Open season on shooting magpies to end

For decades, shooters enjoyed open season on magpies — a breed they considered to be vermin. Now, Natural Resources Wales has given the species new protections that take effect on 1 July. CHRIS BETTELEY looks at the issue.

By Chris Betteley   |   Reporter   |
Sunday 8th May 2022 1:00 pm
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Magpie shooting
The magpie is an unmistakable long-tailed bird. It is mainly black, with a white belly and white patches on the shoulders and wings (Pixabay )

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MAGPIES will no longer be able to be killed under general licences for conservation purposes after Natural Resources Wales (NRW) confirmed a new approach for the control of wild birds following a review which found that the species is “experiencing significant population decline in Wales.”

The decision comes following a review of NRW’s licencing system to “ensure processes currently in place are robust and proportionate”, but the body admitted the move could have “significant implications”.

The review included a specific focus on General Licences – a process where licences are given for activities that carry a low risk to the conservation or welfare of a protected species.

The move has been panned by conservation groups who said the changes were a “worst-case scenario” for efforts to protect the countryside.

NRW said: “While all wild birds are protected by law, there are specific circumstances where NRW licences the lethal control of wild birds and the destruction of eggs and nests for defined purposes, such as to protect public health or safety, to prevent serious damage to crops, livestock or fisheries, or to conserve other species of wildlife.

“The NRW Board considered the recommendations arising from the review, specifically in relation to general licences.

“It decided that NRW should continue to grant general licences for the control of wild birds for some purposes, in some circumstances and where there are no other satisfactory solutions.”

magpie shooting feature
Magpies are famous for collecting objects, particularly anything shiny, to decorate the nest. (Pixabay )

The changes remove magpies from the general licence, along with jackdaw and jay, meaning they will now be only be able to be controlled if the species is endangering livestock, and not for general conservation purposes.

NRW said it “does not monitor the extent” to which general licences are used, but said it is “aware from surveys carried out by membership organisations including the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust and farming unions that general licences are widely used by members of those organisations as a basis for undertaking wild bird control in Wales”.

“We consider that magpie may not be suitable for inclusion on general licences in light of evidence of decline in their Welsh population,” NRW said.

“Magpies have the potential to cause damage to livestock and negative impacts on other species, and have been listed on a number of general licences in Wales for many years.

“It is apparent from the evidence provided in response to our call for evidence by membership organisations including the British Association for Shooting and Conservation and the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, that magpie are subject to widespread lethal control.

“However, given that control carried out under general licences is not subject to any requirement for recording or reporting, the actual level of control of magpie taking place each year is unknown.

“The species is experiencing significant population decline in Wales.”

A review of general licences in 2019 considered removing magpies from general licences after surveys showed a 27 per cent population decline between 1995 and 2017.

While the magpie was retained in 2019, further studies showed the decline in magpie population now sits at 43 per cent.

The British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) said the move to remove magpies, jays and jackdaws from the general licence for conservation “is placing at risk Welsh species of highest conservation concern”.

Steve Griffiths, BASC Wales director, said: “Magpies, jays and jackdaws are well-documented predators of eggs and chicks.

“While magpies and jackdaws will still be able to be controlled under the general licence for serious damage, being unable to control the birds for conservation reasons will put hundreds of individual projects and Wales’ most vulnerable species at risk.

“Curlews are just one of many species that are on the brink in Wales, the licensing authority’s proposals are leaving those few that remain to the mercy of these well-documented predators.”

The Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) said it was “extremely disappointed” with the changes that will “change dramatically, and severely constrict, conservation efforts across Wales”.

“At a time when Welsh Government has declared a nature emergency due to declining species, we are baffled that NRW are stripping away a tool from the conservationists’ toolbox and hindering conservation efforts,” the GWCT said.

“Most conservation organisations agree and realise the importance of predation control within nature conservation, understanding that habitat alone is not enough to reverse nature declines in certain species.

“Their reasoning to remove magpie is that they have declined in Wales and will soon be Amber listed.

“Following their principle that a Bird of Conservation Concern should not be subject to control under a general licence may seem sensible on paper, but the picture is more complicated than that.”

Ceri Davies, Natural Resources Wales’ executive director for evidence, policy and permitting said: “We are committed to delivering a licensing system which is effective, practical and proportionate for users, while providing the necessary protection for birds.

“We have worked with key stakeholders to test our thinking and we’ve invited evidence from others to inform our work.

“We have commissioned and gathered scientific evidence, and have tested our proposals through a public consultation, to which we received more than 600 responses.

“We are confident that following the Board decisions we have a robust and proportionate approach to our general licences.

“To ensure that we are using the most up to date evidence and data, we will in addition be establishing a formal six-yearly review process for our general licences.”

The decisions made by Natural Resources Wales will mean the following changes to general licences from 1 July:

  • Species whose populations in Wales are significantly declining will not normally be considered suitable for listing on general licences.
  • No additional species will be added to the scope of general licences at this time.
  • The general licence for the purpose of preventing serious damage to crops and livestock will specify which species of birds may be controlled to prevent which types of damage.
  • The general licence for the purpose of conserving wild birds will allow the control of carrion crow only, to conserve a list of Birds of Conservation Concern (BoCC) red or amber listed species which breed in Wales and which are considered vulnerable to predation by carrion crow.
  • A general licence will continue to be issued for the control of feral pigeon for protecting public health and safety. Controlling any species of gull for this purpose will continue to require applying for specific licences.
  • Using cage traps to control wild birds will be subject to a number of new conditions and advice concerning animal welfare and reducing risk of bycatch.
  • The number of SSSIs where general licences may be used will be increased.
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