Landowners could be given the power to kill foreign wildlife that cost the British economy £1.7 billion a year.
The Department for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has asked independent body the Law Commission to update wildlife law. The proposals, currently out for consultation, include plans to introduce new powers so that species such as grey squirrels, which are not indigenous to the UK, could be wiped out.
Landowners argue it is necessary to update legislation to take account of the growing number of “invasive” plants and animals entering the country because of climate change, increased travel and the spread of animal diseases. However, animal rights protesters said it was simply an attempt to wipe out certain animals for the sake of the forestry, shooting and farming industries.
Current wildlife laws are a mixture of directives from Europe and regulations drawn up since the 1800s.
Richard Percival, manager of the public law team at the Law Commission, said the law needed to be updated to deal with the challenges of the modern world. He told the Daily Telegraph: “A lot of it is very old and there are a number of different acts.”
Under the proposals, so-called “species control orders” would force landowners to wipe out species that threaten the whole countryside. This would also enable extensive culls of plants like Japanese knotweed or animals such as the dog-like muntjac deer, both of which were introduced from Asia and are now a threat to native species.
The consultation is also looking at allowing the killing of certain non-native animals for a limited amount of time.
But the Government insists the changes will not affect native animals which may be causing damage. So the changes exclude cormorants, known to be causing a problems for fishermen, and buzzards which are known to kill gamebirds.
The review will not change the levels of protection currently offered to wildlife, such as badgers. The commission is also looking at whether there should be the right to appeal against the issuing of these licences to kill certain animals.
Andrew Tyler, director of Animal Aid, said animals are not causing harm except to the interests of agri-business, shooting and forestry.
Christopher Price, director of policy and advice at the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), agreed the law needs to be updated. But he voiced concern about plans in the consultation to introduce the idea of vicarious liability. This would mean landowners are responsible if an employee has killed a protected species on their land.
A Defra spokesman said: “The purpose of the review is not to make changes, but to ensure it is easy to follow.”