The Walshaw Moor Estate case is important in itself, and we commend again the RSPB for taking a firm stand on it, but it is also indicative of a much wider and deeper Defra malaise.
If Defra is not now acting merely as the Rural Jobs and Fieldsports Department then it needs to get its act together to show that it has broader ambitions that the public can support.
To allay the concerns that it is a bunch of fieldsports enthusiasts playing at nature conservation Defra should:
- publish the data from hen harrier radio-tracking studies despite the fact that these are likely to be embarrassing for upland shooting concerns
- publish a plan to meet the requirements of the Birds Directive for hen harrier conservation
- institute research into the ecological impacts of the release of 35 million non-native pheasants annually into the UK countryside
- put a boot up the backside of the Lead Ammunition Group and move towards a total ban on the use of lead shot and stringent restrictions on the use of lead bullets in the English countryside
- knock on the head any suggestion that cormorants should be placed on the General Licence
- promote an offence of vicarious liability for wildlife crime
- publish a plan for blanket bog and upland moorland management that will be consistent with meeting the UK’s obligations under the Birds Directive and Habitats Directive, be consistent with the National Ecosystem Assessment and contribute to meeting the internationally agreed Aichi targets
- seek to achieve a rapprochement with nature conservation NGOs and restore the collaborative working on nature conservation that characterised the early years of the previous Labour Government and the last years of the previous Conservative administration.
It is very difficult to see that progress can be made on this agenda whilst Richard Benyon remains as a Defra Minister. He is so closely associated with ‘buzzardgate’ where Defra were going to research how to deal with the impacts of buzzards on pheasant shoots (Mr Benyon shoots pheasants), Walshaw Moor where a prosecution of a grouse shooting estate was mysteriously dropped (Mr Benyon owns a grouse moor), country sports (Mr Benyon shoots and fishes) and has already ruled out that landowners should face vicarious liability for wildlife crimes (Mr Benyon is a landowner).
This blog is certainly not calling on Richard Benyon to resign, but is spelling out the fact that no-one will look at Defra’s pronouncements on a whole range of issues without wondering whether they reflect government policy or the policy of the Minister and his particular interests in life.
Defra is carrying out a three-year review of its agencies – the triennial review. The Walshaw Moor case shouts of the need for Natural England to be a truly independent voice for nature conservation.
David Cameron set up his Defra team with a very pro-shooting point of view, out of all the choices that he could have made, and that ministerial team has hardly avoided issues where their own personal interests are affected. With a different team of Ministers following the same agenda there would be less suspicion, and with the same team of Ministers following a different agenda there would be less suspicion; but with this recent and current team of Ministers following this agenda there can only be suspicion that Defra policy has been too closely aligned with that of a small subset of Society and not with the public good.
And where is the Labour Shadow Environment team on all these matters? Nowhere that I can see…
This should go much further than the Walshaw Moor case. We need to know whether Defra believes it is possible to reconcile intensive upland management for red grouse with: the legal requirements of the Birds Directive (eg hen harrier populations), the legal requirements of the Habitats Directive (eg protection of blanket bog), the National Ecosystem Assessment (carbon storage and flood risk management) and the Aichi targets.