Coffey unlawfully granted gamebird release licences

The 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.

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). These 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.

This week 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 the court revealed that advice was given by civil servants to Ms Coffey and Lord 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. 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 and the British Trust for Ornithology in order avoid the perception of bias. This advice from DEFRA was not followed.

A spokesperson from Wild Justice said, “Defra had ‘No cogent reasons’ to disregard Natural England’s expert advice. We challenged these decisions because government is bound by the law, just as the rest of us are.”

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