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VICTORY! Wild Justice proves that trigger-happy Tories acted unlawfully

Campaign group Wild Justice has announced the fantastic news that it has won a legal challenge against the government. The group took action after it found out that Defra had approved gamebird licences that Wild Justice knew were unlawful.

Land owners who want to release pheasants and partridges near a Special Protected Area (SPA) must apply for a licence. In 2023, Natural England called for greater limits on the release of pheasants and partridges as avian flu ran rampant among wild bird populations. In June, July and August 2023, then-Environment Secretary Therese Coffey – or Richard Benyon, acting on her behalf – issued 1 licence for the release of birds to be shot in the Deben Estuary Special Protection Area, and 27 licences for the Breckland Special Protection Area.

Wild Justice took action because:

“The process for granting or refusing these licences was particularly murky…something we blogged about last year. Through some digging, we managed to find out that licenses for the Deben Estuary and for 27 sites in Breckland were granted despite being protected areas – and we wanted to know why.”

Wild Justice continued:

“The crucial aspect of this case is that Defra ministers did not follow Natural England’s formal advice on issuing these licences. Instead, Therese Coffey and Richard Benyon adjusted the terms of the licences to weaken the protection that they would give to wild birds and these changes made life easier for shooters.”

Indeed, Natural England advised Defra that the Deben Estuary licence should be refused, and it recommended to Defra that the 27 licences in Breckland should be delayed, as pheasant release pens were located in Woodlark and Stone Curlew habitats. The advice was ignored.

The group continued:

“Wild Justice challenged the lawfulness of these licences on three grounds. Defra has now conceded on the first ground and admitted that the issuing of these licences was unlawful because the ministers involved could show ‘no cogent reasons’ why Natural England’s advice was not heeded. We interpret Defra’s words on Ground 2 as a concession too. We also believe that had this case gone to court then we would have won on the Ground 3 too – but we’ll never know.”

Ground 2 referred to the fact that “there was no assessment which complied with Regulation 63 of the Habitat Regulations (which requires an “appropriate assessment”) to be carried out.” And Ground 3, which Defra strongly disputed, alleged that the government department’s decisions were “tainted by the appearance of
bias”
.

Defra is being forced to pay £35,000 of costs to Wild Justice.

The Tories can’t be trusted

Wild Justice said:

“Let’s be quite clear here – Defra ministers did not adhere to the legal requirements of the Habitats Directive and the advice of their own conservation agency. Not only that; they were unable to give good reasons for why they didn’t.

Does it matter? Yes, it always matters if politicians act unlawfully. Yes, it matters when the most powerful politicians running government departments act unlawfully. And yes it matters very much if there is any suspicion that ministers are ignoring the law in order to please particular interest groups.”

It is clear that the Tories can not be trusted in key positions where they should be protecting the interests of Britain’s wildlife. Protect the Wild has previously written about Defra minister Benyon, a millionaire who owns the 14,000 acre Englefield shooting estate. We covered his role in overruling Natural England’s recommendations to grant the shooting licences on the SPAs. Documents obtained by openDemocracy showed that all decisions to overrule Natural England were made in meetings attended by lobbyist Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, of which Benyon was previously a trustee.

We also wrote about how Robbie Douglas-Miller was recently appointed a baron by the king, which allowed the Scottish shooting estate owner to become Defra’s unelected Minister for Biosecurity, Animal Health and Welfare.

At the time, we stated:

“we have a British minister who, just a couple of months before his Defra appointment, actively lobbied the Scottish government against the protection of raptors (which should already be protected under British law, but are regularly found poisoned on or near shooting estates). Such conflicts of interest make a mockery of Britain’s so-called democracy.”

And in July 2023, we wrote about how Defra had appointed Heather Hancock, a grouse moor owner, to a key position as lead non-executive board member. At the time, Charlie Moores wrote:

“Why should that concern Defra? Well, Hen Harriers are perhaps the UK’s most persecuted bird of prey, and research published by Natural England found that the likelihood of Hen Harriers dying or disappearing is ten times higher in areas covered by grouse moors… The RSPB recently called the suspicious disappearance of two Hen Harriers in the Forest of Bowland “a huge blow for a struggling species”.

As the government department “responsible for improving and protecting the environment” and which has a direct interest in Natural England’s disastrous Hen Harrier brood-meddling scheme, you might think the activities of moors and moor owners would be on their radar.”

The trigger-happy Tories’ clear conflicts of interest – and the fact that Wild Justice lawyers have clearly proved that ministers have acted unlawfully – shows that this party needs to be ousted as a matter of urgency. The next General Election – which is thought to take place in November – will be crucial for survival of Hen Harriers, for badgers, and for foxes. Because if the Tories are elected again, the fate of wildlife in the UK will look very, very bleak.