, gave me his word, back in April, that the agency would be publishing in full all details of every licence they issued during the previous twelve months 'sometime this year' (and from then on, annually), so we will be able to see the full extent of the culls before too long.
It's all very frustrating. But it looks like I can only work with Natural England on their terms, restrictive and narrow as they are.
I will continue to keep an open dialogue with them, after all this in itself is something fairly unique, as I hear all the time from others who haven't been able to engage with them on any level at all.
In addition, the agency has said that, within the next two days, they will be providing me with information about an example licence that I asked about, one that they issued granting permission for the applicant to kill 100 Herring Gulls in Devon. While it will make 'interesting' reading, to my mind it will be well nigh impossible for them to justify a cull of these birds.
I will continue to report back and keep you updated.
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