Yesterday Defra did a U-turn on their proposals to investigate buzzard control for the benefit of pheasants. It’s not easy for governments to do U-turns, although this one is getting the hang of it, and we should thank Defra Minister, Richard Benyon for his re-think. Thank you!
The RSPB did a good job, after being a bit of a mullet, in being a proper piranha, and I enjoyed listening to Martin Harper wipe the floor with the Countryside Alliance’s Tim Bonner on the World at One yesterday. The Wildlife Trusts also played a part in this reversal of government policy, as did several other NGOs.
Various journalists put the pressure on Defra, notably: George Monbiot, Stuart Winter, Damian Carrington, Michael McCarthy, Michael McCarthy again, an anonymous Independent leader and Charlie Cooper. Thank you to all of them. All will have made a difference but some of us rather thought that Stuart Winter had a bit of a crush on Defra’s Caroline Spelman and it took a clear and present danger to buzzards to get him angry with her department.
This blog has banged on about buzzards as regular readers will know but some others have too, and Alan Tilmouth (an excellent writer in my opinion), raptorpersecutionscotland, A birding odyssey and raptorpolitics have played their parts. I’m sure there are others too.
But, corny as it may sound, it will have been the obviously sincere outpouring of rage, based on real knowledge of the fact that buzzards eat a few pheasants (but only a few) from thousands of ‘ordinary’ people that will have made the real difference.
Those comments on blogs like this, on newspaper websites, on the Defra twitter account, on Richard Benyon’s facebook page and emails flooding in to Defra will have made the difference. It was clear that Defra thought that if they kept their heads down for long enough we would all go away – but we didn’t and that’s what kept the newspapers interested and continuing to post stories about it.
And I would like to say a big thank you to Andrew Winser, who I don’t know, have never met (as far as I know) and have never heard of (as far as I can remember) who posted this petition which attracted 3400 signatures in just a few days – well done whoever you are!
I wonder whether Defra made their minds up themselves or whether there was a phone call from No10 asking what on earth Defra was doing. I would put my money on that phone call having arrived at about 10am on Tuesday morning if it happened – after the Indie went in hard on the subject.
This was, as has been said already, a misjudgement by Defra ministers. It looks so much as though they chatted to their mates in the Countryside Alliance, the CLA and the people with whom they go shooting and lost any perspective of the tiny significance of buzzards eating pheasants in the big scheme of things. And also, it looked to many of us, and you don’t have to be too cynical to see things this way, that the proposed ‘study’ was a present to the Defra team’s mates in the shooting community – a present of our taxpayers’ money.
All Ministers have their own enthusiasms – indeed every manager does – but if you are in a position of power you have to be careful how you exercise that power. If your enthusiasm is to end poverty be careful that you don’t give the money to your relatives or friends. If your enthusiasm is for sporting prowess, don’t give government money to your favourite football team. If you are a keen pheasant and grouse shooter, don’t drop your standards and let our money go to your interests.
The Defra statement is a bit mealy mouthed, but then no-one likes saying ‘we got it wrong’. Defra’s statement is reported in various places (Martin Harper’s blog, Guardian, BBC) so he must have said it but I can’t find it on the Defra website. It can’t be a dream can it….?
Defra will not be pleased to have been forced into this U-turn. If they are sensible they will fume privately for a day or too, announce some more good news about fines for bin abuse, and then get on with life and try to do better in future. They might even learn that there are a lot of ordinary people out there, who are members of wildlife conservation organisations, who might like to cheer things that Defra did under the right circumstances. Defra might think of new ways to please this enormous audience by doing the right thing rather than stopping doing the wrong thing. Let’s hope so.
But there is also the risk that Mr Benyon will be very annoyed by having to turn his policy around because of public opinion. He will be put under pressure by the Countryside Alliance and others, I would guess, to have another go or to exact retribution in another way. Will it be a return to buzzards? Maybe cormorants next? A word of advice Minister – there aren’t many Lib Dem or Tory MPs in marginal constituencies who will thank you for making the same mistake again and stirring up these voters again. Remember their rage and anger, and don’t imagine that they are all communist townies – a large number of the outraged will be the typical RSPB member who reads the Daily Mail or the Daily Telegraph. Woo them back, don’t lose them for ever.
And there is a lesson for nature conservationists too. People killing our wildlife is, rightly, an emotional issue. It gets people going like nothing else does. Climate change is much more important than a few dead buzzards but it might not be as engaging. Just make sure that you continue to cover the birdy and emotional elements as well as the higher reaches of sustainability policy.
And so I would suggest that the RSPB and/or others should build on this position. Buzzards were a small but telling stage on a journey to reducing the incidence of wildlife crime directed to many species but particularly to birds of prey – and particularly by the nastier elements of the shooting community. How about a big NGO push on vicarious liability for a start? No, it’s not the most important thing in the world but it needs doing. And what is the strategy for getting hen harriers back on English moors? Build on this moment – don’t let it slip through your fingers.