I know a farmer who sees rabbits before his eyes and is convinced that their crop munching will leave his fields bare. The fact that I have seen just two rabbits on his farm in four years may be unlucky, but nonetheless they are a problem. Pests like rabbits and pigeons can seriously damage crops and land, which means that landowners of all sizes (sizes of land that is, not owners) need to control them if they are not to have their profits munched away. This is, as it were, the other side of the sporting rights that I wrote about in my previous article – shooting as a necessary tool of land management this time, rather than for sport. In a sense this is not something that will concern anyone thinking of buying property, but all landowners should know where they stand.  

There are three distinct of groups of law, which relate to the different aspects of controlling pests in England and Wales (Scotland is different). The first relates to hares and rabbits (‘ground game’). The relevant statutory provisions are contained in the Ground Game Acts of 1880 and 1906 (clearly the adage that if it ‘ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ applies here). The provisions of these acts override whatever other agreements you may have entered into on your land; that is to say that, if you have let part of your land and reserved the sporting rights, the acts will still take effect despite that. The acts provide that whoever is in actual occupation of the land, regardless of whether they own either the land or the sporting rights, has the right to control the ground game on it. This is a simple expedient to avoid the occupier having to wait patiently for the owner of the sporting rights to turn up, before any action is taken.

The occupier of the land may also authorise one other person (permission must be in writing) to shoot ground game on his land with firearms, but may authorise more than that one person to kill ground game on his land by other means. The rules relating to who can be authorised are complex and should be carefully consulted – moorland and more bizarrely, Greater London, even have their own special rules. However, the basic position remains that that you must have written permission from the occupier of the land you are on. Failure to do so puts one at risk of interrogation by keepers, not to mention prosecution for trespassing and tender enquiries by the police as to the state of your shotgun or firearms licence.   

The second set of rules relates to lamping (shooting ground game at night, using a lamp – apologies if this is stating the blindingly obvious). This is dealt with under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981; this permits night shooting of ground game with firearms by the occupier of the land and one other person only authorised by him only, between the expiration of the “first hour after sunset and the commencement of the last hour before sunrise”. BASC produce an excellent guide on this.         
The final set of rules relates to pest birds and was complicated by the intervention of Europe. The starting point is that there is a complete prohibition on killing any ‘wild birds’ at all subject only to certain exceptions. Game birds are specifically excluded from the definition of wild birds and can be killed during their relevant open seasons. Domestic poultry are similarly excluded; bad news for turkeys. The other relevant exception is the series of UK open ‘General Licences’ granted by DEFRA. These reinstate some limited rights to shoot and kill pest birds and effectively mimic what the law was before Europe got involved (for which read: ‘messed it all up’). They state that an “authorised person” (being the owner or occupier of the land, or someone authorised by them) may shoot or otherwise kill the species of pest bird listed in the licence. The pest birds listed include; Canada Geese, Crows, Magpies and feral Pigeons. Unlike the rules for ground game, there is no restriction on the number of people that can be authorised and no requirement for the authority to be in writing. Certain requirements in respect of traps are also imposed by the licences. As for ground game, these provisions override anything set out in a tenancy agreement. One final point to note is that licence states that it can only be relied upon where; “the authorised person is satisfied that appropriate non-lethal methods of control such as scaring are either ineffective or impractical”. Quite how diligently this condition is applied, I could not possibly say.  

Disappointingly for gardeners (such as my mother in law, who has some pretty choice opinions on rabbits herself), the options set out above are unlikely to go down well with the neighbours. Best stick to rabbit-proof fences.

About Elizabeth

Despite being one who feels the cold,
Elizabeth braved a move to Northumberland and has worked there as a
solicitor with the firm of Dickinson Dees
LLP, in the Agriculture, Farms and Estates Team, where she started life
as a trainee in 2003. As part of this specialist and nationally
renowned team, she works both for a number of larger estates and trusts
on an ongoing basis and also on one-off matters, covering the range of
rural property law, including; sales and purchases, sporting
rights,rights of way, easements and tenancies, to name a few. Outside
the office, she nearly managed to get sent to the North Pole, loves the
occasional hunt with the CVNNH and continues to try and break the 4-hour
mark for a marathon. She lives with her husband, a terrier and a very
silly basset.

She can be contacted through Dickinson Dees on 0191 279 9000