Has gamebird releasing been banned in the UK? Was Wild Justice successful? Well, in a word, NO! Here’s what’s really going on with gamebird release...

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If you subscribe to the Wild Justice newsletter to keep an eye on their activities, you would recently have been greeted by the alarming news that: “Defra has agreed to license the release of Pheasants and Red-legged Partridges to control ecological damage to wildlife sites”.

Sensing a whiff of exaggeration, we contacted Defra directly for clarification, and shortly after press releases setting the record straight began to pop-up on the websites if our rural organisations. Unsurprisingly, the Wild Justice newsletter stretches the truth quite considerably. Here’s what actually happened...

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The GWCT published the following...

Last week the campaign group Wild Justice had to withdraw its legal action in relation to gamebird releases because Defra had found a legal solution to their concerns. However, Wild Justice then decided to describe this as a “victory” and, luckily for them, journalists at the Guardian, Telegraph, Times and the Mail appear not to have checked what Defra had actually said here.

Perhaps they assumed a group led by the BBC presenter Chris Packham would not send them misleading information. Either way, the resulting press coverage included some embarrassing errors, including:

* A licensing regime for all gamebird releases will be introduced. This was false. Defra’s statement clarifies that in most cases nothing will change. On certain conservation sites and 500m around them (the ones designated by the EU) shoots will need to ensure that they are compliant with the terms of a new General Licence to release gamebirds.

* Releasing on Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) will be banned. This is false. Only SSSIs that fall within Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and Special Protection Areas (SPAs) are affected by the changes (see below for more detail on SACs and SPAs). On the other SSSIs, gamebird releasing is an activity that is already regulated through the Natural England consenting process.

* Gamebird releasing will be banned within 500m of a Special Protection Area (SPA). This was false too. Defra has said it will be allowed under the new General Licence.

* Shoots will need to apply for a licence to release birds. This was false. Defra has said that in EU-designated sites shoots will need to follow the conditions of a new General Licence next year You can’t actually apply for one of these – they will be published online – but the terms and conditions of the licence need to be followed.

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How can I check if my release pen is on or near one of these European Protected Sites?

Defra has a free online mapping tool called Magic. It looks a little intimidating to begin with because it can display a huge amount of different information, but don’t let that put you off. You will have your answer in minutes if you follow these simple steps

* Click on ‘Get Started’. Click on ‘Designations’ on the left hand side. Clcik on ‘Land Based Designations’.

* Click on ‘Statutory’. Scroll slowly down and click ‘Special Areas of Conservation (England)’, and then tick the second option, which is also called ‘Special Areas of Conservation (England)’.

* Carefully click on ‘Special Protection Areas (England)’ and then tick the second option, which is also called ‘Special Protection Areas (England)’.

* Zoom in on the map. If there are any SAC or SPA sites near you, they will be highlighted.

* There is a useful scale bar in the bottom left hand corner of the map. Zoom until you see 100m displayed, and you can easily see if a release pen is within 500m of one of these sites. You will also see the OS Grid Reference display changing along the bottom of the map as you move the mouse over the map. It’s a very detailed and helpful mapping system.

Game bird releasing FAQs

I thought this was all about Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI)?

No. This is a red herring because SSSIs are a UK level of site protection and this legal dance revolves around sites with EU-level protection. Whilst many SSSIs are also EU protected sites (see SAC and SPA below), you must remember that not all are. Your SSSI may not be designated by the EU at all. You can check your SSSI on the free Defra map following the instructions above.

So what are Special Areas of Conservation (SAC)?

These are sites with habitat and species considered to be most in need of conservation (excluding birds covered by Special Protection Areas) by the EU under the Habitats Regulations.

What about Special Protection Areas (SPAs)?

These sites are designated for rare and vulnerable birds (and for regularly occurring migratory species) by the EU under the Birds Directive.

Where does Natura 2000 come into this?

The EU joined all its SAC and SPA sites together and called the resulting network Natura 2000. It now serves as a shorthand for all EU-designated sites.

BASC published the following...

* BASC alongside the Countryside Alliance, National Gamekeepers’ Organisation and the Game Farmers’ Association were interested parties helping to challenge Wild Justice’s judicial review (JR) in the High Court.

* Wild Justice has now withdrawn its JR – and this has been proclaimed in various quarters as a victory for them.

* The Secretary of State for the Environment (George Eustice) has proposed a release and licensing system that BASC believes is neither proportionate nor required.

* The Code of Good Shooting Practice and British Game Alliance’s Assurance Scheme Standards set a guideline for releasing birds which ensure the environment is not damaged.

* The limits set under normal circumstances are 1,000 birds a hectare and 700 on sensitive sites.

* Defra has said that this is the standard for any licensing system.

* Almost all shoots currently release within those parameters. Those that do not, should.

* Around 90 per cent of the land used for lowland game shooting remains unaffected by this decision.

* In the very few cases where there is evidence that these standards are being breached on protected sites, Natural England (NE) has the power to act.

* Wild Justice asked for a buffer of 5km – but Defra has proposed only 500 meters around the protected sites.

* Wild Justice asked for releasing to be stopped – it won’t be.

* Wild Justice asked for restrictions on 40 per cent of the land area, but only 10 per cent has been proposed.

* Pro-shooting parliamentarians and BASC question the need for a new licence and, if introduced, will be ensuring that Defra issues a workable, evidence-based licence that benefits shooting.

* BASC will reserve its legal position should any future system not be workable, evidence-based and necessary.

* It must be remembered that running a shoot within the guidelines delivers biodiversity net gain.