THE UK Government has conceded a claim by environmental group Wild Justice alleging the unlawful grant of licences for the release of gamebirds in and around two protected habitats. Documents disclosed to Wild Justice showed that the licences had been granted against the advice of Natural England and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ expert panel.

Between July and October 2023, the former Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Thérèse Coffey, along with Lord Richard Benyon, who at the time was Minister of State for Biosecurity, Marine and Rural Affairs, unlawfully granted 28 gamebird release licences in and around the Breckland and Deben Estuary Special Protection Areas (SPAs). They allowed the release of gamebirds such as pheasant and red-legged partridge into areas specially selected to protect rare or threatened species of wild birds.

Wild Justice applied for a judicial review of the decision to grant the licences, arguing:

  • The decisions were taken in breach of the Habitats Regulations in that there were no cogent reasons given to depart from the judgement of Natural England, the Government’s statutory adviser on nature conservation under the regulations, that licences should not be granted.
  • Regulation 63 of the Habitats Regulations was not complied with, which requires an “appropriate assessment” by a competent authority to be carried out.
  • The decisions appeared to be tainted by bias.

This week the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) conceded it had acted unlawfully in failing to provide cogent reasons for departing from Natural England’s advice and failing to undertake an appropriate assessment that complied with the Habitats Regulations.

Its disclosures to Wild Justice and the court revealed that advice was given by civil servants to Thérèse Coffey and  Richard Benyon which said that the grant of the licences might be unlawful.

Natural England’s advice was that, in order to prevent any adverse impacts on rare wild birds as a result of the spread of bird flu from the release of the gamebirds, licences for one of the SPAs should not be issued at all and that licences could only be issued for the other SPA under strict conditions. However, licences were granted for releases in and around both SPAs without complying with Natural England’s advice.

Instead, the Secretary of State and Lord Benyon took advice from the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT), which has strong links with the shooting industry and promotes game management as a key part of nature conservation. Lord Benyon had also previously been a GWCT trustee until 2021.

In light of this, the Secretary of State was advised by her civil servants to request information from other groups such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and the British Trust for Ornithology in order avoid the perception of bias. This advice from DEFRA was not followed.

A number of the licencing applicants were also personally known to Lord Benyon and civil servants advised that an alternative minister should make the licensing decisions in those cases. That also did not happen.

A spokesperson from Wild Justice said: “Defra had ‘No cogent reasons’ to disregard Natural England’s expert advice. So to find out that Therese Coffey and Richard Benyon have licensed releases of pheasants and partridges into what are supposed to be some of our most precious places, against that advice – and during a catastrophic outbreak of bird flu – it frankly reeks of both recklessness and arrogance. It seems to us they may have had more regard for the interests of the shooting industry than those of the environment in this matter. Natural England has faced legal challenges by Wild Justice in each of the past five years, but in this case we support them and have stood up for them. We challenged these decisions because government is bound by the law, just as the rest of us are. We shall expose more about this reprehensible behaviour over the next few weeks.”

Wild Justice is represented by Leigh Day solicitors Ricardo Gama and Carol Day, and barristers David Wolfe KC and Katy Sheridan of Matrix Chambers.

Carol Day said: “We are pleased that the UK Government Legal Department has conceded that the decision to grant the licences was unlawful, with key documents in the claim revealing that the decision breached the Habitats Regulations and failed to explain why the Secretary of State went against Natural England’s advice. Our client maintains the view that these decisions were influenced by apparent bias.”

* Source: Leigh Day