Wildlife Licensing: how the RSPB uses it to support nature conservation.

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I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t

Wildlife Licensing: how the RSPB uses it to support nature conservation.

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Since 1981, all wild birds, their eggs and chicks have been protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (WCA). This means they cannot be killed, have their eggs taken or have their occupied nests destroyed unless this is done under licence.

We have been quite vociferous over licensing recently, particularly in relation to our anger at licences issued by Natural England for the destruction of buzzard nests to benefit shooting businesses. Although we have opposed the issuing of licences for the purpose of protecting game interests, we need to rely on the WCA licensing system for conservation, occasionally, too. And, in the interests of openness, I thought I’d share this information with you.

The bulk of the work we complete under WCA licences relates to ‘disturbance’ of wild birds, including those sensitive or rare species listed on Schedule 1 of the WCA. For example, armed with licences authorised staff and volunteers can: monitor the nests of declining wading birds; erect temporary fences around the nests of Montagu’s harriers in arable fields; or place nest protection cages over little ringed plover nests, or electric fencing around little tern colonies. All of this work is done to increase the breeding success of threatened bird species. We have also needed to rely on the licencing system when setting up reintroduction projects for red kites, corncrakes or cirl buntings, or when our investigators try to thwart the attempts of collectors to steal the eggs of some of our rarest birds.

In all of these cases, disturbance is temporary. And, all of this work is only done for research, educational or conservation purposes. Every year we submit a comprehensive report of all our work carried out under these licences to the licensing authority.

Occasionally, we also have to control certain bird species under licence on some of our reserves, but only after all possible management has been done but failed to provide all the conservation needs for those species of concern. In most cases, this is to recover the numbers of threatened wild birds: for example, we remove certain predators to aid the recovery of ground-nesting bird populations. We always favour approaches - such as habitat management and predator exclusion techniques – but, as a last resort, killing may sometimes be necessary.

It is certainly not an everyday tool, and it must be justified on a case-by-case basis. In line with legal requirements and our own policies, we will only contemplate predator control when predation is shown to pose a threat to species or populations of conservation concern, and is sufficiently serious to warrant action. We will also only countenance lethal control where there is no satisfactory alternative and where any control measures are restricted to the predator, are humane and are capable of reducing predation pressure.

To benefit breeding wading birds, such as black-tailed godwit or lapwing, we carry out lethal control of carrion crows on some reserves. This happens under the so-called general licence, which means – like everyone using this provision - we’re not obliged to submit records on the number of birds killed (which we think is wrong), but we keep the records anyway and here are the most recent figures we have available:

In 2011-12, 292 crows were killed on our reserves. Eleven magpies have also been killed under general licence on RSPB reserves for conservation purposes during the same period.

To protect breeding terns from predation, licensed control of herring gulls, lesser black-backed gulls and great black-backed gulls is also undertaken on specific reserves as a last resort. In 2011-12, 76 large gull nests were destroyed (mostly lesser-black-backed gull) and three adult lesser black-backed gulls were shot on RSPB reserves. Both herring and lesser black-backed gulls have an unfavourable conservation status. So we would never carry out lethal control which endangers the predator species.

We also carry out control (through egg oiling) of greylag and Canada geese on two reserves in England for aircraft safety. In 2012 this amounted to 73 greylag goose eggs and 25 Canada goose eggs. Also 195 eggs of introduced barnacle geese have been destroyed on another reserve to reduce the impact of aggressive behaviour towards nesting species of conservation concern. At one site we also oil Canada goose eggs to prevent hatching to avoidserious crop damage to a neighbouring landowner.

The licensing system for permitting disturbance or control of wildlife exists for particular problems and we believe it is legitimate to make small-scale interventions for conservation, or as the law allows. However, we remain opposed to any plan to reduce the integrity of the licensing system and make it easier to kill things in general.

  • Dear Greylag - obviously a point of personal relevance.  The first thing I should say is that this control is undertaken irrespective of the introduced, reintroduced, feral, native, naturalised debate - it is for air safety purposes and their status is therefore irrelevant.

    However, the status of greylag geese in England does seem to provoke some debate - you're right to suggest some RSPB staff maintain that they are feral!

    The population stems mostly from historical releases for shooting purposes (from the 1930s onwards), no doubt with some natural recolonisation from our native population.  In short, they're a bit of a mixed bag, which presumably explains why they have been labelled such a

    variety of terms.  But as you rightly point out, there is a native population in the UK which was formerly much more widespread, so I accept that 'introduced' wasn't the best term to use and

    so have decided to remove the word form the blog.

  • I must take exception to referring to Greylag Geese as' Introduced'. They are re-introduced. They are a native species driven to extinction by over exploitation and habitat destruction in England.  The remnants of the British population in the Western Isles provided the stock from which the re-established population comes.

    I suppose I should be grateful that the awful term 'feral' was not used on this occasion as it so often is by people, including on occasion sadly RSPB staff, who should know better.  I have always been struck by how partial people and organisations are and the language they use often indicates their intentions.

    The level of oiling of Greylag eggs is enormous, it has been suggested that more than 25,000 have been oiled in the last seven years, without a word of complaint from the 'conservation community'.  In fact they have been doing a lot of the oiling.  I'm told over a 100 nests were oiled in 2012 as part of an 'on going experiment' on a single Broad in Norfolk. Virtually every conservation organisation that might have known about it, did know about it, but in the spirit of transparency they all kept the lowest possible profile they could manage.

  • Well it is obviously a difficult dilemma that yourself and RSPB face however in some of these cases it was simply the RSPB saying there are too many in your opinion,certainly in the case of Deer as they surely do no damage to birds.You take it on yourselves to cull Deer and yet actively campaign against the trial Badger cull that may save farmers more than that bit of damage that gets saved by your cull of rabbits.Think you seriously have double standards in this case.There is absolutely certain evidence of too many Badgers in the countryside.They have nothing to control their numbers unlike the rabbits you cull.

  • Fair question, KC.  Through the management of our 151,000ha estate of 216 nature reserves the number of (native and non-native) mammals that we, or a third party, controlled in 2011-12 (having applied the policy outlined above) is as follows: 241 Foxes (on 37 reserves); 77 Mink (on 41 reserves); 241 Red deer (on 12 reserves); 270 Roe deer (on 11 reserves); 6 Muntjac (on 2 reserves); 98 Sika deer (on 2 reserves). We also controlled rabbits (mostly in connection with damage to neighbours crops), rats and mice (around buildings and on seabird islands) and a small number of grey squirrels (for red squirrel conservation).  We have always, when asked, released this information, but are finding ways to be more transparent.  We have for example begun to indicate on the reserve pages of the website (such as at Berney - www.rspb.org.uk/.../work.aspx) which species we control.  In our desire to be open about this issue, we shall be exploring the best way to update this information and put it into the public domain.

    Thomas - can I point you to a recent blog post of mine - www.rspb.org.uk/.../the-conservationists-dilemma.aspx.  This goes into a little more detail about the science around predation and as such helps us apply our policy.  And, I do, of course, understand the strength of feeling around this and but hope you understand the dilemma we face with such conflicts.

  • KC, little too much detail perhaps, because as Martin Harper states, there is no obligation to produce pest control and 'control of protected wildlife' records.  

    More important is that other conservation NGOs  - Wildlife Trusts, Woodland trust, Mammal Society etc acknowledge that this is an acceptable part of modern conservation. It is not undertaken for the sake of controlling wildlife but only when and where required within a wider context either managed by a gamekeeper or a reserve warden.

    That context may be hard to understand for some - whether crows on a grouse moor or lesser black backed gulls in a tern colony - but we must start to understand why it is required within an increasingly human populated and influenced 'natural' environment.  


  • Sorry Martin, I am very uncomfortable about an organisation with 'protection of birds' in its name (and ethos) being responsible for the killing of one single bird.  "Culling"may be justified by a 'science-based approach', but the human regard for, love of and care of birds is not just about science; indeed I suggest it has very little to do with it.  Try asking yourself this: would you pull up your car (RSPB logo on the door panel), get out and help an injured bird, or would you steam on by, saying to yourself: ' No need here; it’s a Magpie' or 'Not stopping; it’s a Herring Gull chick' or "Forget it, it's an 'invasive'"?  Putting the headline of "RSPB Conservation Director abandons injured bird to its fate", out of your mind, what would you do?  I feel confident that you and many of us here would stop and try to help, proving we have the capacity to prioritise the blamelessness, beauty and sanctity of a single bird life over the scientifically-proven (?) culpability of the species.  And, after all, if a bird - any bird - can't trust the RSPB badge, why should a prospective new member?

  • Martin, like Rob above I too applaud the transparency, although it is interesting that you cite openness as the reason for publishing details of the RSPB culling various species in order to conserve others, while the Countryside Alliance claims (in their latest newsletter) that you are reacting to their Freedom of Information requests on the subject.  

    Be that as it may, and in the interests of openness, perhaps you could tell us on which reserves the carrion crows and magpies were culled in 2011-12 and which threatened species they were killed to protect, and what other management measures had been tried, and failed, that led to lethal solutions being necessary.

    Similarly, also in the interests of openness, perhaps you could tell us on which reserves the UK amber-listed lesser and greater black backed gulls and UK red-listed herring gulls were culled or had nests destroyed in 2011-12 and which threatened species they were killed or destroyed to protect, and what other management measures had been tried, and failed, that led to lethal solutions being necessary in those cases.

    And to complete the picture it would be good to know how many foxes, mustelids and deer were culled in 2011-12 on RSPB reserves (or at RSPB behest on neighbouring land) and the reasons for those actions too.

    Again, like Rob, I suspect such openness would help inform, better, the national conservation debate and minimise current polarisation of views and divisiveness.

  • There has to be some special catastrophe if lamb survival only 20%.Even in the uplands they would want 95% survival rate in normal years.

    Lets give these hard working upland farmers(often 70 hours plus a week)our thanks and backing for all they do for our country.If everyone worked as hard as they do then the country would be in great condition financially and they do it all in more difficult conditions than 99% of population.

    Anyone who criticises them wants to go and work there for 12 months,as long as they manage to survive they would change their views.

  • Hi Rob....there are huge areas of upland Wales that are subsidised and improved and loss making deserts not heather moor; most of the Cambrians and Beacons are so over grazed or improved without a shoot of heather so please do not limit the huge debating space that Monbiot is creating here by simplistic "not in my back yard stuff. It is notable that the Wildlife Trusts in Wales at Iolo Williams very good recent appeal seem to utterly lack a coherent political platform.

  • Agree 100% with the policy in this blog just two strange facts in the policy however.How can the RSPB always say,absolutely always in fact that Magpies have no affect on small bird numbers yet cull a very small number(no excuses about it being special cases)they either kill or they don't.Secondly how can it be right for rspb to cull under license in special cases in their opinion but seriously oppose a trial repeat only a trial cull of Badgers that may save thousands of cattle lives also hopefully get Badger population healthier also very likely help several species getting infected with BTB.Quite honestly I think you should keep off the Badger subject anyway unless you change to a wildlife charity as opposed to bird charity.

    It is just as important to farmers to solve the BTB problem as it is to RSPB to cull predators when it suits them,wouldn't it be ironic if in future the Badger population increases so that you have to cull some in certain areas as they are taking all the ground nesting birds eggs.

  • Good stuff Martin  - perhaps this transparency can help bring 'warring factions' together for the greater good of wildlife. There will always be tough decisions - has anyone, as they bite into their juicy Cox apple, done a Freedom of Information into how many bullfinches were controlled in commercial orchards?

    The countryside does not thrive off fresh air - it needs viable rural enterprises and we need food - both of which, at times, conflict with wildlife.

    Unpalatable for many reasons, but we need less 'juicy' subjective campaigning and more 'dry' objective science in how we manage the environment.

    PS Peter Crispin - Hen harriers, according to State of Nature, doing rather well in Wales - just the place that Monbiot (see my review of his book in July Countryfile mag and up coming interview)  wants to see the end of heather moorland with some quality rewilding...

    Can we have it all?!



  • Peter - George has been invited and am still hopeful that he will contribute something.

  • I gather that on the Taff/Ely Compensation Reserve or just off it there is a pair of buzzard that is particularly fond of "wader chicks" and herein lies a dilemma that certain individuals of predator species may specialise in certain types of hunting ie upland crow/raven re wader eggs/chicks, some buzzard re chicks etc and that the problem has always been that indiscriminate "control" may be less useful than the elimination of a particular individual or pair... or perhaps encouraging Buzzard pairs to nest somewhere else for example ! I am quite sure that this can probably be extended to some pheasant shoots where the living for a predator is particularly easy; even disgracefully so.

    If the game keeping community were not rendering the hen harrier extinct then I am sure that  I could have more confidence in their judgement; but actually I have none. My experience of their community has almost always been poor; so I am disinclined to give them leeway when I know that predator control of fox and crow is important for wader survival...

    Given that George Monbiot has initiated a considerable and very valuable debate re-rewilding should nt he be "invited" to guest blog here ? Or are all the "conservationists" sitting on their hands here ? The Wildlife Trusts seem to do little else !  The Elan Estate in mid Wales would certainly be a good starting point...................... the lamb mortality there is around 70-80 % and the collosal levels of subsidy to the upland farmers of the Elan catchment and Abergwesyn Commons could be far better spent.

  • The Hawk and Owl Trust policy 'calls for any alternative to be sought to lethal control where humans come into conflict with birds of prey.'

    Culturally, we have a long tradition of reaching for the shot gun as the first, not the last, resort. We, particularly people in rural areas, need to recognise and reverse this approach.

  • Let me say that I think the RSPB is 100% right in the way it uses the licensing system. The RSPB is also to be congratulated in adopting this open approach as to how it sometimes needs to cull certain common species in order to protect much rarer breeding species. This open approach is entirely right.

    When one looks at the underlying cause as to why culling under license is sometimes necessary the answer always comes back to man's activities having caused a distortion of the natural balance of nature. For example certain birds like crows and magpies fair better than most other farmland birds under intensive farming regimes.

    However the issue of licenses to destroy buzzard nests I have to say I regard as "rock bottom". In such cases it is destroying a native species that, despite its recent slight recovery, is still a relative rare bird,and  which has long suffered from human persecution.It is being destroyed in favour of a totally non native species and it is being destroyed for commercial gain by organisations that in most cases already make very large sums out of commercial shooting. Hard to think in this day and age of a worse reason for issuing licenses