Last weekend thousands of people took part in the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch, the results of which will be reported here later in the year. This event, whilst focusing on the everyday birds of our gardens and parks, symbolises people’s love of birds, from the humble sparrow to the majestic golden eagle. It is ironic, therefore, to learn that perhaps thousands of these apparently harmless birds are legally killed every year.

According to a report in the magazine ‘Birdguides’ in the last three years licences have been granted to kill both common and red-listed birds of conservation concern. The common species involved include, incredibly, robin, blackbird, linnet, wren, starling, moorhen, song thrush and mistle thrush. Endangered birds include the red-listed lapwing and curlew, two species which conservation bodies have been working to protect for years.

The licences are issued by Natural England and Natural Resources Wales. Often the justification is the somewhat opaque reason of ‘public safety’. It’s not immediately obvious how, to take a couple of examples, moorhens or wrens could be a danger to the public. More understandable, but still questionable, are air safety, and birds trapped in food preparation areas (although a ‘trapped’ bird should be fairly easily secured and released outside). Protection of livestock is another reason for issuing a licence, thus a thousand starlings were shot to ‘prevent serious damage to cattle feed’.

 

One of the problems with lethal control of perceived pests is that it tends to become a permanent operation as new arrivals and increased survival of youngsters replace those killed. (This is why most attempts to reduce grey squirrel numbers fail.) The ideal way of acting is to employ non-lethal methods of control, such as exclusion, deterrence and disturbance. To be fair the advice and conditions given in relation to licences do cover this and other points.

The agencies mentioned insist that applicants are required to demonstrate that all reasonable alternatives have been tried or considered. Licences are time-limited, there is a maximum number of birds allowed to be killed (although how anyone can verify that is difficult to see) and the licence holder has to report what has happened within 14 days.

It’s all a bit curious, and smacks of a latent culture of shooting wildlife persisting in some quarters. You had better warn your garden visitors to behave themselves!

Twitter: @PeteWestbrom