General Licences

As of 25th April 2019 the General Licences governing control of birds were revoked, but subsequently reinstated in a similar form.  The long term future approach is still being determined and this article may fall behind with the rapid developments.  Please check official sources.

The easiest way to think about UK Wildlife legislation is that almost everything starts off protected. There are then specific variations which allow individual species of animals and birds to be controlled in explicit ways. That’s a little over simplistic but as a general rule of thumb it works quite well.
Part of this system to allow some things to be controlled is the idea of Licences. For some species of birds (e.g. crows, magpies, wood pigeons) the populations are very large and likelihood of them being a problem is well understood. If everyone who needed to control these had to apply for an individual licence there would be a huge amount of paperwork for everyone, so instead there are a series of General Licenses. These are issued every year and you do not need to apply to use them.
Anyone who has a particular issue caused by species not on the General Licenses can apply to the appropriate authority for permission to carry out control. A common example is fisheries which are sometimes granted licences to control cormorants that have taken up residence on their lakes. This type of license must be applied for individually and is usually very specific. It may state both the numbers of birds that can be taken and the methods to be used.
Make no mistake – although you’ve not had to apply for it, when you are shooting pigeons over the stubbles, or trapping magpies in your Larsen you are still operating under the terms of a formal licence and breaching the terms of it is an offence. It is your responsibility to know what those terms are and to stick within them.

The key things to know about General Licences are:
They’re not available to everyone.
Each license states who are eligible to use it, typically covering things like landowner’s permission. However in most cases there is now also a condition preventing use of the licences by any persons who are convicted of wildlife crimes after 01 January 2010. Before you take any action on the strength of General License be satisfied that you are eligible to do so.

They are Species & Method Specific.
Each General Licence states in detail which species are covered and control methods which are allowed. This can be very clear-cut, for example allowing the use of call birds in the control of some of the birds but not others.

They are Regional (and they do vary).
One of the benefits of devolvement of government is that England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland all now issue their own Licences and so can amend them to suit local conditions. A species that has reached pest proportions in one area can be controlled while still remaining protected in another. What that does mean though is that you need to check the Licences for anywhere that you control vermin, particularly if you’re on a regional border or your travel to go shooting. It’s also not sensible to rely on second hand information which may not be specific to where you operate.

For example in 2013 the serious damage or disease General License in NI allows the control of the House Sparrow, Starling and 3 species of Gull, but not the Canada Goose. In contrast the equivalent Natural England General Licence allows control of the Canada Goose, and two species of Parakeet, but does not include the Sparrow, Starling, Herring Gull or Greater Black-Backed Gull which all remain protected.

The issuing authorities are:
o Natural England (,
o Scottish Executive (,
o Welsh Assemble Government (
o Northern Ireland Environment Agency (

They are renewed annually (and they do change).
Unlike most wildlife legislation the General Licences are renewed annually and they do change. Species can be added or removed, methods approved or revoked and eligibility criteria amended. Get into the habit every January of obtaining a copy of the latest version off the internet, reading it and keeping it as a reference.
Require Justification to use.
Each General Licence allows control for a particular purpose – it’s very clear and is stated in the title, for example ‘To kill or take certain birds to prevent serious damage or disease’. If you’re operating under a General Licence make sure you know which one applies to that particular circumstance and why you are controlling the birds. It won’t always be the same one for all your vermin control.

The Natural England licences most commonly used in vermin control are:
o To kill or take certain birds to prevent serious damage or disease WML-GL04
o To kill or take certain birds to preserve public health or public safety WML-GL05
o To kill or take certain birds to conserve flora & fauna WML-GL06

Have Conditions.
All General Licences include conditions of use and it is your responsibility to read these, to comply with them and to ensure that your situation is covered. Don’t be put off by the all the notes that are included at the end as these often really do help to clarify what’s required.

While it’s important to treat the General Licenses seriously, they are there to make things simpler and to give clarity on the legal control of birds. To keep the right side of the law it’s sensible to be prepared before you go out:

  • Decide which licence applies and check that you have an up to date version.
  • Check the conditions and ensure that you know how you will comply.
  • You are not legally obliged to carry a copy of it, but make sure you understand it and it never hurts to have a copy handy if challenged. Demonstrating a clear understanding of the law and how it applies to the situation on the day can go a long way to closing down any problem.

And remember that failure to comply with the terms of a licence could lead to a conviction, preventing you from ever using them in the future.

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