As a story emerges about a consideration of change to the legal status of woodpigeon, The Field updates you on the current situation concerning the General Licence and pigeon shooting


On Friday 10 May a press release was issued by the Countryside Alliance reporting on a story about the woodpigeon legislation. We maintain that the woodpigeon is an agricultural pest, and should be recognised as such. And that changing its current legal status could have negative ramifications.


On May 10 the Countryside Alliance issued a press release headed ”Michael Gove considers relaxing woodpigeon shooting legislation” and stating that “Defra Secretary of State, Michael Gove, is considering making the woodpigeon a quarry species, with open and close seasons, according to an article in the Daily Telegraph today (10 May 2019). This move will make the woodpigeon a huntable species during the open season, and then available to be controlled during the close season under the General Licence system for the purpose of the prevention of serious damage to crops and public health and safety issues.”

Whist this appears positive news, a dual status for the pigeon as both quarry species and pest species compromises the case, supported by many, that the pigeon is an agricultural pest and should be controlled as such whenever the opportunity arises, including roost shooting and shooting over stubbles, which is when the majority of pigeon are culled.

The BASC states: “The BASC evidence regarding woodpigeon makes it clear that all-year-round population control by lethal means is needed in a way that does not simply redistribute the problem across the countryside; we have been doing this successfully for years and the methods of control do not need changing.”

Changing the woodpigeon’s current legal status is also likely to require primary legislation and therefore Parliament’s approval.  



On Friday evening, 3 May at 8.20pm Natural England issued a new General Licence for controlling woodpigeon. The new General Licence for controlling woodpigeon is seriously flawed. It is essential that those involved in the shooting world understand why the new Licence is flawed.

Woodpigeon are serious agricultural pests that must be controlled.

The new licence DOES NOT allow for roost shooting or shooting over stubbles. It can only be used to shoot pigeon over crops, to prevent serious crop damage. But the bird that one shoots over stubbles, or roost shooting is the same bird (one of at least 5.4 million breeding pairs) that will ravage a farmer’s crop.

  • It’s hard to cull pigeon numbers effectively during the winter when they have formed large flocks.
  • Pigeon shooters shoot the largest numbers roost shooting in February/March and over stubbles in the summer/early autumn.
  • Roost shooting in woods is active crop control, in that the birds have been feeding on crops, usually rape, and by shooting them we are reducing crop damage. But we are not shooting them over the crops per se as required by the new licence.
  • Shooting pigeon over stubbles is by far the most effective form of reducing pigeon numbers but this would again not be permitted under the new licence, as we would not be “actively” protecting a crop there and then. What we are doing is protecting winter crops by culling the birds during the most effective period and so preventing them from attacking future crops and breeding
  • Flight shooting. A large number of pigeon will roost and rest in woods then flight out to feed on a crop that may be some miles distant. By finding their flight lines and shooting them as they come singly or in small groups, we are protecting that distant crop but not in a manner that would be easily provable other than an inspection of the pigeons’ crops, which would show instantly that they have been feeding on a farmer’s arable produce.

Editor Jonathan Young comments:

Asking for evidence after the new general licences have been issued seems contrary to usual decision-making.

The new licence demands that the licence can be used only to prevent serious crop damage.“As explained in condition 8 of the licence, any person using this licence must be able to show, if asked by an officer of Natural England or the Police, what type of crop licensed action is protecting and why the threat of damage is sufficiently serious to merit action under the licence, notwithstanding the use of appropriate lawful methods to contain the threat. Relevant evidence will include examples of actual losses during the present year or in recent years.”

With regards to the above, pigeon control is undertaken over most arable land in England. Does NE or the police have the resources to carry out such checks and are the police trained to assess crop damage and the effectiveness or otherwise of pigeon scaring practices?

Further, how does one prove action is needed to prevent serious crop damage before serious crop damage has taken place? How will an NE or police officer be able to make such a decision? We will be left in the situation that lethal control will only be permitted once the farmer has already sustained serious loss of crop and income.

Few farmers keep any formal records of pigeon damage. (I do not know of any who do.) They do know, however, when they have lost a third of a field of rape to pigeon damage or can see their peas and cereals being devoured.

These “condition of proof” expose those legally controlling pigeon under the terms of the licence to malicious charges made by those who oppose any form of bird shooting for whatever reason. Many of those visiting the countryside do not understand the need for pest control but they are capable of reporting a bogus “wildlife crime”. If the police have to act on such calls it will add to an already-heavy police workload and damage relations with many law-abiding rural people.

WE WOULD ENCOURAGE EVERYONE WHO CAN TO SUBMIT EVIDENCE TO DEFRA concerning Natural England’s revocation of the three General Licences. You can see how to submit evidence here.

The deadline for submitting evidence is 13 May 2019.



On Friday evening, 26 April 2019 Natural England issued a new licence for controlling crows (GL 26, for killing crows to protect livestock including kept gamebirds). It has been condemned by the NGO (National Gamekeeper’s Organisation) as unfit for purpose. The 11-page new licence is far more restrictive than the 5-page General Licence it replaces. The NGO highlighted:

  • The new licence only allows crows to be killed “as a last resort.”
  • It allows someone to kill crows only if they have previously tried non-lethal ways of solving the problems the crows are causing.
  • It prevents someone from destroying a crow’s nest when it is not in use.
  • It prevents the use of some types of cage traps.
  • It restricts the control of crows during their breeding season.
  • It is invalid in conservation areas such as SSSIs unless a further licence is obtained from NE.
  • And it requests users to “exercise restraint” when shooting or scaring crows in periods of severe weather.

It appears Natural England is intent on not heeding the advice from countryside organisations at present. We can only hope that a concerted campaign to alter this makes ground, as quickly as possible.

On Tuesday 23 April at 3.30pm Natural England sent out a press release stating that it was revoking three General Licences (GL 04/05/06) as of Thursday 26 April. The three licences cover 16 species of birds including several members of the crow family, Canada goose, some gulls and pigeons. As of 26 April the General Licence was revoked, and it became illegal to shoot these species without applying for a licence.


The revocation of the General Licence occurred due to a legal challenge by Wild Justice, the vehicle set up by Chris Packham, Mark Avery and Ruth Tingay to ostensibly protect wildlife through the minutiae of legalese. However, for the timing of the revocation and how it was carried out, one must look to Natural England, the government and Mr Gove MP. The combination of which has lead to a situation that is wildly unjust, as carrion crows and pigeon go unchecked at one of the most crucial times of the farming year. And farmers and landowners have been suddenly criminalised for protecting their crops and livelihoods.


“Some bird species must be controlled to protect crops, other bird species and public health, ” says Jonathan Young, Editor, The Field. “The government has a duty to ensure this and through Natural England’s ineptitude it has failed. NE did not carry out the background assessments of pest species’ damage necessary to the General Licence. Despite this, It assured countryside bodies a fortnight ago that all was in order and the existing General Licences would remain in place. Natural England then issues this extraordinary statement at 3.33pm on April 23 that the licences would be revoked on April 26. “

“This is incompetence on a breathtaking scale and the secretary of state for the environment, Michael Gove, must get a grip and ensure that the General Licences are reissued on April 29 in their previous form, without additional restrictions.”

General Licence pigeon flightlines

Pigeon flightlines over spring drillings


Natural England said: “The action is the first stage of a planned review of general and class licences, which will be completed this year”. Quite rightly those who live, work and farm in the countryside, as well as those who enjoy shooting, should be worried about the way Natural England is run, and how our MPs and the government act on its advice.


The revocation of the General Licence follows a legal challenge to the way the three licences have been issued, which could mean users who rely on them are not acting lawfully.

Michael Gove explained in a letter to Conservative MPs:

“Wild Justice contended that the general licenses were unlawful as the licensing authority (currently natural England) has failed to comply with section 16 (1A)(1) to the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

“(1A) The appropriate authority…

shall not grant a licence for any purpose mentioned in subsection (1) unless it is satisfied that, as regards that purpose, there is no other satisfactory solution”

Natural England had to be satisfied that there were no satisfactory alternative solutions. NE did this through a condition in the general licence which requires users to be satisfied that appropriate legal methods of resolving the problem such as scaring and proofing are in effective or impractical.

Wild Justice argued that in leaving the decision as to whether alternative solutions are ineffective or impractical to the licence user, Natural England has not complied with section 16(1A)(1) to the WCA and that therefore the licences are unlawful”.

General Licence carrion crow

Carrion crow were shot under General Licence


Shooting and countryside organisations have united to demand the utter chaos caused by Natural England’s decision to change General Licences, to allow control of certain species of birds, is minimised and resolved as quickly as possible.

After the unexpected announcement from Natural England that they were temporarily withdrawing three General Licences, the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC), Countryside Alliance (CA), Country Land and Business Association (CLA), National Gamekeepers Organisation (NGO), Moorland Association (MA) and Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) have come together to demand the next set of licences are implemented quickly, and are simple to understand and use.

“The General Licence has been an effective management tool for farmers, pest controllers and conservationists for decades. For Natural England to give just 36 hours’ notice that the licences were to be withdrawn, especially at such a vital time of the year for wildlife management, is unacceptable. Natural England knew of their plans in February but did not inform any one publicly until April 23. As a group we have made clear our extreme disappointment at Natural England’s decision, and the manner in which this issue has been handled by them has been roundly criticised, even by those who were seeking to change the way in which general licences are issued.

However, we understand the need to work with the statutory body in order to deliver an effective and legal set of new licences that are fit for purpose as quickly as possible”.

General Licence Shooting crows in Essex

Shooting crows in Essex


Tim Bonner, Chief Executive Countryside Alliance, said: “We have united as a group of organisations to ensure Natural England’s next decision is in the interest of the thousands of farmers, pest controllers and conservationists that use the General Licence for the benefit of our countryside. Natural England should stick to their principles instead of bowing down to animal rights pressure groups”.


BASC Chief Executive Ian Bell said: “BASC has been fighting around the clock to ensure that the work can continue to protect young lambs, red-listed birds and valuable crops. I have demanded meetings with Natural England at which I have made plain the outrage in the countryside at the manner at which this has been handled. We have briefed MPs and ensured that Government Ministers are left in no doubt of the damage this will do to the countryside and Natural England’s reputation. We have briefed our members and will ensure that they are the first to know when sensible and practical alternatives to the general licence are put in place. This is a matter of urgency for the health and welfare of the countryside.”


Tim Breitmeyer, CLA President said: “The abrupt halt to the licensing system leaves our members in complete limbo, unsure of what they can do to protect their crops, young livestock or farmland birds. A burdensome administrative process will only exacerbate the unintended consequences of an ill thought-through decision. This time Natural England has to get it right and ensure that the likely flood of new applications are dealt with speedily and efficiently.”


NGO Chairman, Liam Bell, said: “Natural England has made an absolute shamble of this and has put gamekeepers and others to huge inconvenience and concern, to say nothing of imperilling vulnerable nesting gamebirds and wildlife. We are united with other like-minded organisations in demanding a return to workable General Licensing within the shortest possible time. Once that has been secured, there must surely be consequences for those at NE who have made serious mistakes and miscalculations.”


Amanda Anderson, Director of the Moorland Association, said: “The managed grouse moors of upland England are alive with the next generation of vulnerable ground nesting birds. The survival of their chicks in the next few weeks is paramount to threatened populations of curlew, lapwing, golden plover and black grouse. Natural England had since February to prepare a smooth transition from old to new licences yet prefer to let the very birds they are supposed to protect, perish whilst landowner and gamekeepers look on in dismay and disbelief. We need answers and fast to avert further mayhem.”


Andrew Gilruth, GWCT Director of Communications, said: “Suspending pest control licences, before replacements are in place, is a hammer blow for wildlife. One large scale European review found that 70% of curlew nests were not able to hatch a single chick due to predation. It’s bizarre Natural England appear unaware that modern conservationists trap and remove crows to protect the chicks of our most threatened species. As a result, all such traps are being removed across England at the very moment species such as curlew, meadow pipit and golden plover need our protection the most – when they are nesting.”


New general licences will go live on GOV.UK from next week commencing 29 April. These will:

  • cover the majority of circumstances previously covered by the revoked general licences, GL04, GL05 and GL06
  • ensure landowners can continue to take necessary action, whilst also taking into account the needs of wildlife

If you need to act within the law before these are ready, apply with Natural England.