I’d quite like to write a book entitled ‘Advice to a young advocate’ which would give tips on how to influence the political system. I’d not be the right person to write all of it so I’d need a few co-authors too – I wonder what Tony Juniper would think of the idea.
There are a few tips in Fighting for Birds actually – like the story about sending a red rose to a Special Advisor in order to get a meeting (p283) and what to do if you are on a government committee (pp247-8), but there’s a lot more to tell.
Here are a couple of lessons which I think I learned. I know there has been quite a lot about killing things on this blog recently, it’s not a fixation with the subject just the way things have gone, and I’m afraid I will use a few examples from those areas to illustrate my points here.
1. Political pain
There are times to be nice and times to be firm. If you are firm then people sometimes think you are being nasty. Politicians want to be liked and there are lots of people encouraging them to do things. If you want them to do something and they don’t then you should think about punishing them. Not by beating them up but by criticising them. Politicians, but also organisations like NGOs, and even you, and even I, don’t like too much criticism. Of course, the impact of criticism varies in relation to who does the criticising. If you are a single voter then your criticism of the government doesn’t carry much weight – although if, as I do, you live in a marginal constituency then anything you do carries a bit more weight. But if you are an NGO with a large membership then association with you is craved by politicians (see yesterday’s blog) and even the faintest whiff of censure is noticed. You have to use that power wisely, but you have to use it sometimes otherwise you are seen as weak and a push-over.
When I criticised the RSPB over vicarious liability in this blog on Monday (in a pretty mild way) that was what I was doing – using my rather limited influence to make a point (whether it made any difference or not, I don’t know). The RSPB can rely on my almost universal support but there are going to be times when we don’t agree, and that’s fine, but I’m still an advocate and I’m still advocating. When, in response, ‘Linnet’ criticised me for doing that (see comments on Monday’s blog) it made me think (but no, in this case, it didn’t change my mind at all – but it made me think). And when the RSPB occasionally gets out of its pram then it will make others think too. I’m looking forward to the next outing from the pram.
2. Who to believe?
As an advocate you will often be talking about things about which you are not expert. I’ve done it for years and I’m doing it still. There are subjects on which I am expert, and there are others where I know a lot more about them than the average person, but in most areas there are lots of people who know more about the subject than I do. Let’s take lead poisoning and lead in food – I know more about these issues than most people would want to know, but far far less than some people know. About guns and ballistics – I know practically nothing.
And so, you have to get used to being told that you are wrong and coping with it. I am rarely told that I am wrong about birds (even when I am – it happens) because most people think I know what I am talking about (and, generally, I do).
It’s good not to go beyond what you know – but it’s also good to have a healthy disregard for what the other guy says. This week I was told categorically on Facebook, by a hunter (who might be expected to know more about this than I do) that bismuth is carcinogenic and therefore would be an awful alternative for lead shot. It took a lifetime’s experience to wonder whether this was right or not (rather than to accept it) and two minutes to get to this entry in Wikipedia which contains the phrase Scientific literature concurs that bismuth and most of its compounds are less toxic compared to other heavy metals (lead, antimony, etc.) and that it is not bioaccumulative. They have low solubilities in the blood, are easily removed with urine, and showed no carcinogenic, mutagenic or teratogenic effects in long-term tests on animals (up to 2 years). When I put this to my informant on Facebook he admitted he was wrong and said he must have been thinking of Tungsten (although, on checking, that is quite a complicated story which I won’t go into with you (but, yes, I have now gone into it)).
That was just a conversation on a social media site where you might not expect complete accuracy. When I read the BASC statement on the FSA advice I was struck, as I’m sure some of you were, by the statement that chocolate contains more lead (per g) than does game meat. Crikey!, I thought, Does it? And then I thought, They must have checked their facts, surely? And then I thought, Well maybe they have but maybe they haven’t, so I will.
I did some digging myself and couldn’t find anything that seemed to back up BASC’s statement. I was lucky enough to be able to converse with BASC late yesterday to ask them where those ‘facts’ come from and was told that I should look at the EFSA report for 2010, particularly at Table 20 on page 44. The trouble is that Table 20 doesn’t have a line for chocolate (it does have one for ‘Sugar and sugar products including chocolate‘ and it doesn’t have a line for game meat but it does have one for ‘All meat and meat products and offal’ so I re-checked that that was supposed to be the source of the evidence on which BASC was relying when saying that chocolate contained more lead, weight for weight, than game meat – and it is.
The information in that table is not for game meat it is for all meat – and that will include all domestic meat, as I understand it, from cattle, pigs etc and is not therefore a measure of lead in game meat that has been shot with lead! So BASC’s striking statement is wholly false. As far as I can see it is complete and utter nonsense and yet it was BASC’s response to updated health advice from the FSA. BASC’s chocolate health scare holds as much water as a chocolate teapot.
In any case, let’s look at the most up to date, as far as I know, EFSA report on lead – one published earlier this year. That helpfully tabulates how much lead there is in chocolate (Table 12 of EFSA report) and we find an amount of about 55 ppb (parts per billion). Eeeeeeeek! Fifty-five is quite a big number, although parts per billion sounds very small. What does it mean? (There is one type of chocolate with even higher lead levels although it doesn’t sound like the type of chocolate I eat very much.)
Let’s have a look at meats such as beef, chicken and pork. Their ranges of lead levels, in ppb, are really quite low (which might partly be because in many countries lead levels are regulated in domestic livestock meat because lead is a poison) at around 15 ppb (Table 8 of the same report). Maybe BASC is right (by accident) – maybe chocolate is lead-heavy.
But hang on one moment, let’s see how game meat measures up, shall we? Remember, chocolate is around 55 ppb and pork, beef, lamb, chicken etc you can buy in supermarkets and butchers is around 15 ppb. Game meat from mammals (deer, wild boar, rabbits etc) is around 966 ppb (same Table 8 of the European Food Safety Authority report) and gamebird meat is around 260 ppb of lead.
If your portion sizes are similar you get about 60 times as much lead per mouthful of game mammal as you would if you stuck to beef, pork etc and you get around 17 times as much lead in a mouthful of grouse, pheasant, partridge etc as you do in one of chicken, turkey etc. I’ve given you the references so check it yourself and if I have interpreted it wrongly then you can correct me.
All of the above is based on European Food Standards Authority reports which are publicly available. They are a bit heavy going, and it helps if you have a scientific background but the data are from across Europe. If one looks at the lead levels measured by the Veterinary Medicines Directorate and by WWT and RSPB then those high lead levels are replicated in UK studies. A few partridges bought and cooked normally (with the lead shot removed before ‘eating’ or, actually, analysis) would deliver to you doses of lead of over 10,000 ppb (see Table 3 in this study).
I wouldn’t swap your Mars bar for a leg of pheasant just yet even though BASC seem to think that this would be a good idea.
And let me stress again, for it seems to be forgotten by some, that the health issues concerning lead levels in game are most relevant to those who eat game frequently (and I have become increasingly aware this last few days how high some of those intakes must be) and those most vulnerable (infants and pregnant women). Gamekeepers’ families might qualify – exactly the type of people whom the Countryside Alliance, BASC and GWCT should be thinking about, I would have thought.
The BASC statement about lead levels in game meat and chocolate sounded ridiculous, and when you look into the details, indeed it is. It should disappear from their website and BASC should issue an apology for getting it so wrong. I’m sure this was an honest mistake rather than a deliberate attempt to mislead but it simply isn’t remotely good enough to get your facts so wrong when dealing with human health matters.
I am trying very hard not to be anti-shooting. I really don’t mind people shooting things, cleanly, even for fun, in a sustainable way. But there is an awfully bad smell coming from the shooting community at the moment.