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What are General Licences?

Wild birds are protected in law by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (the primary legislation protecting animals, plants, and certain habitats in the UK), but there are a number of specific exemptions that are covered by what are known as Individual (or Specific) Licences (which need to be applied for through a statutory nature conservation agency) and General Licences (which do not).

 
General Licences are wide-ranging, and – in reality – exist in name only. There are no forms to fill in or papers to print off, yet they set out the purposes and circumstances under which killing otherwise protected birds and/or removing their nests is legal. In effect they allow otherwise unqualified landowners to kill wild birds without breaking the law.
pair of wood pigeons

General Licences are issued by Defra (the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs) who say on their website that, “General licences are permissive licences, meaning that users do not need to apply for them, but they must comply with their terms and conditions, when undertaking licensed acts. They allow users to kill or take certain species of wild birds for defined purposes such as preventing serious damage to certain commodities such as livestock and crops, for the purposes of conserving wild birds, plants and animals, or for public health and safety reasons.”

In theory, then, anyone ‘authorised’ (a landowner or someone working with the landowners’ permission) can claim they are using a General Licence. They do not need to be specifically applied for and they are not issued to individuals.

The terms of and the species on the General Licences were extensively revised, however, by Defra in 2021 after a court challenge by Wild Justice who successfully argued that licences across the UK were flawed and were often simply a cover for shooting interests, not conservation interests, to carry out the casual killing of birds.

In some circumstances, they argued, General Licences were unlawful because they did not specify the circumstances under which their use would be lawful and that there were some species included with unfavourable conservation status (like Lesser Black-backed Gull) that should never have been on the General Licences in the first place. 

The General Licences do still allow wild birds to be killed though or – in some cases – their nests to be removed. They are open to interpretation perhaps, but are at least more robust than pre-2021.

The most relevant three licences in operation are:

 

Note that General Licences are available for use on and around protected sites, “provided that the user complies with any conditions that apply to that site and has consent from Natural England where needed“.

 

 

Additionally, there are more strict Individual Licences available.

These relate to permission to take an action to “control wild birds” that would otherwise break the law and which is not covered by a General Licence. An applicant must apply to a statutory nature conservation agency (Natural England, Nature Scot, Natural Resources Wales, and for a licence and the agency will then decide whether that situation merits a licence or not. If they agree they will then issue a licence to a named individual for that action to take place. An example would be A08 which allows certain species to be ‘controlled’ under strict conditions to “prevent disease or serious damage to livestock, foodstuffs for livestock, crops, vegetables, fruit, growing timber, fisheries or inland waters“.

Note that what constitutes serious damages includes financial loss, meaning that individuals can (and do) apply for licences to kill fish-eating birds like Cormorants and sawbill ducks. 

A named licence holder can use this licence to control wild birds, their nests and eggs by:

  • disturbing them
  • killing them
  • taking them
  • using a prohibited method of control on them
 

Should a licence be refused but the applicant carries out the action anyway, they would be breaking the law.