Interim Gamebird Release Licence in England

Page 1 of 15

Closes 15 Mar 2021


This consultation seeks your views on the proposed interim licensing regime for the release of common pheasants and red-legged partridges on Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and Special Protection Areas (SPAs)[1] and within a 500m buffer zone around them in England.  All of these SACs and SPAs are also Sites of Special Scientific Interest but are subject to additional protections.  In England, these sites are protected by the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017 (as amended).

In response to a legal challenge, Defra commissioned a review to consider the legislative arrangements around the release of the common pheasant and red-legged partridge on and around SPAs and SACs and whether there are ways in which their effectiveness could be improved. As part of that review, an independent report[2] - “Ecological Consequences of Gamebird Releasing and Management on Lowland Shoots in England" - was considered. The report took the form of a rapid evidence assessment and was jointly commissioned by Natural England and the British Association for Shooting and Conservation and published on August 20, 2020. The report summarises the impacts of gamebird release on habitats and species and identifies a number of key issues that influence the impacts (notably overall number of birds, the density at which they are released, and siting of their release pens), as well as a number of evidence gaps.

Based on the key findings of the report, Natural England issued advice[3] to Defra as follows:

  1. The negative effects from gamebird pre-release and release that are supported by the strongest evidence relate to eutrophication (nutrient enrichment) of soil and the depletion of vegetation immediately within and around release pens and feeding stations.  These effects are density dependent. The available evidence indicates that smaller releases (≤1000 birds/hectare) in line with existing ‘good practice guidelines’ (i.e. the ‘Guidelines for sustainable gamebird releasing published by Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust) have little or no discernible eutrophication or vegetation depletion effects beyond a relatively limited distance (up to 15m) from release pens and feeding stations.
  1. Negative effects tend to be localised and studies indicate minimal or no effects beyond 500m (on a precautionary basis) from the point of release.  Most studies tend to be within 300m of the point of release or within pens thus there is no direct evidence of the effects at or beyond this distance. However, Natural England concluded[4] that negative effects beyond 500m are likely to be minimal because studies also show that dispersal of birds tends to be less than 500m from the release sites and the negative effects in consideration are linked to the presence of birds.
  1. There is strong evidence of associated benefits for biodiversity from general woodland management associated with shooting but a limited evidence base on the positive effects of general habitat management associated with gamebird management which may benefit native biodiversity.

To manage any potential impacts while the current evidence gaps are addressed, the Secretary of State has decided to put in place an interim licensing regime for 2021 to regulate the releases of common pheasant and red legged partridge within SACs and SPAs and within a 500m buffer zone around the sites. This will be accompanied by additional measures, aimed at improving the evidence base about the impact of release of these species on individual sites. To do this, a Statutory Instrument (SI) will need to add the common pheasant and red legged partridge to the list of non-native species in Schedule 9 Part 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (WCA 1981). This is because section 14 WCA 1981 makes it an offence to release any of the species that are listed on Schedule 9 Part 1 unless it is done in accordance with the terms of a licence granted under section 16 of the WCA 1981.  The purpose of these provisions is to prevent the release into the wild of non-native animals which may cause ecological, environmental, or socio-economic harm. By adding the red-legged partridge and common pheasant to the list of non-native animals in Part 1, Schedule 9, it would mean a licence would be required to release them into the wild.  However, unlike other non-native species listed in this provision, Defra is proposing there should be a geographic limitation to the prohibition on releases of the red-legged partridge and common pheasant, focused on SACs and SPAs and a 500m buffer zone around these sites.  The protected site would be subject to any relevant SSSI consenting regime as well as the new licensing regime itself. 

Defra’s aim is to develop an interim licensing regime that is effective, practical and proportionate. The proposed interim licensing regime would require a general licence for the release of common pheasants and red-legged partridges on SACs and SPAs and within a 500m buffer zone of these sites. The general licence will be applicable to all relevant users without the need for a specific application provided the conditions included within it are met. The detail of the potential proposed conditions is explored within this consultation.

Defra proposes that eighty-seven of the relevant sites are excluded from the licensing regime.  These sites are either marine or estuarine sites wholly below the mean high-water mark or terrestrial sites with designated features considered not to be sensitive to non-native gamebird releases.

Defra is further proposing an individual licence will be required for any releases on two specific sites that are already subject to enforcement action by Natural England due to adverse impacts of gamebird releasing. An individual licence will also be required for any releases which cannot comply with the above stated conditions. Individual licenses will be issued by Natural England.

The duration of the interim licensing regime will be determined by the time taken to ensure a sufficiently robust means of understanding and managing the impact of gamebird releases on or around SACs or SPAs in light of the latest evidence. This is likely to be achieved through a combination of developments including a review of existing consents against the latest evidence for this activity by Natural England. The information collated from this consultation will inform longer term policy recommendations. The consultation includes a proposal for the statutory instrument to expire after three years.

Anyone relying on the general licence to release gamebirds on an SAC or SPA must still comply with any existing requirements. For example, where relevant activities are listed as an operation likely to damage on the SSSI notification, they must have a SSSI consent from Natural England prior to undertaking or permitting the releasing of common pheasants and/or red-legged partridge and any related activities (including, for example,  erection and maintenance of releasing structures, supplementary feeding, vehicle use, shooting) and must comply with the terms and conditions of that consent. They must also register their releases with the Animal Plant and Health Agency.