General licence 43: a problem for Special Protection Areas

Rural Surveyor Robert Frewen explains the issue with the new GL43, how this impacts those who run shoots in Special Protection Areas and what the CLA is doing on behalf of members
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Defra has issued a new General Licence 43 (GL43) for the release of pheasant and red-legged partridge on or near certain protected sites. It will run for two years and covers shoots releasing gamebirds in or within 500m of Special Areas of Conservation (SACs). However, its renewal does not cover consent for Special Protection Areas (SPAs).

GL43 was the mechanism whereby shoots could release pheasant and red-legged partridge on or within 500 metres of protected sites, such as Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and Special Protection Areas (SPAs). The licence was introduced in 2021 following a legal challenge and was set to expire at the end of May 2023.

It has now been renewed but crucially without the consent covering SPAs. This means that to release birds on or within 500 metres of a SPA, shoots need to apply for an individual licence. Defra claims that the change is needed to limit the risk of spreading avian influenza (AI).

Defra provided the CLA with information regarding the change to the licence after it had been issued, which is far too late to allow shoots to alter their plans for the coming season, and after assurances that no such thing would occur.

The science upon which this decision is based is genuinely questionable. Defra had promised to consult on any change but did not do so. With no warning, this has left shoots facing huge potential costs.

A strongly worded letter was sent to the Defra secretary, signed by all shooting organisations and the CLA under Aim to Sustain. Shoots in the prime minister’s constituency have been affected, and the owners have contacted him.

The letter makes two points: first, there are no known cases of game birds being infected with AI before release and then infecting the wild population; and second, for gamebirds to be infected after release, the disease must already be in the wild population.

We await a substantive response rather than a partial acknowledgement. In the meantime, the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) have instructed lawyers to commence a legal challenge that could see them seek permission from the High Court for a judicial review.

If you intend to release game birds on or within 500 metres of a SPA, the advice is not to delay and follow the guidance within the new GL43.