National Survey of Noise Nuisance created by Gasguns 

These are the results of a national survey of Environmental Health Departments done in 2019 to establish the scale of the noise nuisance caused by audible bird scarers, specifically gasguns.   

Summary

To the best of our knowledge, this is the first attempt ever to establish the scale of the noise problem caused by gasguns.

We sent questionnaires to 234 local authorities across England, asking for data covering 4 1/2 years (01/01/2015 -30/06/2019). The questionnaires were sent between June – November 2019. 160 local authorities, covering more than 50% of the land area of England, provided data suitable for analysis.

Key findings

  • Nationally, gasguns give rise to more than 700 noise nuisance complaints each year
  • Although the NFU Code of Practice states that farmers should register gasguns with the local EHD, only 3 guns were ever registered throughout the entire time. 
  • Although the NFU Code of Practice clearly states that farmers should display signs giving contact details, 28% of local authorities cited incidents where they were unable to act on a complaint because either the offending gun or the owner could not be found.  
  • There is no objective test for statutory nuisance. Statutory nuisance is what the investigating officer says it is. This subjective approach translates to a lack of consistency in approach nationwide. Some EHDs rely on subjective assessment, some require noise-monitoring data. Some apply anywhere between 4 – 6 different standards and guidelines, or none at all.
  • Half of all EHDs were unable or unwilling to provide data on continuous professional development of their staff. Of those who did, only a few provided pieces of information suggesting staff might have received training in specific noise nuisance investigation in the last 4 years. 
  • Average rate of serving abatement notices for all causes of noise nuisance is 1.8%.(see CIEH Noise Survey 2018/19)
  • Average rate for serving abatement notices for noise nuisance created by gasguns is 0.3%. The difference is statistically significant.

The map gives a graphic representation of the Local Authorities for which data were available. They represent over 50% of England

Introduction

Farmers use audible bird scaring devices to protect crops. There is no evidence that they are of any benefit when used in isolation, and only sketchy evidence that they are of use when deployed as part of an integrated pest management strategy.  See Here.

Noise nuisance created by gasguns is a longstanding problem nationwide:  they were considered in the parliamentary debates for the Environmental Protection Act 1990, but escaped regulation. During every growing season, local newspapers publish articles about residents who are driven to distraction by the dawn-to-dusk detonations. Dog owners report that their pets become neurotic as a result of the senseless noise bombardment. Gasgun explosions startled horses, causing injury to riders and killed at least one horse.

The problem is so widespread that many local authorities produce information leaflets specifically relating to noise nuisance caused by bird scarers. The devices even received their own entry in the House of Commons briefing paper on “Nuisance Complaints” in 2018. All advice invariably refers readers back to the NFU Code of Practice, which is not enforcable, so farmers simply ignore it.   

Despite the problem being so well known, there are no data on it anywhere: nobody knows how many devices are in use. The NFU Code of Practice specifies that farmers should register their gasguns with the local authorities, but none of them do. Environmental Health Departments do not report noise complaints to a central register. With information about the true scale of the problem fragmented and farmers operating the devices in complete anonymity, their thousands of victims are left to fight – or suffer – in isolation. 

IThe only quality data on noise nuisance that do exist are those collected each year by the CIEH (Chartered Institute for Environmental Health). Unfortunately, the data are not granular enough to capture nuisance created by gasguns (see 2018/2019 report).

We attempted to quantify the problem by asking Local Authorities in England to provide data under the Freedom of Information act.

Freedom of Information Request

Between 30 June 2019 – 19 November 2019, we contacted Local Authorities in England to ask a series of questions regarding noise nuisance complaints from bird scarers. At the time, there were 315 Local Authorities in England

192 District Councils (lower tier)
32 London Boroughs (unitary)
36 Metropolitan Boroughs (unitary)
55 Unitary authorities (unitary) 

We contacted 236 of these, excluding most of the London and Metropolitan boroughs and a number of Unitary Authorities on grounds that they cover largely urban areas. To request the information, we followed the instructions on the websites of the local authority. Some requested submission via email, some required the information via a webform, some redirected to request via https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/ All local authorities were sent the same questionnaire with 14 questions.    

Replies Received: 

From the 236 Local Authorities contacted, we received 213 replies: 4 did not reply at all even after being reminded, 2 were contacted in error (they do not provide environmental health services),  the remainder were due Local Authorities having merged their environmental health service provision.

From those 213, we excluded all replies that did not provide the data on the total number of noise complaints or data relating to ABSD specifically. The latter was usually due to gasgun noise complaints being coded under the larger heading of agricultural noise and extracting data would have required costly hand searching.  

This left a total number of 162 replies for evaluation.

Table (1)‍

Q1. Does the EHD log all noise nuisance complaints (phone,email,letter)?

161 / 162 (99%) of the respondents answered “yes”,one did not answer the question.

Three EHDs expanded on their answer:  

1 yes, except anonymous complaints
1 yes, provided sufficient information and the complaint isvalid
1 yes, mostly

One initially said yes, but when asked about a marked drop-off in the number of complaints from one year to the next, they admitted that they had introduced noise complaint reporting via an app and did not include those numbers.  

One council who replied “yes” is known to have failed on multiple occasions …

Q2. How many noise nuisance complaints (all causes) were received in cover period?

Over the four and a half years for which data were provided, the 162 local authorities recorded a total of 428,686 noise complaints, ranging from six to 10,882 complaints, with an average of 2646 per Local Authority.

Q3: How many of these related to ABSD?

A total of 3327 (0.8 %) of complaints were specifically about gasgun noise, an average of 739 / year  across England.

33 (20.3%) of LA received no complaints

129 (79.7%) of LA reported between 1 and 438 complaints over the period.

Q4: How many of those related to ABSD, resulted in an abatement notice being issued?

Out of a total of 3327 complaints, 11  (0.3 %) resulted in an abatement notice being issued. None were contested.

Comment

 The Chartered Institute for Environmental Health 2018 / 2019 report (4) surveyed 143 L.A. Out of the total of 143,054 noise complaint received, 2543 (1.8%) resulted in an abatement notice.

 The difference is statistically significant with a p-value of  < 0.00001, significant at p < .01.

 There is no reason to assume that people complain more readily about gasgun noise than barking dogs and noisy neighbours, so there is something  different about how EHD deal with it.  

 There are many possible causes, but one is important to mention: bias caused by conflict of interest.

In law, EHD must pursue offenders if statutory nuisance is found to exist. But there is no objective test for statutory nuisance: statutory nuisance is what the investigating officers say it is. Commencing legal proceedings against a business (as farms usually are) is more complex than proceeding against an individual and therefore more costly.

The person who decides whether to spend the departmental budget on legal fees against a business is the same person who decides whether, in his subjective opinion, nuisance exists…

Q5: NFU Code of Practice specifies that farmers should register ABSD with the local council. How many guns were registered with the council during the cover period?

The study period covers 4 1/2 years and involved 162 Local Authorities covering approximately 50 % of the land area of England.  Only three gasguns were ever registered.

Comment:

 No one knows how many gasguns are operating throughout the country, but when 700 devices are so noisy to give rise to a formal complaint each year, and when 28% of councils reported cases where they were unable to investigate because either gun or the owner could not be found, the results suggest the British farmers exploit the lack of regulation to avoid being held responsible.

Q6: NFU Code of Practice is a voluntary code, but Councils are allowed to issue bye-laws. Does the Council have a bye-law regarding the use of ABSD?

Rationale:

The NFU Code of practice has no legal status and Local Authorities can only use it as a best practice reference document after a complaint has been received: farmers failing to register guns force Local Authorities to waste tax payers resources on finding an offending gun and its owner.

One solution would be to issue byelaws that make aspects of the NFU Code law, say “all guns must be registered” or outlawing gasgun use on Sundays.

Results:

Only 1 Local Authority has a byelaw. But it dates back to 1975 and although still effective, it was not applied.

Comments

The process of drafting, consultation and ratification of a byelaw is lengthy and time consuming. Given that gasgun noise complaints are a nationwide problem, regulation should happen at national level.

Q7: Does the EHD have an internal policy for the process of investigating noise nuisance by ABSD? If yes, please supply a copy.

No council used an internal policy specific to complaints about ABSD. Those who qualified their responses said that they used a generic policy.

Q8: How many times was the EHD unable to investigate / act on a complaint because the owner/operator of a gun could not be identified?

Rationale:

Gunshot noise travels extremely far. In rural areas where there are no significant sound barriers, a single gun can be audible over over 50 (fifty) square kilometers. Pin-pointing its source is notoriously difficult and even more so if the gun has been hidden.

Once found, the second problem is identifying the owner: farmland is often tenanted and 15% of land in England remains unregistered. Anectodal evidence suggested that identifying owners can be a problem for victims and investigating authorities alike.

Results: 

46 out of 162 (28%) of Local Authorities reported problems:

  •  41 EHDs reported a total of 76 cases where they unable to act on a noise complaint because because the gun or the owner could not be found
  • a further 3 EHDs (who recorded 278 noise complaints about gasguns between them) said that they had been unable to investigate “frequently” “mostly” or “usually”
  • another 2 EHDs said they had been able to identify all, but acknowledged the difficulty in tracing offenders and/or finding the gun

Comment:

If a suspected offender choses to remain anonymous, his victims have no right to ask police for help: Statutory Nuisance under EPA 1990 is a civil law and it is the duty of the Environmental Health Department to investigate. They have neither the means nor the power of a police force.

For the victims of the nuisance, who have to rely on EHD and entirely subjective assessment, that is an unsatisfactory state of affairs.

Q9: When deciding whether an ABSD constitutes statutory noise nuisance, does the council rely on noise monitoring data, or does it accept the subjective evidence by a EHO?

Rationale: 

In the absence of an objective standard for what constitutes statutory noise nuisance, the law relies on Environmental Health Officers being suitably trained to decided what it is. We expected to find a reasonably consistent process of arriving at the subjective opinion.

Results: 

Out of 162 EHS

  • 62 – relied on the evidence of the investigating EHO alone
  • 84 – required both evidence by the investigating EHO and noise monitoring data
  • 18 – did not provide data

Comment:

 A frequent complaint by victims of the noise is that EHOs don’t hear the noise when it is at its worst or most disruptive – early mornings, evenings and weekends, because  EHOs generally attend during normal working hours.

 When attending a site to investigate a noise complaint, hearing neighbours argue through a party wall, blast music or listen to a dog barking continuously for twenty minutes gives a good idea of what the victim of the noise has to put up with.

But gasgun noise is very different: it is impulse sound, short burst of noise at regular intervals.

An investigating officer might only hear half a dozen explosions during his assessment. Unless it they are so exteremly loud that the individual gunshots consitute nuisance, the true nuisance quality of the sound is almost impossible to judge from an afternoons assessment. Gasgun noise has the nuisance quality of a relentlessly dripping tap: they start at dawn and go on for 16 hrs a day, day in day out, week in week out, Saturday and Sunday.

Q10: If noise monitoring equipment is used, how many machines does the environmental Health Department have that are suitable for measuring noise emission from ABSD?

The question was included to assess whether EHDs have sufficent equipment to investigate complaints. We found that all bar one EHD had access to noise monitoring equipment. Given the differences in geographical areas covered, numbers of noise complaints and size of department, the data sample was too small for further analysis.

Q11: If noise monitoring equipment is used, which BS standard is applied?

Rationale:

 The law does not require noise monitoring data, but given that gasgun noise is unusual, it is reasonable to supplement personal assessment with monitoring data. However, interpretation of noise monitoring data is a rather specialist field. The expectation was that that those who do use the equipment would show a reasonable consensus in interpretation.

Results 

The total is more than  129, as several EHDs applied more than one standard. 

No standard applied

84

No Data supplied

38

BS 4142 (Methods for rating and assessing industrial and commercial sound)

12

BS 7445 (Description and measurement of environmental noise. Guide to quantities and procedures)

14

BS 8223 (Guidance on sound insulation and noise reduction for buildings)

2

CIEH 2003 (Clay Target Shooting – Guidance on control of noise)

2

BS 61672 (Electroacoustics. Sound level meters. Specifications)

13

National Farmers Union Code of Practice

5

WHO guidelines

1

EHA 1990 Sect 78

1

Varies or “don’t know”

4

Comment:

BS 4142 is not meant to be used for noise nuisance investigations. NFU Code, WHO guideline and EHA 1990 are not “standards” and BS 8223 is not applicable. 

The table suggests that the subjective assessment of noise nuisance

The interesting one is the Chartered Institute for Environmental Health 2003 guidelines on control of noise from clay target shooting. At first glance it seems way off the mark.

However, unlike any other guideline, clay target shooting guideline captures the specific and unusual sound characteristics of gunshots: repetitive impulse noise and extremely far sound propagation 

Q12: How many Environmental Officers does the Environmental Health Department employ?

Rationale:

The question was included to establish whether EHDs across the country were staffed evenly, proportionate to the volume of noise complaints received. 

Replies:

The replies reflected hugely different organizational and working patterns between EHD nationwide.  Some departments gave numbers that included all staff, some excluded managerial staff and/or technicians. Some larger departments had entire teams dedicated to noise nuisance investigations and only gave the numbers in those teams. Some gave numbers for all staff but added that not all were involved in noise nuisance investigation, 

Analysis was not considered useful.

Q13: How many days Continuous Professional Development has the team received in relation to statutory noise nuisance?

Rationale for Question:

With well over 140,000 noise nuisance complaints annually nationwide, noise nuisance is a significant part of the workload of Environmental Health Officers. We hoped to get an overview over the standard of on going training relating to it.

Results:

  • 77 out of 162 (47.5%) did not, could not or refused (on grounds of data protection) to provide data of any kind.  
  • Those to attempted to reply gave such varied and often non-specific answers that no numeric analysis is possible. However, the selection of quotes gives a “flavour” of the state of training on noise nuisance.  

Quotes:  

“enforcement officers who deal with statutory nuisance receive training on an ad hoc basis”
“every EHO has a minimum of 20hrs / year”
“20hrs general CPD”
“1 day in twelve months”
“1 day per year per officer for statutory nuisance, not specifically to noise”
“1 day per year per officer relating to statutory noise nuisance”
“10 days for all topics”
“16hrs CPD”
“20 CPD per year, 3 officers have the acoustic diploma and one has a certificate in environmental noise monitoring”
“20 CPS her annum, not specifically to noise nuisance”
20 hrs/ year CPD but not specific to statutory noise nuisance
“20hrsCPD annual refersher inhouse on noise nuisance and noise measurements.”
“4 out of 5 officers hold the institute of acoustics certificate of competence in noise measurement”
“4-5days of seminars, not specific to statutoary nuisance”
“Minimum is 1 day a year CPD in statutory nuisance, but not specific to noise”
“None”
“One training course during employment, not specific”

Q14: If the data exist, is it possible to break down outcomes of complaints (about ABSD ONLY) into how many ended in
  • Informal discussion with offender only
  • visit to the property & subjective assessment by EHO
  • installation of noise monitoring
  • noise monitoring found that no statutory noise nuisance exists
  • noise monitoring found that statutory noise monitoring does exists
  • resulted in abatement notice
  • abatement notices contested 

Rationale:

The question attempted to gauge the workload created by nuisance complaints.

Replies: 

  • Of the 129 Local Authorities who received complaints, 55 (42%) could not or did not provide data about outcomes of investigations.
  • The remainder of the answers were a patchy: some answered only one or two questions, some didn’t have outcome data to answer all questions, but provided data they did have 
  • For the 74 Local Authorities who did provide data, noise nuisance complaints generated 620 discussions with offenders, 427 site visits and 9 installations of noise monitoring equipment.

 

Suggested Way Forward  


With 700 complaints each year, only 3 guns registered anywhere in the country over four years and 28% of EHD citing incidences of being unable to act on complaints because a gun or an offender could not be identified, the logical first step is to force gasgun users to identify themselves: every car, every drone, every aircraft has to be registered. There is no justification to exempt devices that create the sound blast of a jet fighter at take off.  

The simplest way to achieve this is through an amendment of the EPA 1990, that makes registration of gasguns with the local authority a legal requirement and allows to levy Environmental Health Departments fines for non-compliance.  

The change is minimal, it would codify what is already considered good practice, reduce the waste of taxpayers money caused by farmers who conceal their identity, provide a financial incentive to Environmental Health Departments to try even harder to find offenders and reduce the burden on victims who are forced to listen to noise abuse by “farmer anonymous”.