Natural England Approved Removal of 175 Blind Nestlings And Killing Of Songbirds - For Scientific Research
Natural England approved the trapping and killing of Willow Warbler, Dunnock, Coal Tit, Wren, Starling, Blackcap, Goldfinch, Chiffchaff and Long Tailed Tit in the name of 'science, research and education'.
The agency also permitted the removal of 175 baby birds from nests in the wild, under a single licence application.
I now have the results of the latest Freedom Of Information requests from Natural England, the ones relating to two more example licences that I'd asked them about.
Each licence allowed for a number of species of wild birds to be captured and killed in the name of science, research and education. Blue Tits and several other small native birds, including Goldfinch, Chiffchaff and Wren were among the species affected. Some of the birds are classified as amber and red listed, being of conservation concern.
Make of the following information what you will, for now I'll just report the facts. Some might well question Natural England's wisdom in approving licences to kill even small numbers of endangered species for scientific research purposes.
Killing Songbirds For Research Into Sperm Production....
The first licence was issued to researchers who wanted to trap and kill birds in order to (quote) "understand the energetic costs of making sperm of different sizes and designs in passerine birds".
In 2016 Natural England granted the licence in which they approved the trapping and killing of male birds. Any female birds captured were to be released, assuming they could be correctly identified whilst still alive.
Natural England granted permission for several species of small wild birds to be trapped and killed under this licence including Willow Warbler, Dunnock, Coal Tit, Wren, Starling, Blackcap, Goldfinch, Chiffchaff and Long Tailed Tit.
Among them, as mentioned earlier, are a number of amber and red listed species of conservation concern.
The applicant, who cited his '40 years of ornithological scientific research', asked to take two males of each species, except for the finch species of which he said he required six.
In an email to the applicant Natural England said "This licence allows birds to be taken using mist nets and cage traps. Up to a total of 40 males of the species listed in this licence may be killed. All females and any males that are not required for this research should be released at the point of capture. In addition to the species listed above, the Nuthatch (Sitta europaea) may be taken and up to two males of this species may be killed."
They added "Birds may be taken from publically-owned sites in [location witheld] provided that written permission has been obtained in advance."
(Note the questionable spelling of the word 'publicly', more about this later.)
An earlier email asked "Could he [the applicant] also include something on the application about how the trapped birds will be killed."
Natural England have not sent me the applicant's response to this question, so we don't know how exactly the birds were killed.
Natural England approved the 'taking of nestlings before they are able to see'
The second licence, issued in 2018, was a renewal of an earlier licence and permitted the taking of a larger number of birds, specifically nestlings.
I believe this licensee to be associated with a well-known university.
In Natural England's 'technical assessment' sheet relating to this particular renewal, it appears that the decision to issue this licence was made by just one person at Natural England, and that the assessment was carried out by telephone. The decision maker at Natural England was asked as part of the process, "Have you consulted with any colleagues (e.g. SSP or other specialists) in NE on this case?" The answer: "No", although a further note suggests that "the application has been previously assessed by [name witheld] (NE Ornithologist), who has agreed to consent the research."
Anyway, the licence was approved and it permitted the taking of 25 birds each of seven species, these being Blue Tits, Crows, Jays, Magpies, Coal Tits, Great Tits and Jackdaws. The aim of the research in this case was "to investigate the development of memory for food locations, and other aspects of memory"
The assessment of the project reveals that it would involve "taking of nestlings before they are able to see and hand raising them in captivity and the use of birds in experiemnts to judge 'congnitive' abilities of different species."
(I quote this directly from Natural England's assessment, complete with spelling mistakes).
Careless spelling mistakes suggests lack of attention to detail....
Speaking of 'congnitive' abilities, in the technical assessment sheet once again we can see there are some glaring spelling mistakes and I am bound to ask whether the person who prepared the technical assessment report is sufficiently educated to be carrying out this duty. At the very least it might reflect a worrying lack of attention to detail, which one hopes is not typical of the rest of the licensing system....though I fear that it may be.
On the licence itself, Natural England stipulated that "If birds are to be released after the experiments have been completed, all birds will be examined and if considered fit will be released at the site of capture provided they do not pose a disease risk. Any that cannot be released must be humanely destroyed."
The applicant submitted a 'nil' return for an earlier version of this licence, suggesting presumably that no action had been taken in the period 2016-18. Whether anyone from Natural England checked this is open to question, after all the agency's operations director, James Diamond, told me directly that they rely on the 'good practice' of licensees to provide accurate return information.
Nevertheless the applicant asked for a renewal of the same licence 'with alterations', details of which were removed prior to the information being sent to me by Natural England.
So there we are, the latest results of the FOI requests.
Removal of blind baby birds and the killing of songbirds for scientific research.
Please feel free to leave your comments below, I'd be interested if you think this action is justified in the name of science and education - or whether, like me, you feel uncomfortable that wild birds are being used in this way.
Our petition calling for more transparency and independent monitoring of Natural England is now at c.350,000 signatures. I'd love to get to our next goal of half a million.
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