Politics of Wildlife Protection in Britain

Mike Dilger along with Dominic Dyer last year done a talk on Wildlife Crime, it was something new for Birdfair to have such a debate. However, it was such a great success that they invited him back to do another. So, this year Mike chaired this debate titled “The Politics of Wildlife Protection in Britain”. He opened the debate by talking about Chris Packham’s article in this year’s programme, where he is talking about Malta, and how there is no room for complacency out there due to the hunting. Also, about how there is no room for complacency here either as British wildlife is “under threat like never before”. Since the 1970’s, species have declined rapidly primarily due to habitat lose and fragmentation. In 2016, the State of Nature report was released and highlighted birds of conservation concern, in 2009 there were 52 British birds that were in danger of disappearing, in 2016 it has risen to 66 mostly being farmland birds like Turtle Dove’s and Tree Sparrows. With regards to mammals the hedgehog is in decline, mountain hare, water voles under threat due to invasive species like the mink as the persecution of upland Hen Harrier’s and the Badger culls happening across the country. Even though there is all this going on, there is huge support behind non-governmental organisations (NGOs), for example there are 1.2 million members of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), over 3 million members of the National Trust, over 25,000 people coming to Birdfair. So why, with all this public support for conservation organisations, is the government not listening to this “huge green army”?

The panel consisted of;

  • Chris Luffingham who was the Green Parties National Campaigns Director but is now Director of Communications, Policy and Campaigns for League Against Cruel Sports (LACS).
  • Dominic Dyer is the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of The Badger Trust he is also the Policy Adviser at the Born Free Foundation as well as the author of the book Badgered to Death.
  • Anneka Svenska who is a natural history presenter, conservationist, film maker and probably best known for her internet TV channel Green World.
  • Dr Mark Avery who held the position of Director of Conservation at the RSPB, political birder, blogger, author of Inglorious – conflict in the uplands
Politics of Wildlife Protection in Britain Panel

L-R: Chris Luffingham, Dominic Dyer, Mike Dilger, Anneka Svenska, Dr Mark Avery

Unfortunately, the one politician who was scheduled to appear Mr Chris Williamson MP, who is Jeremy Corbyn’s right-hand man, pulled out two days before, but sent his apologise. Coincidence? I’ll let you make your own mind up. On with the debate.

Should wildlife protection be a political issue at all, if so why?

Mark said, “the world isn’t right at the moment” for people or wildlife. We need to make changes globally where being kinder to animals, nature conservation and the environment is a bigger issue. He went on to say that there aren’t many ways of doing it. The first is “asking people nicely which usually doesn’t work”, the next is revolution “which is a bit too much work for most of us”, or you can work through the political system “which is what we ought to be doing”. Mark followed this by asking the audience how many read the manifestoes of the political parties for the 2017 General Election a few months ago, to which he was surprised at how many did considering they were in the audience of a debate about politics and wildlife. He said that probably in the real world not many people did, and those that had would have noticed that there was quite a bit of difference between them. Mr Avery put ‘his cards on the table’ openly saying that he was a card-carrying member of the Labour Party. If you look at the Conservation and Labour manifestos they are not the same for wildlife, “so if you like it or not, wildlife is a political issue”, and as members of the public who are on the electoral roll we all have a say and can all make a difference.

“The world isn’t right at the moment…for people or wildlife.”

Dominic agreed with Mark in saying that wildlife is political. He said that by standing up for Badgers “you have the whole roof fall on your head”, saying that he has had to fight the farming industry, the veterinary industry, the royal family, the BBC, the national farmers union, and most of the Conservative governments at any one time, “…just to stand up for any animal that most of us see dead by the side of the road”. Dominic mentioned DEFRA not necessarily an organisation to protect the environments but to protect business against the environment. He went on to say that most of our politicians see things at a very short-term economic, political interest in relation to what voters will decide at the next election, however, “…some politicians like Donald Trump can’t think more than 24 hours of the next tweet”, where others will see ahead two months at most. Looking back on the last election Mr Dyer said that “Jeremy Corbyn had a damn fine campaign compared to Theresa May”, and that he mobilised a lot of young people off their backsides getting them to think that they could make a difference if they voted. A lot of the young people that Dominic has spoken to at universities, colleges and other forums are very concerned about issues like fox hunting, the domestic ivory trade, and other environmental issues. He linked back to the anti-hunting march that happened on 29th May 2017 which saw 5000 people walk the streets of London to the gates of Downing Street, making it the largest public protest of the election campaign highlighting Theresa May’s proposal of repealing the hunting act of 2004. This one act made waves within the press with it being picked up by many national papers. Hundreds and thousands of young people then voted, presumably of tuition fees, but potentially also on cruel sports like fox hunting which made it known. Members of Parliament like Victoria Borwick (Conservative) who held the Kensington/Chelsea seat, which was considered one of the safest of seats in the country, lost her seat after demanding 3 counts. In Dominic’s words, she “…got a kick up the arse about the ivory trade because you were lobbying with the antiques industry which u chaired in Westminster to say that 500 million pounds worth in the antiques trade is worth more than the future of our elephants across Africa and it bloody well isn’t and so you got what you deserved.”

Chris, you have obviously moved from the political sphere to the charitable sphere, what was the reason behind that?

Mr Luffingham said that there is a connection but one that is not promoted enough. Going back to Dominic’s point of a safe seat changing hands also happened in Canterbury. Where these ‘safe seats’ were always going to be considered Conservative, at this latest general election we saw for the first time in very long time them “disintegrated before your eyes.” He went on to say that we will no doubt now begin to see a pattern whereby the younger generation get into politics as it no longer reflecting the popular views. Bringing it full circle back to this conversation, the wildlife sector is a massively under-represented within politics. Chris mentioned that the 2017 general election was all going to be about Brexit and the economy. When he was approached by the Daily Mirror, “who had been the most pestiferous of anti-hunting papers”, said that they weren’t sure if they were going to do something on fox hunting. Luffingham though persuaded them during their interview with Theresa May to ask the question and from the answer she gave the rest is history. This one question and answer then became a cornerstone issue of the election with most of the newspapers cover this one subject. Theresa May had said that she was going to give the House of Commons a free vote on whether to repeal the ban on fox hunting.

Anneka, you were certainly involved possibly in the trenches and certainly with the media in terms of trying to put wildlife environment into the forefront of the election, where you disappointed that it didn’t seem to hold a lot of sway with the media that wildlife environment wasn’t heavily discussed?

Anneka echoed Dominic’s points that eventually a lot of it did get into the press and it was down to Theresa May saying that she planned on bringing back hunting with hounds as well as dropping interest within the domestic ivory talks. She admitted that for someone who didn’t use to have a lot of interest in politics but was more interest in watching wildlife first hand or on television, that to make the change she needed to become involved as this is how we are going to protect our wildlife. So, when Anneka started Green World TV it was to help charities and organisations push through more wildlife politics as “this is the only way we are going to make change”. The fox hunt march that happened on the 29th May 2017, saw a huge number of people come out who would never have bothered to have their voice heard. Much of the UK had already said within polls that they didn’t want to see fox hunting return and so this march potential did help sway the result of the election, however small that sway may have been.

Mark, you have been able to tap into that with the Hen Harrier debate with young people helping you drive the big campaigns, could you tell us a little bit about that?

“Well that’s cunning” was the opening line from Mark. This time last year the public had managed to get the petition for stopping driven grouse shooting over the uplands, past the 100,000 mark which saw the question asked to members of parliament which happened in October 2016. Since then nothing has changed but it has highlighted the issue and it hasn’t yet gone away with many people still push the subject on social media. “It would have been unthinkable a few years ago that this marquee would have been filled with people for a discussion with this title”, and that shows just how much people care about wildlife and the world. This year it was difficult to get away from politics at Birdfair but a few years ago there wouldn’t have been one. He called on everyone with the marquee to not leave with the thoughts but act upon them. Write to your local MP, your friends, colleagues, tell everybody what you think of the state of wildlife locally or abroad.

“It would have been unthinkable a few years ago that this marquee would have been filled with people for a discussion with this title.”

Dominic, with you being involved within NGOs and the charitable sector. A lot of them trying to conserve what they can, but maybe feeling restricted as they are supposed to be apolitical. Can we have a few thoughts on charities and how they can get involved in the political sphere?

“Well I think in some ways charities and NGOs are part of the solution but also part of the problem.” He said that when he was writing his booked, Badgered to Death, the most controversial chapter was not necessarily the ones knocking the farming industry, the BBC or the vetting industry but was the one when he raised question about some the big NGOs have become complacent in protecting their corner or raising money. Some of them seem to have forgotten what started them in the first place which was grassroots anger, which lead to the formation of groups like Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace. It’s not that they don’t excellent work, they do, and the world would be much worse without them. However, Dominic believes at times they need to back to that grassroots anger, back in the fields when it comes to culling badgers. Why are we getting to the point of culling, potentially 30,000 badgers, without out any testing of Bovine TB, possibly extinction of a species. The big NGOs should be behind charities like the Badger Trust, they should be out there in the fields campaigning with them. If they aren’t the politicians get complaisant and think they can get away with it. The NGOs seem to want to keep things running smoothly, unfortunately to bring about change they don’t seem to want to take risks in backing tough campaigns. Individuals who are members of the big NGOs and charities need to get in contact with them and make their voices much clearer of their views if they want them to do things differently. He believes there should not be any MP in Westminster or the devolved assemblies that can afford to ignore wildlife. If you were to ask most MPs they will tell you they get more letters and emails on wildlife and conservation welfare issues than many other issues.

“If they think they can get anyway with ignoring them we need to tell them those days are over.”

We are saying that wildlife letters are hitting the MP postbags more than anything else, why aren’t they listening then Dominic, is it a question of kicking the door down?

Dominic has worked within the food and plant science industries and has been into see politicians saying that we have this problem that food prices are going to rise unless we change the regulatory framework for pesticides and you don’t want food prices to rise as they will be unpopular with your constituency or may even lead to closure of a food factory. To which the politicians agree and begin to act upon it. However, when he enters parliament and mentions he is worried about the welfare of Badgers, they question the number of jobs that are on the line and how it will affect GDP, so they simply wish him good luck. Mr Dyer believes we need to get them to look beyond that debate. Everything shouldn’t be looked at as pounds and pence, as jobs, as GDP. “The wildlife and the natural world around us is precious to all of us for our mental and physical health.”

Mark Avery decided to continue this subject by adding that Mike had commented that charities cannot be political, and that it is not quite correct. Charities have always been political but what they cannot be in party political, they cannot stand shoulder to shoulder supporting any one party. This is because a piece of legislation that was passed in 2013, called the Lobbying Act. This has made big and small charities more fearful about what they say, and this act needs to change. Having said this, the NGOs have become timid and the government doesn’t listen enough. This doesn’t mean we should settle down though, be we should rock the boat a bit and make our voices heard even more. He would like to see the law changed to make it easier for wildlife charities to have their voice heard and to have their members voices heard. We won’t be able to change anything by keeping silent or asking politely. Unfortunately, you must make a fuss, placing the politicians between ‘a rock and a hard place’.

The focus of the discussion now changed and focused on social media relating to a post that Anneka had released on Twitter showing Victoria Borwick and Theresa May, highlighting the fact of the Ivory Trade market not being taken seriously. Anneka said that it was throw-away tweet she had done one morning and within a short space of time it had received 1500 retweets. This goes to show that even though we may just be members of the public, if we have something to say and we want to “rattle a few cages” as Dominic put it, then we are within our right to do so. Anneka added that we should make our posts on social media controversial, it will get people’s attention, get them asking question. Mark mentioned that social media has now become a contemporary form of publicity. We should take off with it and put anything we want answered or thought about out there. Get people talking with friends and colleagues about conservation issues. Chris Luffingham joined in at this point to say that instead of just putting up a post using words, add some context, add evidence. If you find a scientific paper disproving something or highlighting something that you feel has gone unnoticed attach it. It doesn’t have to be as big as a march in London, it could just be a scanned copy of the letter or picture of the email you are sending to your local MP. Just if you’re doing this don’t forget to tag them in it and some of the organisations that may like to know about your effort. This is will show them that you are serious and will probably entice them to send a whole-hearted reply rather than a default response.

After all this the panels closing statements where;

Dr Mark Avery encourages members of the public to join NGOs but don’t join them passively, tell them what you would like them to do or how they could improve. Not only this but be proactive yourself, join social media, talk to your friends, and write to your MP. It might be long a shot for some people but now trust Michael Gove. His speech to the WWF was the best a Secretary of State has done in the last 2 decades. Until he does something daft we should support him as he has great deal to get from it.

Anneka Svenska echoed Mark in saying write to your local MP, go to their surgeries and public appearances. Becoming annoying, we need to get to the point whereby they see your name and they do something for you to get you off their back. Some people will write but only the once and think they have done enough. It isn’t, be a plague and bombard them with the issue until you get the answer you want. Also, don’t just sign any old petition, get on the ones on the Government website. These are the ones that could make a difference as they potential can be spoken about in parliament.

Dominic Dyer, like the others, backed the idea of contacting your local MP but also your local council or parish council. These organisations can make changes too. Think local, conservation starts in your back garden. Survey your local patch, parks, rivers. If you see something you don’t like act upon it. It could be that someone else has spotted but not informed anyone. Don’t worry if they have heard it before, let them know you have seen and ask them what are they going to do about it.

Chris Luffingham looped back to Mark Avery’s comment on backing Michael Gove as it is the first time we have had someone of this stature in charge of DEFRA. We cannot knock him until he does something wrong so let’s all give him a chance. Obviously, when he does something wrong we can hammer him for it, but until then keep an open mind about him. He continued to support the others and especially Dominic in saying contact local organisation and people of power, but, keep it local. So be irritating, get in their face, let them know how you feel about issues that matter to you. Not just on wildlife either, everything. The more you complain the more credibility you will have. Don’t be like an MP and pop up in 12 months’ time when something arises. Moan, badger, be grumpy. It’s something we aren’t good at and we need to get better at, as it is by doing this that we may begin to see change.

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