Environmental campaign group Wild Justice has today welcomed measures announced by the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to ensure that wildlife sites in England are protected from the impact of the annual release of millions of non-native gamebirds.

The announcement was made just a week before a judicial review brought by Wild Justice, challenging Defra's failure to assess the impact of the release of more than 60 million Pheasants and Red-Legged Partridges on Natura 2000 sites (which includes Special Areas of Conservation designated under the Habitats Directive and Special Protection Areas classified under the Wild Birds Directive), was due to be heard in the High Court.

In a last-minute development, Defra has said that it will urgently bring in the following measures by Statutory Instrument to protect European wildlife sites from continuing damage: 

  • Adding the Pheasant and Red-legged Partridge to Schedule 9 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which contains species which cause ecological, environmental or socio-economic harm.  This means that those species can only be released under licence and to do otherwise would be a criminal offence. 
  • Bringing in a general licence which will permit releases of the two gamebird species away from protected wildlife sites but not on them or near them (within 500m is proposed, subject to consultation) unless a number of licence conditions are met.  For example, there will be limits to the numbers of birds that can be released under the General Licence. 
  • Monitoring by Natural England of a large number of sites to ascertain the extent of damage caused by non-native gamebirds. 

Wild Justice said: 

"We are delighted! And we thank our brilliant lawyers and hundreds of people who contributed to our crowdfunder which allowed us to take this case. 

"This is a historic environmental victory by the smallest wildlife NGO in the UK against the massed ranks of government lawyers, DEFRA, Natural England and the shooting industry. 

"Thanks to our legal challenge, the shooting industry faces its largest dose of regulation since a ban on the use of lead ammunition in wildfowling in England in 1999.  Pheasants and Red-legged Partridges are now recognised by government as problem species where their numbers are too high and they cause damage to vegetation, soils, invertebrates, reptiles etc."

Leigh Day solicitor Carol Day 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. Our clients will be examining the detail of the proposed scheme very carefully to ensure that it fulfils the Secretary of State's obligations under the EU Habitats Directive."

Wild Justice was represented in its case by Carol Day and Tessa Gregory of Leigh Day and David Wolfe QC and Anita Davies of Matrix Chambers.

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