'Can there be any justification for shooting a linnet, bullfinch or wren? Who in their right mind requests permission to shoot a skylark?'

Wildlife lovers are in uproar after officials in charge of nature-protection gave gun owners permission to shoot dead some of Britain’s most treasured and rarest bird species.

Welsh conservation chiefs gave the go-ahead for the killing of dozens of breeds including kestrels, curlew, linnets, sparrows and fieldfares. 

The revelation comes days after nature fans posted objections over similar licences granted in England to kill thousands of endangered birds from dozens of breeds – ranging from skylarks and lapwings to rare species such as meadow pipits and oyster-catchers.

They also included garden favourites wrens, robins and bullfinches.

Many of the species are on the RSPB red and amber lists, meaning they are of the highest or critical conservation priority. 

Natural England, which says it promotes nature conservation, issued permits over the past three years between 2015 and 2018 to shoot at least 40 species, including the skylark, blackbird, great tit, bullfinch, robin, wren, red kite, moorhen, mute swan, kestrel, peregrine falcon and golden plover. 

Natural Resources Wales, which states that it “maintains and enhances biodiversity”, issued 73 licences to kill at least 20 species, including the linnet, redwing, song thrush, mistle thrush, meadow pipit, lapwing and skylark.  

The figures came in response to requests under Freedom of Information laws, and were published by wildlife blogger Jason Endfield, whose readers were outraged by the revelations.

“One of the saddest statistics from the list is that of two licences to kill a total of 100 linnets for being a threat to air safety,” he wrote.

“While we all appreciate that ensuring the safety of air traffic is essential, one has to wonder whether permitting the extermination of 100 linnets is entirely necessary, or indeed appropriate, to maintain public welfare"

Although some licences ultimately resulted in no reported deaths, Mr Endfield said the actual number of species targeted is likely to be much higher because other species, such as ravens, would have come under licences not covered by the FOI request, which centred on endangered breeds.

Welsh conservation officers, who charge a £100 administration fee for issuing licences, gave permits to kill up to 617 herring gulls, 499 lesser black-backed gulls – mostly to “preserve public health or public or air safety” – and 1,022 starlings for reasons including preventing “serious damage to cattle feed”.

“The long-term survival of our struggling birds appears to be in serious doubt while these public bodies are in charge of ‘protecting’ our precious wildlife" said Mr Enfield.

“An urgent and widespread shift in attitude towards wildlife is needed...The issuing of licences to kill threatened birds – just because they are are in conflict with human activity – needs to stop. Otherwise, they will be gone. For ever.”

Curlews, buzzards, red kites and peregrine falcons were permitted to be shot to preserve air safety; wrens, robins, blackbirds for public health or safety, and starlings and moorhens to protect agriculture.

Licences are issued for a limited time and specify a maximum number of birds to be killed. Licence-holders must report back within 14 days after the expiry of the licence.

Natural England said licensing enables conservation work to take place such as the tracking and ringing of birds and the reintroduction of species such as corncrakes in Cambridgeshire and curl buntings in Cornwall.

Larger birds can cause collisions as planes land or take off, potentially leading to very serious accidents, a spokeswoman said.

James Diamond, of Natural England, said: “All wild birds are protected by law. However, for almost 40 years licences have been issued for bird control under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 in certain circumstances, such as to protect the public"

“These licence applications are carefully considered by our experts – including our ornithologists where necessary – and are only granted when all other measures have been explored. The number of birds that may be killed is strictly limited and won’t harm the conservation status of any species.”

Natural Resources Wales said its duty was to “maintain and enhance biodiversity and build ecosystem resilience”.

A spokesperson said: “We champion the environment of Wales, and work hard to provide opportunities for our precious birds to thrive. But on some occasions, and only when all other avenues of scaring or deterring have failed, we issue licenses to kill birds for specific purposes"

“It’s vital to emphasise that, in every case, we only issue a licence as a last resort when all other methods have failed to resolve the problem. We are confident that all activities carried out under these licences do not affect the conservation status of any of our native species.”

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