Natural England has granted a licence to an owner of a pheasant shoot in Northumberland to cull up to 10 buzzards – currently a protected species – “to prevent serious damage to young pheasants”. Many gamekeeper and pheasant shoot owners claim that buzzards and other raptors predate young pheasants from rearing pens and thus could affect the financial viability of the business.

Conservationists have reacted angrily to the news and questioned the legal framework behind the decision. The RSPB’s Director of Conservation Martin Harper wrote on his blog “The killing of a recovering British bird of prey to protect an introduced gamebird for the benefit of commercial interest is wrong. The decision sets a worrying precedent. What will be next? Red kite, peregrine falcon, hen harrier?”

Pheasant in woodland – near to a pheasant rearing pen/credit: Getty

We contacted Natural England to find out some more details about this move.

1. When will the applicant start the actual culling?

The licence is valid from 1 August 2016 to 31 October 2016.

2. What evidence does Natural England have that buzzards regularly take pheasants from breeding pens?

We rely on experience and knowledge of specialist Natural England advisers and also consult relevant scientific literature e.g. European Journal of Wildlife Research (Parrot, D. 2015 61; 181-197) Impacts and management of common buzzards Buteo buteo at pheasant phasianus colchicus release pens in the UK a review, and the Journal off Applied Ecology (Kenward, Hall, Walls and Hodder (2001). 38:813-822) Factors affecting predation by buzzards Buteo buteo on released pheasants Phasianus colchicus.

3. With the specific licence request, were the pheasants being predated from the rearing pens or once they had been released?

The poults (young pheasants) were being predated within release pens, around the edge of release pens and within the home wood containing the release pens.

4. Many conservationists say there is confusion over whether the pheasant is a domestic livestock or a wild bird – and that once pheasants are released from their pens wild predators cannot be blamed for following their natural instincts. How does Natural England view the position of pheasants?

It is an offence under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (WCA) to kill a bird unless a licence has been granted allowing someone to take that action by the licensing authority. A licence will only be granted for certain specified purposes as set out in the legislation. One such purpose is "preventing serious damage to livestock” (section 16(1)(k) of the WCA).

‘Livestock’ is defined in section 27 the WCA and includes, for licensing purposes, any animal which is “kept for the provision or improvement of shooting or fishing”.

To assist with determining what is ‘livestock’ and therefore falls within the licensing regime Natural England has taken the view that where birds are either in pens or are significantly dependent on people, they remain ‘livestock’. For example, where a bird remains in close proximity to a release pen and will often return to it for shelter or to roost at night, and is dependent of food put out by the gamekeeper then we usually consider it to still be livestock even if it is free-living.

As pheasants are released at a relatively young age, they will be dependent on the gamekeeper for several weeks at least. This approach, that pheasants being raised to provide shooting were ‘livestock’ for the purposes of considering whether a licence should be granted to prevent serious damage to livestock under the Wildlife and Countryside Act was not questioned by the High Court during last year’s judicial review that considered the granting of licences for these purposes.

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5. Do gamekeepers/pheasant shoot owners need a licence to release pheasants into the wild?

No licence is required to release pheasants (of the species Phasianus colchicus) in England. The release of other species of pheasant is prohibited. If the release is proposed on or adjacent to a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) then the consent of Natural England may be required.

6. Are there any plans to grant further licences for buzzard control elsewhere in England?

We are not able to speculate on any applications that we may receive or licenses that we may issue in the future.

Pheasant shoot/credit: Getty

Main image: Getty