Licensing scheme for release of pheasants & red-legged partridge in England following Wild Justice legal challenge

Press release from Wild Justice (30th October 2020)

Wild Justice secures an historic environmental legal victory

Just days away from facing a barrage of legal arguments in court (on 3 and 4 November) DEFRA has agreed to license the release of Pheasants and Red-legged Partridges to control ecological damage to wildlife sites.  

Wild Justice mounted a legal challenge to make DEFRA review harmful gamebird impacts and introduce proper protection for wildlife sites and we have got DEFRA to address both.  There is more to do to make sure this regulation is made to stick but we have reached the limit of what the legal system can do at this stage. 

Wild Justice expects that a proper licensing system, compliant with the Habitats Directive, will require the following actions: 

  • Adding the Pheasant and Red-legged Partridge to Schedule 9 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act, which contains species which cause ecological, environmental or socio-economic harm (such as Signal Crayfish, Grey Squirrel, Ruddy Duck, Japanese Knotweed).  This means that those species can only be released under licence.  
  • Refusing to license gamebird releases on or within 1km of Natura 2000 sites unless stringent conditions on numbers of birds released are met.  
  • A ban on the use of lead ammunition on or within 1km of all Natura 2000 sites. 
  • Further research on impacts of predation by Pheasants on threatened reptiles such as Common Lizards and Adders. 
  • Further assessment of the influence of gamebird droppings on soil and water chemistry. 
  • Further monitoring of impacts of gamebird releases on densities of scavenging and predatory birds and mammals. 
  • 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’re delighted! And we thank our brilliant lawyers at Leigh Day and Matrix Chambers and hundreds of people who contributed to our crowdfunder which allowed us to take this case.

This is an 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.

This move forward was only possible because of the legal protection given to the environment by the EU Habitats Directive (incidentally, largely drafted by Stanley Johnson, father of the Prime Minister). On 1 January, at the end of the Transition Period, the Habitats Directive and other EU legislation will still be relevant to UK environmental protection but each government in the UK could, in theory and in practice, start amending those laws.  Society should be vigilant that environmental protection is not whittled away.

There is more to do in making sure this regulation is made to stick but we have reached the limit of what the legal system can do at this stage. We called for review of gamebird impacts and proper protection of wildlife sites and we have got DEFRA to address both’.


  1. Wild Justice is a not-for-profit company set up by Dr Mark Avery, Chris Packham CBE and Dr Ruth Tingay
  2. Pheasants and Red-legged Partridges are non-native species which are bred in captivity and released in vast numbers (around 60 million a year) for recreational shooting. These birds are omnivores and their huge numbers can damage vegetation, fragile invertebrate communities and soils. Their droppings can affect soil and water chemistry. They may spread diseases to native wildlife. They provide abundant food for some predator and scavengers whose elevated population levels may then affect other species.
  3. Natura 2000 sites are those designated under the Birds Directive and Habitats Directive, and form some of the most important sites for nature conservation in the UK. 
  4. BASC described the Wild Justice legal challenge as ‘an attack on shooting’, ‘vexatious’ and ‘deeply flawed’ back in January and pledged to fight the legal action.


A press release from Wild Justice’s legal team at Leigh Day can be read here

For more information on this case and other Wild Justice legal challenges, both current and forthcoming, check out the Wild Justice blog (here) and subscribe to the free Wild Justice newsletter (here).

44 thoughts on “Licensing scheme for release of pheasants & red-legged partridge in England following Wild Justice legal challenge”

  1. Well that turned out well, so far. It remains to be seen if licences are handed out to any applicant with no reasonable conditions. The Wild Justice newsletter conditions are the minimum bit will they ever appear?
    I fear that WJ may need to go to court again
    Well done.

  2. To me the huge importance is that the State has conceded that managing land for driven shooting cannot be carried out in isolation from that land’s ecological requirements .

    To quote Churchill, “this is not the end, nor even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

  3. When the ability to ignore and defer issues expire, then, and only then, do we start to see some progress. Thanks for the efforts so far. they have acknowledged that the issue has to be addressed, the next step is ensure that the implementation actually delivers the safeguards that are needed.

  4. Superb result. The whole Wild Justice concept is brilliant: an entity focused on legal challenges to the failure of government to uphold its own environmental and wildlife protection laws is long overdue and can do things that more established conservation groups, like the RSPB, just cannot take on.

    If they don’t they are criticised for failing to act to protect a small area of their total focus. If they do, like the RSPCA, they are criticised for wasting members money, especially if they lose the case.

    1. A superb result indeed Simon, but I disagree with your assertion that the RSP(of some)B ‘just cannot take on’. ‘Will not take on’ would be a more accurate assessment and – it should be noted – WJ won the case. My backing (and money) goes to WJ every time. The law is the law and it can be challenged by anyone with the resources (and it’s safe to say that the RSP(of some)B definitely has the resources…) to make a legal challenge.

      1. To be fair to the RSPB, they’re not a “cash rich” charity as their income goes out into conservation almost immediately, and they do spend massive amounts on protecting land and the like. I suppose it’s possible to say they could do more but they already do a lot!

        1. Aye Steve they do do a lot of stuff, but in the area of killing birds for fun their action or more accurately inaction is woeful. Besides, is the unregulated release of 62 million non-native birds into the environment each year not a major conservation issue regardless of the ethics? I’m not sure how you figure that they are not “cash rich” when their own figures quote over £100 million for conservation p.a. and they are usually in the top 20 UK charities by income.

          I’m not sure what WJ’s action has cost (perhaps Ruth could enlighten us?) but it will be in the tens of thousands funded by people who care passionately about these issues; some of whom have lost faith in ‘establishment charities’ such as the RSPB. I suspect that the RSPB raise more than WJ’s legal costs selling cups of coffee at their visitor centres! In other words they could easily have taken this action.

          1. More can, of course, always be done, but they do tread a fine line between out-and-out activism and genuine advocacy, and tend to err on the side of negotiation. They obviously don’t want to alienate an entire group, but obviously this doesn’t sit well with some – on both sides of the argument (Christ, I hope I didn’t sound like Trump just then!).

            On the cash thing, they spend their income within a few months of receiving it and the “set-aside” money is enough to keep them going for only a few months, should their income dry up entirely. That’s more of a common sense business, thing really.

            But I totally understand what you mean – it’ll be interesting to see how things transpire now with this brilliant result from WJ, and also another recent success with Langholm Moor. Perhaps the landscape will begin to change…

            1. I hear what you’re saying Steve and agree that they prefer negotiation. My point here would be that negotiation – for decades – with the bird killers has failed, utterly. Would to do then? I would also argue that they have already alienated the bird killers, not because they have been particularly effective, it’s just that the bird killers will not be told what to do by anyone and they overreact to even the mildest criticism. Anyway, so what if the RSPB alienated the bird killers; what has the RSPB got to lose?

              They spend £100+ million in a few months? Wow, that’s a lot of cash swilling about in a very short time but I maintain that it is down to ‘will’ not lack of dosh as the reason why the RSPB are not ‘activist’ enough.

              Langholm moor is a good news story indeed and I hope that the WJ’s victory yields something with teeth. The jury’s out…

              1. Ha, that’s true, there do seem to be a lot of overreactions from “their” side, don’t there? Point taken.

                I’m sure there are a fair few people within the RSPB who would like to do more – perhaps things will change as time goes on, fingers crossed. I’ll be carrying on supporting them regardless, we’d likely be in a much worse state without them.

      2. “but I disagree with your assertion that the RSP(of some)B ‘just cannot take on’. ‘Will not take on’ would be a more accurate assessment”

        The Charter of the RSPB states: “The Society shall take no part in the question of the killing of game birds and legitimate sport of that character except when such practices have an impact on the Objects.”

        1. Indeed it does Keith Old Boy. So, what part of releasing 60-odd million non-native birds into the environment
          – with the concomitant environmental impact (that is the point of the legal challenge) – contravenes ‘The [sacred] Charter’? This is a conservation issue, plain and simple, with no position taken on the actual killing of birds for fun. Therefore, the RSP(of some)B could have easily taken similar action. Why didn’t they?

          Additionally, of course, ‘The Charter’ could be changed; it is not a tablet of stone, except maybe for some RSP(of some)B die-hard apologists. The continuing existence of ‘The Charter’ confirms that the RSP(of some)B remains hamstrung by the bird killers and is a busted flush in this area.

          1. The Charter is what this person allows the RSPB to do – ELIZABETH THE SECOND by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Our other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith.

            Mrs Windsor describes the contents of the Charter thus:


            Of course, before her it was:

            WHEREAS His late Majesty King Edward the Seventh did by Royal Charter granted on the
            3rd day of November 1904 (hereinafter referred to as ‘the original Charter’) incorporate a body
            corporate and politic by the name of ‘the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds’ (hereinafter
            referred to as ‘the Society’):

            To change it requires the approval of The Privy Council.

  5. It’s all very well to say that Natural England will monitor sites, but they have insufficient funds to carry out statutory duties fully. Resources must follow imposed duties.

    1. Absolutely true, Nick. But the gauntlet has now been thrown down. We can only take one step at a time, so must wait and see how effective is the response. The legal system may have a view on that, too, in time…

      Congratulations to Wild Justice:-)

  6. Excellent and brilliant work by all involved. I am exceptionally hopeful that their are some glum, downtrodden and very hopefully agog with realisation, expressions on a lot of the gun toting faces Another nail……

  7. Yes, what about Scotland. Our government will make noises, carry out a 2 year review and ask the shooting industry to oversea the review as they are a stakeholder. When the review is published the government will recommend a further 2/5 years to wait and see what happens. In other words do precisely nothing.
    Just like Werrity, we are now in the autumn and our much promised answers are still stuck in someones filing cabinet gathering dust.

  8. It might turn out that it becomes a “fight over numbers” – the ecological limit being less, probably much less, than the numbers required to make or keep a shoot viable. It’s been reported that some shoots far exceed existing guidelines.
    A drastic reduction to that would probably meet with resistance – or with an undertaking to increase environmental positives on the estate. Wherever this leads it is a step in the right direction. There is a suggestion that environmental damage is virtually nil beyond 500 metres of release site. That immediately distracts from the “numbers released” discussion – there has to be a limit to the maximum number of released birds at any one release site with a limit to the number of release sites in a given area.

    1. My understanding, Jeremy, is that ALL future releases will be subject to a license because Pheasant and Red-legged Partridge should/will be added to Schedule 9 of the W&CA. That means there should follow research on the wider ecological effects of mass non-native gamebird releases on our reptile and scavenger/predator numbers…

      1. I don’t think that you are right Keith. Paras 24 to 28 of the DEFRA witness statement to the court seems quite clear. Section 16 licence (under Schedule 9) will only be needed within 500 m of a EPS.

        1. Thanks for the information. Having now read the DEFRA witness statement in full, I agree with you. The key paragraph is no 28:

          Section 14 Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 – Licensing Regime Proposal

          28. Section 14 WCA 1981 prevents the release into the wild of certain plants and animals
          which may cause ecological, environmental, or socio-economic harm. Under this section,
          the release of any species (non-native and other species) that are listed on Schedule 9
          Part 1 of the Act is an offence, except under a Section 16 licence. Adding the red-legged
          partridge and common pheasant to Schedule 9, which will require a statutory instrument
          subject to the negative resolution procedure, would mean a licence would be required to
          release these species. However, unlike other species listed, Defra intends for there to be
          a geographic limitation to the prohibition on releases of these two species, focused on
          European protected sites and a buffer zone around these sites. The protected site would
          be subject to the existing SSSI consenting regime as well as the new licensing regime itself.

          1. Thanks for the answers, Keith and Tim. It looks like SSSI’s don’t come under the licensing provisions then, unless they are also SPA’s or SAC’s?. And they are not relevant in the devolved natioins either.

            So although the court case achieved its aims, the aims were rather limited.

            1. I think the case has to be considered an essential first step.

              “There is more to do to make sure this regulation is made to stick but we have reached the limit of what the legal system can do at this stage”

              Note: at this stage.

              “Wild Justice expects that a proper licensing system, compliant with the Habitats Directive, will require the following actions…”

              .. is possibly a next stage?

  9. It’s too soon to get ecstatic about this. Last time Wild Justice claimed victory on the issue of Pheasant release, in a case against Natural England a few months ago, NE retaliated by appointing the Game Industry itself (in this case, Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust) to write the resulting policy review, not surprisingly a whitewash kicked into the long grass. So how do we stop GWCT hijacking this “victory” too? The licence conditions must set much lower limits than current numbers, and the numbers released by each shoot at each and every release site must put into the public domain, together with the number shot and an assessment of the environmental impact of those that aren’t shot (currently about 65%). We need to be able to work out the impact of each shoot. Foxes, crows and other predators, numbers fuelled by their supplementary diet of released pheasants, are eliminating the south of England Curlew population, which is likely to half in the next 10-15 years, and be almost extinct within 30 years. We haven’t got much time left to save them, and we can’t afford to be out-manoeuvred by the shooting industry again. “Licencing” without an underlying policy, effective monitoring and accountability, is pointless.

  10. Wild Justice is just another way of spelling BALLS. Well done all!

    Pity, however, that the RSP of some B with all its dosh never thought this strategy up over the last 20 years or so. Ho hum. Anyway, whilst I definitely don’t want to rain on the WJ parade, I suspect that (a no doubt well-miffed) DEFRA has already got the appropriate ‘we-do-as-our-masters-tell-us’ licensing rubber stamp on order from the stationers. Time will tell and I truly hope I’m wrong.

  11. The (pheasant) shit has just hit the fan. But the fan will spin for a long while yet and this will probably mark the beginning of a serious no-holds barred dirty tricks campaign. This is a huge thing…like securing a beachhead on D-Day. Well done to all involved & thank you.

  12. Fantastic result! Pound for pound I doubt any other organisation packs the punch for conservation that WJ does. Well done Ruth, Chris and Mark!

  13. The devil will be in the detail.
    I think we can now expect a lot of lobbying, deceit and a campaign of misinformation from the game shooting industry, Countryside Alliance and the those with a vested interests, to try and undermine the credibility of the science which supports the limitation of the number of game birds released into the countryside.
    Expect the other side to come up with “alternative facts” !!!
    Of course “alternative facts” aren’t true, but if presented with enough venom and noise could undermine and weaken any licensing system.
    The first salvo has now been fired, but the battle will no doubt be long, messy, and no doubt very dirty.
    The other side will see this as an attack on their way of life.
    People who take joy out of killing animals for a pleasure are generally not very nice!!!
    So don’t expect them to roll over and accept any licensing system which puts the protection of natural wildlife and the environment at its core!!!

    1. Wise words John. People who like killing wildlife and non-native battery-reared birds for fun are also very well connected and are used to getting their own way. I suspect that the numbers of releases of non-native feathered targets will continue to rise year- on-year with a tweak or two in release locations (who is going to check?) and DEFRA hiring more staff to print licences to keep their pals happy.

  14. Well done WJ. Fully agree with Les’s comment above. Somewhere in and amongst any new regulations flowing from this massive step forward we need something which will ensure that anyone applying for a licence has to demonstrate an appropriate degree of competence in setting up a shoot. Currently any old Mickey Mouse can set one up with little regard for the consequences. I’m thinking in particular of the effect on neighbouring properties and proximity to busy roads.

      1. “So this presumes the restricted birds won’t travel more than 500m in any numbers?”

        No, it does not. It concerns very specific environmental damage centred on release pens. You need to read the court papers…

  15. Good news, a step in the right direction. Any licensing is only as good as the impartiality and knowledge of those doing the assessments, and the backbone of those doing the enforcement. It would be useful if future court judgements could define whether released gamebirds are legally ‘livestock’ or ‘wild birds’ as well, the shooters tend to switch between these terms when it suits them to benefit their agenda.

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