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Government commits to review mass release of gamebirds

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has said the Government will review the legislative arrangements for assessing the environmental impact of the annual mass release of non-native gamebirds.

Pheasant

12 September 2019

The announcement of the review by Defra, came in response to a Pre-Action Protocol letter sent by Leigh Day on 10 July 2019. The review could have significant ramifications for the game industry.

The legal letter set out concerns that the annual release, management and shooting of some 60 million non-native gamebirds amounts to a “plan or project” under the Habitats Directive, and that the Government’s ongoing failure in England to assess the impact on protected sites – Special Protection Areas (SPA) and Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) – of the releases is therefore unlawful under the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017. 

Wild Justice’s case was that the activities of releasing, managing and shooting of millions of non-native gamebirds clearly had potential to affect protected sites, and those impacts should be assessed as required by law. 

In her formal response, provided two months after Wild Justice raised the issue, Theresa Villiers MP concedes that the annual release of millions of non-native gamebirds can be a plan or project for the purposes of the Habitats Directive. 

While maintaining that there are legislative arrangements in place that provide for the assessment of impacts, the Secretary of State provided no detail as to whether assessments are in fact currently carried out for any releases that are initially made outside of protected areas but that could affect SACs and SPAs.  

The Secretary of State has now undertaken to review legislative arrangements for assessments. While the detail of the review “will be developed over the coming weeks”, any thorough review is highly likely to result in increased scrutiny of the environmental impacts of those releases of the release of millions of non-native gamebirds in future. 

Wild Justice believes that both individual specific releases, and the cumulative total of annual releases, could impact protected sites. Assuming the review results in proper legislative arrangements being made for assessments, where those assessments conclude that the integrity of a protected site will be adversely affected, then the activity will be prevented by law unless there are “imperative reasons of overriding public interest”.

Wild Justice said:

“We’re delighted to have prompted a government change of policy that will open the door to a review of the ecological impacts of non-native gamebirds on our native flora and fauna. The currently unregulated release of gamebirds for shooting has, the science shows, large potential impacts on the ecological health of our countryside. It is time that these releases are properly assessed and come under proper regulation. We will scrutinise the plans that Defra brings forward in order to assess their ecological value and their compliance with the Directives.”

Carol Day, solicitor from Leigh Day’s environmental team acting for Wild Justice, said: 

“Our client welcomes the Secretary of State’s acceptance that the legislative arrangements that allow the impacts of the annual release of 60 million non-native gamebirds to go unassessed are not good enough and require review.

“It is clear that to be at all meaningful, environmental assessments must consider the cumulative impact of all relevant gamebird releases and not just individual releases.  Our client will scrutinise carefully the review and its outcome.”

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