Mark writes: John Swift is the former boss of BASC and for more than five years has been the Chair of the Lead Ammunition Group set up by the last Labour government and treated so shabbily by the outgoing Secretary of State for Environment Liz Truss only a matter of 12 days ago.
Here he writes for the first time about the work of the LAG and what he feels is the way forward.
I have just been made aware by one of his members that Tim Bonner of Countryside Alliance has circulated his opinions on Liz Truss’s letter to me about the Lead Ammunition Group. My advice is to take Tim’s wishful thinking with a pinch of salt.
Let’s be clear. The problems of lead in ammunition are not about to go away. They are getting bigger and more obvious. The Lead Ammunition Group remains in place for the time being to keep this emerging science under review and continue to provide sound advice where needed, albeit without the non-scientist stakeholder representatives who resigned en bloc last year when they didn’t like what the evidence was telling them.
So browse the LAG Report and Appendices and, if that’s not enough, the proceedings of the Oxford Lead Symposium – then take a view. The literature is vast so I won’t tax you with more homework than that. And if you aren’t a scientist I will give below a non-scientific way of looking at it.
It will perhaps be an anathema for many who read this blog to start by making clear that I have shot all my life and I’m also a paid up member of the Conservative Party.
When I was doing my 25-year stint as Chief Executive at BASC, constructive dialogue and cooperative working were the way we did things. Mark used to buttonhole me at the CLA Game Fairs, often at the GWCT champagne reception, and we had many useful conversations about contentious subjects. We would end by him saying, “Now please introduce me to the person who least wants to meet me” and we would have some fun drawing up a list.
I owe my love of countryside and conservation in the first instance to my father, Dr Peter Swift FRCP, a senior clinical specialist in neonatal paediatrics who, incidentally, knew a thing or two about the dangers of lead, and to Dr Jeffery Harrison a GP (when he wasn’t birding or wildfowling). For me, nature conservation has always come first. Shooting is a dependent privilege to be exercised with care.
I was inspired to read zoology at Oxford by Professor Niko Tinbergen, listening to his discussion with the redoubtable fisherman, Hugh Falkus, while exploring the Animal Behaviour Research Group’s study area in the vast gulleries at Ravenglass in Cumberland (now sadly gone). Those discussions brought together the high science of academe with the low cunning of a practiced countryman. I was then but a lowly gap-year assistant for Mike Norton-Griffiths helping his DPhil research into Oystercatcher learning behaviour, before going up to Brasenose.
After Oxford and commercial management training in London, chance took me to WAGBI as the Association’s first Conservation Research Officer. Researching the Common Snipe (among many other adventures) I had the good fortune to have my MPhil thesis mercilessly dissected (with cutting good humour) by Professor Geoffrey Matthews at The Wildfowl Trust. He taught me about the essential discipline of good science for effective conservation.
Another big influence on me was Professor Teppo Lampio from the Game Biology Station at Oulu in Finland. As chairman of the IWRB’s Hunting Rationalisation Working Group, he taught me about patience and pragmatism. I was about to do something for momentary effect rather than long-term result, and he stopped me: “We learned in the Winter War that pissing in our pants to keep warm was not a good thing ”.
I would also like to take this opportunity to mention the great Hugh Boyd whose sad passing I only learned about this weekend. Having been sent to spend time at the Ducks Unlimited (Canada) offices in Winnipeg and the Delta Waterfowl Research Station upcountry in late 1978, I visited Hugh in Ottawa where he was head of the Canadian Wildlife Service. After a brief, friendly discussion he required me that very afternoon to make a presentation to the assembled CWS Provincial Directors on priorities for BASC’s conservation and research programmes in the coming 5 years; which I’m happy to say were to be achieved and stand the test of time – thanks in no small measure to Hugh.
I could mention many other characters and escapades that shaped 40 years at WAGBI and BASC, the last 25 years as Chief Executive – all of which have aided my approach to the last 5 years’ difficult work as Chairman of the Lead Ammunition Group.
As a shooter and paid up member of the Conservative Party, it now puzzles me profoundly, all the weight of science to one side, that the current shooting hierarchies at my alma mater, BASC, as well as the current Government administration at Defra, “don’t get” the non-scientific argument either, that littering the countryside every year with thousands of tonnes of poisonous substance and encouraging the provision of dirty food to people already known to be vulnerable – all of it avoidable – needs to have something done about it – urgently.
When we embarked on the LAG process I was not convinced that the case for sweeping legislative prohibition of lead from all ammunition, shot and bullets, across all forms of shooting, living quarry and target, was yet justified. I knew well, as did all the members of the shooting industry’s Lead Ammunition Technical Working Group which I had chaired for many years, that lead was a uniquely “nasty poison” and changes should be explored and encouraged, but did not go further at that time.
During the past 5 years in LAG I have been privileged to work with massively intelligent and professional specialists. As their Chairman I have had to wrap a cold towel round my head and piece together the complex science of several disciplines through every twist and turn. It hasn’t always been straightforward but the quality of their contributions to our Group, especially in the form of the risk assessments is very high. I thank them all deeply.
The various representatives to the Group from the different stakeholder interests, mostly non-scientists as mentioned, raised every herring they could think of and helped us decide which were red or which might perhaps carry some weight. These issues are all reviewed at length in the LAG report or in the published minutes of meetings on our website. It has been saddening to hear personal remarks about bias and conspiracy – but once we got the basic rules sorted out at the beginning, it became possible to resolve or navigate around any differences as they arose.
So, having personally had to work through all the evidence (which is considerable with new stuff continuing to appear even as I write this), having studied all those shoals of herrings, being familiar with experiences in other countries, and knowing from a lifetime’s professional work how it is likely to play in the shooting world here at home, my absolute conclusion must be, and is without shadow of doubt, that the only way to get rid of all the many damages that lead ammunition does to our environment, wildlife and human health, is replacement of lead with the known alternatives.
I’m absolutely confident that sooner or later the penny will drop, perhaps by degrees. Shooting will change. But for that to happen sooner rather than later there needs to be political direction from upstairs, and for that much will depend on the leadership calibre of those in authority – both governmental and non-governmental.
And after a few years we will all be saying – bar one or two who I could possibly name – what was all the fuss about? Just as we now do with seat belts, lead-free petrol, not smoking in pubs and restaurants – or chucking harmless litter into the street. All of them were fiercely resisted in their time.
We grouse shooters have some gall,
You cannot trust us, not at all.
Our chaps in Defra raised the hope,
That brood meddling would soft soap,
The likes of Rory and Ms Truss.
Whilst we got on with little fuss,
With the business we like the best,
Ridding moors of every damn pest:
Hen Harriers vanish and hares destroyed,
Peregrines and kites vanish in a void,
Raptorial birds never should be seen,
In areas where grouse rule supreme.
Just pretend to care and pull the wool,
Over the eyes of those we wish to fool
But we never ever should’ve cast doubt,
On what everybody now is sure about!
Harrier decoys, pole traps in a line,
(Culprit caught yet not even a fine),
Buzzards poisoned runs true to form,
More traps found now on Cairngorm,
Hubristic provocation damn’d us to perdition,
Now more will sign Avery’s wretched petition!
by John Cantelo with a nod towards Hilaire Belloc’s The Microbe
Where does that leave the plan and where does it leave the RSPB?
The Defra Hen Harrier plan was worthless from the start. It would be disingenuous of me not to say ‘I told you so’ because I did, and so did plenty of others.
In contrast the former minister Rory Stewart said at the time of the plan’s launch:
‘This new plan will transform the fate of one of our most magnificent birds’ – wrong minister, unless you meant that there would be even fewer of them once the plan got started!
‘We are working closely with conservation organisations and landowners and with their help, this plan will help hen harriers flourish once more while coexisting with a thriving rural economy.’ – wrong minister, the conservationists have just walked away from your failed plan because the wildlife criminals took no notice of you, nor of the organisations that are said to represent moorland owners and moorland gamekeepers. That leaves Defra cuddling up to an industry that has shown Defra as much respect as it does the law.
‘Our wildlife is a crucial part of our national identity. That’s why we care deeply about protecting this vital species for future generations to come.’ – better luck with International Development having left this mess for your successor to try to deal with.
Defra look very foolish today, as they have done every day since Rory Stewart announced his Hen Harrier plan – but at least the RSPB have absented themselves from the team photo at last. When will Defra, the Environment Department for England, responsible for nature in England, actually do something to tackle crime against protected wildlife? We should be hearing of government plans to introduce vicarious liability for wildlife crimes into English law – but we won’t. We should be hearing of Defra plans to license game shooting in England – but we won’t. And from the Opposition, remember them (?) we should be hearing of plans to ban driven grouse shooting completely – but we probably won’t.
Tthe RSPB says that reform of game shooting to protect the Hen Harrier will only come through a licensing approach. Not many people agree with the RSPB on this but it is a reasonable, though very timid, view of affairs. And reform of intensive grouse moor management is not just about Hen Harriers, remember. What remains the case however, is that the most likely route to having that debate in parliament is through getting our e-petition to ban driven grouse shooting to pass 100,000 signatures by 20 September.
Last week someone asked me what I thought the chances of getting 100,000 signatures by 20 September might be. I said I thought it was about a 40% chance. If you asked me today, knowing what events are coming up, and what plans we have, I’d put it at a slightly stronger 45% chance. There is everything to play for – it’s going to be close.
Of course, if the RSPB asked its members what they thought, and told them of the existence of an e-petition that would get licensing discussed in the Westminster parliament, then the chances would be 100%.
The outgoing Defra ministers of Liz Truss and Rory Stewart, most particularly the latter, bear much of the responsibility for the shambles that is the government approach to Hen Harrier conservation in England. After today’s withdrawal of the RSPB from the hopeless Defra Hen Harrier Inaction Plan – because it is already clear that it is not delivering anything worthwhile – we should expect a statement from Defra, but I doubt we will get one.
The RSPB were put under pressure for months and months to sign up to the Defra plan, which is the grouse shooters’ plan, and the RSPB, at the very last moment, cracked, and probably rather grumpily welcomed the ‘plan’.
Rather than building on this well-meaning but naive move, the grouse shooting industry continued its attacks on the RSPB, Chris Packham, myself and lots of others too, and forgot that the spotlight was on them to deliver on the ground. They have failed to deliver as is set out clearly in Martin Harper’s blog today.
Having delivered an inaction plan for their mates in grouse shooting, Defra moved on to deliver a rejection of the findings of the Lead Ammunition Group for their mates in shooting too. And then the two responsible, or irresponsible, ministers were promoted and don’t have to pick up the pieces.
But Defra cannot wash its hands of its own failed plan, nor of its own failure to secure the conservation status of a protected bird that is a priority for action. Just as the RSPB is right to point the finger at grouse shooting as an untrustworthy, pointless pastime so should Defra and that task now falls to the new minister Therese Coffey. Whereas the RSPB have looked overly generous and naive, Defra looks far worse than that – it looks complicit in failure unless Defra comes out today with strong words of admonition for the grouse shooting industry (it’s not an industry – it’s a pointless hobby).
Ms Coffey has to pick up the pieces and it will be interesting to see whether the Leadsom/Coffey combination can rise to the challenge. Defra forced an industry-promoted voluntary initiative on the RSPB which is now shown to be an utter failure. The industry has let Defra down and Defra is letting down the Hen Harrier. Will we hear anything from Defra today?
So, Defra, which side are you on? Remember that speech by Theresa May about being on the side of the many rather than the powerful few? Here’s your chance to live up to those fine words.
Here’s a plan to save the Hen Harrier which today, rather soon, will pass 64,000 signatures on its way to 100,000 and a debate in parliament.
Today the RSPB has withdrawn its support from the Defra Hen Harrier Plan. Well done them!
Martin Harper explains in his blog that the voluntary approach (to abiding by the law!) has failed.
Essentially the RSPB is saying that they do not trust the grouse shooters and have no confidence that the words they speak in Whitehall have any force in the hills of northern England. The representatives of the grouse shooting industry (it’s just a pointless hobby really) either went into the Defra Hen Harrier Plan discussions in bad faith all along or, if not, then they have no clout with their own members and supporters and cannot deliver their commitments on the ground.
Either way, the RSPB is right to walk away from an untrustworthy industry, with failed leadership which cannot deliver its promises.
Read Martin Harper’s statement and leave a comment approving of the RSPB action.
I will return to this matter during the day. It’s a good way to start the week. Well done RSPB!
This statement has just appeared on Martin Harper’s blog – analysis and comment very soon.
This is the latest in the series of videos by Chris Packham asking people to sign the e-petition to ban driven grouse shooting. This short video discusses the damage to ecosystem services done by all that burning and draining of our hills just so that a few people can shoot Red Grouse for fun.
Oscar writes: I spent many hours trying to photograph Stoats while I was up in Suffolk. On this afternoon they were crossing a grass path about 3m wide, so I needed quick reactions to be able to get any images. This was the only photo was an animal in it before it had shot across into the bracken onto the other side!
If you are of any age and submit a 400-1200 word article in one of the four categories below (and in addition, if you are under 18 years of age and submit an article on any aspect of wildlife) then you may win a signed copy of my latest book Remarkable Birds – out in September but available for purchase at the Bird Fair.
I’m pleased to say that my editor at Thames and Hudson, Sarah Vernon-Hunt, and my pal, Mike McCarthy, the former environment editor of the (also former) Independent newspaper, have agreed to judge the entries with me. I know to my short-term cost, but ultimate benefit, that each of them can be hard to please.
These are the four subjects:
- international wildlife
- wildlife and the arts
- wildlife and politics
In addition, if you are aged 18 years or younger (on 10 September 2016) then you can write on any nature-related subject you like and stand a chance of winning the ‘youngsters’ prize – that might be one of the four categories above or about anything else you like.
Entries should be sent as WORD (.doc or .docx) attachments to emails sent to firstname.lastname@example.org to arrive by midnight on 10 September 2016. The entries should stand alone and not require any images or web links. All entries are considered on the basis that the five winning entries will be posted on this blog as winning guest blogs. Non-winners may be asked whether they would consent to have their blogs published as well. Entries should not have appeared in substantial form elsewhere on the internet or in print (but it will be quite difficult for us to check!). Entries are welcome from anywhere in the universe. You can enter as many essays as you like including multiple entries to individual subject categories.
We will be looking for writing that grabs our attention – even if we don’t necessarily agree with what you write. This is a writing competition – we ‘d like you to impress us with your words.
The decision of the judges will be final.
After a certain amount of consultation and some field testing, this is the design of general leaflet available if you would like to hand some out or stick some through letter boxes.
The leaflets are fairly stiff card (certainly not floppy paper), A5 size and look rather good (even if I say so myself).
It will be delivery costs rather than production costs that might limit availability of supply. However, of course these leaflets cost money and they are available because of generous donation from many of you. If you can’t deliver any leaflets yourself, but are keen on the idea, then please consider donating some money to their production and delivery costs.
If you could deliver at least 500 such leaflets before 15 September (I delivered 250 before breakfast yesterday in my neighbourhood – it’s good exercise) then please email me (email@example.com) with details of where you live and how many you could cope with.