Pheasants and partridges are to be classified alongside Japanese knotweed and grey squirrels as species that imperil native wildlife, the government has announced. People with shooting interests in England will have to apply for a licence to release the non-native birds near nature reserves.
The surprise announcement came after a legal challenge by the campaign group Wild Justice, which successfully argued that European protections obliged the authorities to regulate about 60 million non-native pheasants and partridges let loose into the countryside to be shot each year.
The RSPB and other conservationists welcomed the decision, saying the increase in pheasants and partridges being released into Britain, from around 4 million annually in the early 1970s to an estimated 60 million today, was damaging native wildlife, including reptiles, insects and plants.
From 2021 the Department for Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (Defra) will require shoots in England to seek a licence to release the captive-bred birds within 500 metres of protected areas, such as Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and Special Protection Areas (SPAs).
The new legal requirement for releasing the birds, now classified as a species that causes ecological, environmental or socio-economic harm, could affect a quarter of English shoots. Wild Justice estimates the measure could reduce the annual number of pheasants and partridges being released by 7.5 million.
“This is a good first step in bringing the unregulated shooting industry under control,” said Mark Avery, co-founder of Wild Justice. “Pheasants and partridges gobble up native vegetation, insects and reptiles, and they leave their droppings all over sensitive habitats. When they are dead, they are feeding foxes and scavengers, which then eat other protected species.
“Wild Justice thinks many people in the shooting community agree with us that numbers of pheasants and partridges released need to be brought down. This is not a wacky idea. It’s not a ban on shooting, it’s bringing the level down to an ecologically sensible one.”
George Eustice, the environment secretary, said: “The negative effects of game-bird releases on protected sites tend to be localised, with minimal or no effects beyond 500m from the point of release. However, our review highlighted a need to gain a better understanding of how any localised impacts might be mitigated and existing arrangements strengthened.”
Shooting groups reacted with anger to the licensing system, which they said could be unlawful and was not justified by scientific evidence. According to a coalition of the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, the Countryside Alliance, the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation and the Game Farmers’ Association, the negative effects of releasing game birds were “highly localised” and must be weighed against the strong evidence of landscape-scale benefits from woodland management associated with shooting.
“Defra’s proposed red tape under the precautionary principle will do little but threaten rural jobs, conservation efforts and a host of social benefits that shooting provides,” a spokesperson for the shooting coalition said. “If Defra is to secure cooperation from the shooting community, it must do better. At the moment, there is a great deal of scepticism that an unknown licensing system run by an underfunded public body can fix something that is not known to be ecologically damaging.”
Although the new interim licensing system only applies to England, Wild Justice said it expected other UK nations to adopt a similar system to avoid legal challenges.
Defra will conduct a consultation on a permanent licensing system, with shooting groups pushing for something matching the industry’s current self-regulation.
Eustice said: “We will continue to engage and consult with industry in order to minimise any disruption.”
Wild Justice said it would be seeking the licensing of all shoots within 1km of protected sites, alongside a ban on the use of lead ammunition on or within 1km of those sites.
Carol Day, of solicitors Leigh Day, which brought the action for Wild Justice, said: “The decision to establish a licensing regime for the introduction of some 60 million gamebirds a year is a major breakthrough in regulating the impacts of these non-native birds on our most valuable wildlife sites.”
Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, chair of the all-party parliamentary group for shooting and conservation, said: “Many parliamentarians are concerned to ensure that shooting is not damaged by whatever Defra does. We will be fighting for a sensible evidence-based and proportionate outcome.”