Suffolk Coastal MP Dr Therese Coffey has criticised her former government department after lawyers conceded that she had not taken correct advice in allowing game birds to be released on the Deben estuary.

Campaign group Wild Justice, which is backed by Chris Packham and other wildlife experts, took a case to the High Court after Dr Coffey and her junior minister Lord Richard Benyon approved licences to release game birds in Breckland and the Deben Estuary last year.

At the time Dr Coffey was Environment Secretary - but she left the government in Rishi Sunak's autumn reshuffle.

The case centred on what advice the ministers had taken from Natural England and other wildlife bodies before making the decision at a time when bird flu was a serious concern.

East Anglian Daily Times: Game birds were released on land in Breckland and near the Deben Estuary.Game birds were released on land in Breckland and near the Deben Estuary. (Image: Newsquest)

Natural England’s advice was that, in order to prevent any adverse impacts on rare wild birds as a result of the spread of bird flu from the release of the gamebirds, licences for one of the areas should not be issued at all and that licences could only be issued for the other area under strict conditions.

However, licences were granted for releases in and around both areas without complying with Natural England’s advice.

Wild Justice argued they had taken too much advice from the shooting and game lobby.

In documents prepared for the case DEFRA conceded it had acted unlawfully in failing to provide cogent reasons for departing from Natural England’s advice and failing to undertake an appropriate assessment that complied with the Habitats Regulations.

The claim was withdrawn and the defendant was ordered to pay £35,000 of the campaigner's court costs, according to the official consent order on the case published by the High Court this week.

A spokesperson from Wild Justice said: “Defra had ‘No cogent reasons’ to disregard Natural England’s expert advice.

"So to find out that Therese Coffey and Richard Benyon have licensed releases of pheasants and partridges into what are supposed to be some of our most precious places, against that advice – and during a catastrophic outbreak of bird flu – frankly reeks of both recklessness and arrogance."

However Dr Coffey was not happy about the government lawyers' decision to concede that part of the case.

She issued a statement saying: "As Environment Secretary, as the law allows, I considered advice from well-respected external organisations in addition to civil servants and Natural England when making decisions about various licences, in addition to my own research on the topic.  

"The issue at hand was about the potential spread of avian influenza with the release of pheasants and partridges.

"Several applications for licenses were rejected by me and the other minister, who also considered applications in the Suffolk Coastal constituency to avoid any perceived conflict of interest.  

"At no point was I informed by government lawyers that I was acting unlawfully.

"While I did expect to be challenged in court, I would have contested it if I had still been in government.

"As I am no longer in government, I do not have access to the papers released to Wild Justice nor the legal advice given to the Secretary of State.

"Clearly, I do not agree with their decision to concede and would have preferred for it to be examined in court, but that was not my decision.  

"I still believe I acted lawfully, else I would not have made the decisions I did."