ENVIRONMENT Secretary Michael Gove has stepped into the row over farmers’ rights to shoot pest birds by virtually reinstating the old system.

Natural England withdrew the original general licence, to kill birds on a list of 16 species if they were attacking livestock or crops, following a legal challenge by BBC presenter Chris Packham’s campaign group, Wild Justice.

But now Mr Gove’s DEFRA department has taken back control of the matter and issued three new licences that allow farmers and conservationists to pick up their guns once again in all but a number of special protection zones, where individual bird licences are required.

The licences – GL34, GL35 and GL36 – increase the number of wild species that can be shot without having to apply for an individual licence to 10. They include carrion crow, magpie, rook, woodpigeon, Eurasian jay and Canada goose.

The new licences do not cover Sites of Special Scientific Interest or land within 300m of them, although individual licences can be applied for to control specific problems.

Mr Gove said he was taking action to “minimise some of the negative impacts caused by the scrapping of the decades-old general licence”.

He also announced DEFRA would carry out a public consultation on the longer-term licensing arrangements this summer.

The NFU welcomed what it described as a positive step that allowed farmers to protect their livelihoods from common bird species growing in population on farms.

Deputy president Guy Smith said during the union’s campaign to have the licensing system reinstated, that it had taken evidence from hundreds of members. “The important role general licences play for farmers cannot be understated,” he said.

“When they were removed, the impact pigeons and crows had on crops and livestock was devastating and we are continuing to hear that farmers are having other issues, for example rooks damaging spring barley. It is vital that farmers have the ability to control these birds.”

He welcomed Mr Gove’s move, but thought there would be confusion for farmers with SSSIs on their land.