Just before the general election 2019, former Green Party chief and its only MP Caroline Lucas published a document she commissioned for her party. Prepared by Patrick Barkham, Mark Cocker, Jake Fiennes, Jeremy Mynott and Helen Smith, it offers proposals for a national policy on the environment.
The key name to notice is Jake Fiennes. Brother of actors Ralph and Joseph, composer Magnus and film directors Martha and Sophie, Jake is a former gamekeeper, in charge of wildlife management and conservation Lord Leicester’s 25,000-acre Holkham Estate in Norfolk. As a Fiennes, he is smack on top of the Guardianista set who are his co-preparers. As a gamekeeper, he is an obvious outsider.
Given the heritage of its writers, forgive the report for erring on the characteristically pompous. In the manner of Thomas Jefferson, they start it with: ‘We hold it as self-evident that humans, like any other species, are a part of nature’. Perhaps that’s its core problem. It makes the kind of assumptions you would expect of the pompous. On page 5 it lists the amenity value of the countryside as ‘sports, running, cycling, playing with our children, walking with friends and family’ – leaving out hunting, shooting and fishing which, whether they like it or not, is what most people enjoying the amenity value of Britain’s national parks outside the main summer season are doing most of the time.
‘If you took the references to British nature out of William Shakespeare’s plays, then there would be deletions on every page,’ they say – but they don’t say that if you take the references to fieldsports out of the English countryside there would be blank pub signs and unnamed roads, woods and fields wherever you look. These writers prefer their countryside to be defined by literary references than by rural references.
We can establish from their preamble that although, like fieldsports enthusiasts, they are keen to restore the countryside to its natural glory, they layer on an animal rights fundamentalist’s horror of fieldsports.
Where they have a point is in their summary, that they ‘distrust any simple and single solutions to the national nature crisis, such as “plant more trees”’.
This is a profoundly sensible view to take. The countryside is too complicated for any solution to work in isolation. That’s why so many politicians founder on simple policy ideas, such as then DEFRA secretary Michael Gove’s mishaps trying out the word ‘sentience’ for the first time.
The report’s authors are who they are. We can’t get away from that. So what do they say that makes sense?
They call for a more robust statutory nature framework that puts, for example, wildlife at the heart of planning. From a pure fieldsports point of view, this makes sense (though from the point of view of living in a working, breathing countryside, it is maybe not so sensible). Every footprint you leave in the countryside kills some small creature. Get over it. They call for a return to the Joint Nature Conservation Committee system of UK-wide policy because, they say, ‘The old NCC’s public pronouncement on the importance of wildlife was always measured and this reasoned and independent voice will be restored to make the challenging case for wildlife’. As long as it is not tyrannical in its actions, that works better than the franchising of nature management we see through the split between Natural England, Natural Resources Wales, Northern Ireland Environment Agency and Scottish Natural Heritage.
Their statement ‘Provision for wildlife will be maintained at a constant and appropriate level which is unaffected by changes of government or administration personnel’ is surely right. This should come as a matter of relief to government ministers who know that DEFRA can be a graveyard for political careers. No longer will they have to make wildlife-affecting decisions.
The report's authors want an end to the sale of peat by 2022. Peat is to the countryside what coal is to industry – a dependency that has to end.
They want the Nature Recovery Network beefed up. Good idea – but don’t give these authors the credit when it is mainly due to Dr Beeching for closing down branch railways and creating a system of natural motorways that has helped the spread of deer and other wildlife since the 1960s. Well done, Dr Beeching.
They want ‘every farmer [to] devote a minimum of 15% of their land (including linear features) to nature, and be paid to do so’. Whether this is the right percentage or not – and it is likely that this figure should not be written in stone – this is a considerable improvement on the pure conservation Marxism proposed by former DEFRA consultant Dieter Helm in his book, Green and Prosperous Land: A Blueprint for Rescuing the British Countryside.
They want ‘Proper transport links’ by which they mean public transport links, ‘established to ensure that the system of national parks or other designated landscapes can be visited without reliance upon cars’ and ‘visitors need to reflect the full diversity within the nation’. Excellent idea. Just one thing: all the report’s authors are white and almost all are men.
Dogs ‘can cause damage and disturbance to livestock, wildlife and some habitats, for example, rivers and lakes’ so should be kept on leads or banned. Great idea. Bad luck for dog owners, but it is true. Where this needs to be proportionate is where local landowners / wildlife managers give permission for dogs. Their wildlife management should be their call.
The report calls for ‘support for new farming practices’. Brilliant. Surely one of the biggest problems facing the countryside is urban/suburban failure to recognise where their food comes from.
‘“Cide”-free farming’ and ‘artificial/synthetic fertilisers phased out by 2040’ both make sense. The ‘polluter pays’ principle does not seem to apply to farmers. It is time it did, not because farmers need punishing but because pouring poisons into river systems is environmentally unaccountable. This is one of Dieter Helm’s more sensible observations
What’s not to like about the report’s authors’ education statements, including ‘Rewrite the Education Act, Section 78, to put nature at the centre of the state National Curriculum from nursery to secondary school’? Well – just one thing. Fieldsports needs to be at the heart of this, because fieldsports are the main wildlife management technique in the countryside. Ignoring fieldsports in the classroom is to promote propaganda in the classroom.
Thank goodness they avoided the trope so often used by land reformists under the guise of wildlife policy to rewild or ‘re-tree’ the countryside. Instead, they offer policies for planting trees in urban areas. I can’t comment whether this is a good idea. We don’t have muggers in the countryside.
Their fishing policies make good sense. Commercial fishing may be characterised by one word: greed. Surely, that must stop. But in case you think Caroline Lucas’s pals have a monopoly on this kind of thinking, anglers have been saying it for decades – and been ignored, just as the report’s authors ignore them now.
Unfortunately, these sensible ideas are outweighed by what does not make sense. The biggest problem in this report is a blinkered and bigoted whole section on hunting and shooting. The authors make a couple of attempts to square the Green Party’s opposition to fieldsports with a more sensible approach. Perhaps this is where we see the influence of Jake Fiennes come to bear. The call for a ban on lead shot is, for example, no more than what the European Chemicals Agency is already driving through – though the report authors don’t offer a sensible alternative, nor do they deal with problems such as what happens when you fire copper into trees. Oh yes. You kill them.
You can tell the narrowmindedness from the opening paragraphs, which says: ‘Shooting for fun is abhorrent to many people and yet a small but vocal minority passionately maintains these past-times [sic]’. 600,000 gun licence holders is not small. It is this mistake, made by Marion Spain at Natural England when she waved through a ban on the general licences because she believed only a few thousand people go pigeon shooting, that nearly cost her job.
Then it gets worse. They go for several now permanently fabulous examples of intolerance, including ‘ban the release of non-native game birds’ (what about non-native hares, muntjac and other introduced wildlife? Should they be wiped out, too?), ‘license all game shoots’ and ‘licence all animal control’ (by whom? The League Against Cruel Sports?), ‘ban the shooting of snipe and woodcock’ (don’t forget to ban the wind changing from easterly to westerly during these birds’ autumn migration, which is what kills most of them), ‘outlaw medicated grit’ for grouse (don’t forget to ban other artificial bird welfare such as bird tables and bird boxes), ‘new certified training scheme and licence for gamekeepers’ (does that mean the many young keepers coming out of the UK’s gamekeeping colleges can take advantage of the multi-million-pound gamekeeping contracts currently only available to the RSPB, such as the eradication of stoats on Orkney or mice on Gough Island?), ‘manage our deer population’ with ‘regional targets for per-hectare deer population’ (because they believe that deer on an open hill versus deer in forestry on that hill versus deer around watercourses should be kept at precisely the same number and that that will mean jobs for tens of thousands of ‘deer monitors’), and ‘further reform the Hunting Act’ (because they and other Islington restaurant-goers don’t like foxhunting). All this shows a basic failure by the report’s authors to acknowledge that almost all woodland visible from their railway carriage windows is put there for hunting and shooting.
They wouldn’t be a Green Party report if they did not include a call for a ban on ‘intensive moorland management in designated areas’. The report says: ‘At least 1.3 million hectares of upland Britain are influenced by management for grouse shooting and a significant proportion falls within designated areas. Management of these areas has to be compatible with the wildlife and environmental purposes of the national parks.’
This misses the enormous good work that grouse moor management does for wildlife, protecting peatlands, creating firebreaks in a landscape increasingly at risk of wildfires, providing 85% of the world’s heather upland, and providing a breeding ground for a significant proportion of Europe’s waders. Grow trees on it and we will lose those waders.
Happily, they are not as extreme as the Revive group or the Wild Justice organisation, both founded by BBC TV’s Chris Packham. The report’s authors’ failure to back Revive and Wild Justice’s policies puts Packham out on more of a limb than usual.
The authors call for ‘enhanced support’ (cash) for upland farmers as long as they don’t spend it on game. Why not game? Pure bigotry. This is such a pity when their more reasonable statement, that ‘There has been a devasting, well-documented and continuing decline in the abundance and diversity of Britain’s wildlife in recent decades, arising from causes like intensive agriculture, habitat loss, pesticide poisoning, pollution, land development and other human impacts’ does not include the words ‘hunting’ or ‘shooting’.
The authors of this report are committed to government not just providing a framework for conservation policy, but providing the people who carry out that policy. Their new ‘Council for Nature’ sounds OK, but not if it comes with teams of government marksmen who carry out the work so ably and freely carried out by fieldsports enthusiasts already. That’s how regulated hunting, all over the world, is the major contributor to wildlife conservation.
Again and again, they fail to recognise the patchwork nature of the UK countryside – that so-and-so’s nature conservation efforts here are negated by so-and-so’s desire to plant oilseed rape there, or that X shoots all deer but leaves woodcock, while Y shoots woodcock and ignores deer, and that this produces a millefeuille countryside that works. Their statement ‘Proper population counts are the foundation of all overarching conservation measures’ goes against the basic principles of wildlife management: you know your ground well enough to look at it and say: ‘there are too many / not enough / about the right number of…’ and take action accordingly.
Whether or not it is any good at bringing down TB in cattle, one of the failures of the recent badger cull is its bureaucratic dependence on a mantra of X badgers per sq km. We agree that ‘Funded research is an essential part of effective conservation action’ – but we in the shooting community point to the word ‘part’. Research should not lead conservation action.
Oh and – yes – they want to end the badger cull for what they unscientifically call its ‘political and partisan scapegoating of badgers’. Then they make the sensible call for ‘a need for localised and selective licensing of badger control to protect ground-nesting native birds’.
Finally, there is the stuff they don’t cover. They want classifications untouchable by the planning system but they make no mention of the ludicrous industry that has popped up of rehoming wildlife while property development takes place. A countryperson involved in -day-to-day wildlife management would like to see ‘responsibility to wildlife species, not individuals’, enshrined in the rules. ‘Responsibility to individual animals’ should be confined to livestock.
They don’t mention the ‘mission creep’ that classifications such as SPAs enjoy. In 2019, on a whim, Natural England bosses ruled there can be no pest control under the general licences with 300 metres of an SPA. If they get their way with an increase in national parks, will that suddenly attract, years down the line, a shooting ban within those parks? If so, it’s no to new national parks, please.
The ‘Healthy rivers’ paragraph is excellent – but where is the recognition that the only group who already carry out the work they want – to ‘re-wet, re-establish water meadows and return natural river courses’ – are anglers?
The ‘biosecurity’ section makes good sense too. But where is the acknowldgement that the main group of people shooting grey squirrels in order to protect native reds are the people who own the 12 million airguns in the UK?
Good intentions burst from every page of A New Deal for Nature. Practical conservation measures are there, but they are scribbled over with extremist views on who should run the countryside and why the 100,000-year evolution of fieldsports should be written out of policy. Surely they believe in evolution?