An open letter to the new Defra Ministers

To George Eustice and Dan Rogerson.

Dear Ministers

Congratulations on your new ministerial appointments.  You have an unpredictable time, but no more than 568 days (less holidays, the run up to the General Election, time off sick and being moved on or sacked) to make a difference.  Given the uncertainties of Ministerial tenure you can’t count on lasting all those days so, if you are going to make any difference at all to the world through being a Minister, you’d better get on with it!  Most Ministers, I would say, spend too much of their time trying to keep their noses clean so that they might get another ministerial job and not enough time actually using their opportunity to make the world a better place.

It’s not your fault, because you have just arrived, but you join a Department, Defra, whose reputation with the environment movement, and maybe with the public, is at an all time low.  Caroline Spelman was good, but did not receive appropriate support from the rest of Government, whereas Owen Paterson is hopeless but seems to be well-supported by the PM and the likes of George Osborne.  As junior Ministers there is only so much that you can do to rescue the reputation of the coalition government on nature conservation and sustainable agriculture – you have quite a task on your hands.

Your boss, Owen Paterson, has looked foolish on the subject of climate change, is anti-EU, was isolated in EU discussions on neonicotinoids, is wildly enthusiastic about killing badgers despite the impracticality and futility of the current approach and seems to think that Defra doesn’t have an ‘e’ in its name. You may find that your boss is absolutely sure that he is right about everything despite all this evidence to the contrary – good luck!

You follow two ministers of different stature.  Richard Benyon had been long in the role as a Shadow Minister and government Minister, and did some good things, and is a nice man, but he sometimes looked like the government wing of the CLA, Moorland Association and Countryside Alliance rather than a Government Minister – you should try to do better than that please. And David Heath, the only previous LibDem Defra Minister, leaves an invisible legacy, so it is up to you, Mr Rogerson, to try to prove that LibDem Ministers can do good for the natural environment.

Please try to remember that you don’t work for the NFU – that’s the GM-supporting, biofuel-supporting, neonicotinoid-supporting, badger-cull supporting NFU.  Every time the NFU nips around from next-door in Smith Square to give you your instructions make sure you ask them for the scientific evidence that underpins their case – that’ll slow them down a lot.  And then why not publish what they give you and ask proper scientists to evaluate it?  You need all the help you can get, and it needs to be impartial, not from a vested economic interest.  And just ask yourself, how many voters are farmers? How many voters are members of wildlife conservation organisations?  You work it out.

Here are some hints as to how you could do a good job, and I wish you well:

  • badgers: what is the endpoint of your current policy? How many badgers will there be in the TB affected areas in 2020 if you proceed along the lines you are going now? And what will be the incidence of bovine TB?  Please let us all know for we are paying for this policy – it’s our money that you are wasting.  Ask yourself why the quickest possible dash for vaccination of badgers and cattle is not the best solution. Ask the NFU why they are not keen on cattle vaccination and then decide whether it is the economic costs of lost exports rather than any higher motives that determines their position.
  • agri-environment schemes: these schemes cost us, we taxpayers, far more money each year than does bovine TB.  The ELS does not deliver good enough environmental outcomes for wildlife and that is entirely the fault and responsibility of Defra.  You, as new ministers, have the opportunity to make things better and gain some credit for having done so.  Listen to the RSPB, IEEP, the Wildlife Trusts, Butterfly Conservation, Plantlife, Buglife and the National Trust on this subject – they are land owners too.
  • CAP reform: your boss, Mr Paterson, does get some things right and this is the thing! In a time of austerity, when budgets are cut right across the public sector and many are suffering hard times, then it is unacceptable for subsidies, that are basically income support for farmers, to be maintained at current levels.  CAP subsidies should be switched away from income support to agri-environment spend (provided you sort out ELS too – see above).  A good thing to do would be to cap CAP subsidy payments for individual owners – the CLA are sound on this but wildlife NGOs are a bit flaky as the larger ones gain from these payments and don’t want them capped.
  • wildlife crime: do something when the Law Commission report comes out.  Licensing of grouse moors and the introduction of vicarious liability for wildlife crimes would be modest moves in the right direction. This isn’t the most important aspect of government policy – just don’t edge things in the direction of vested interests from the shooting industry.  Read the Environmental Audit Committee report on this subject.
  • neonicotinoids: if, and I say ‘if’, neonics really aren’t worse than other pesticides on offer – then they are all very damaging, aren’t they? What are you going to do about it?
  • read the State of Nature report produced by wildlife organisations earlier this year – will the measures be heading up at the end of your 568 days? If not, why not, please?
  • read my book, Fighting for Birds, to get a unique perspective on nature conservation in the UK – there’s plenty more advice there.

You’ll get lots of advice from lots of people.  Just remember that all that advice from ‘industry’ is often self-serving advice. Who should you trust?

After the initial thrill of being made a Minister you will now be settling into the worrying task of having to do something! Decide what you want to do, for you (not your civil servants) are in charge, and then please set about making the world a better place for all and not just for some.

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34 Replies to “An open letter to the new Defra Ministers”

  1. And, of course, sorting out the future of our National Forests - a process which is stalling badly. It may not be high on your agenda, mark, nor I suspect Defra's as the department looks more and more like the old NFU client MAFF. However, despite the fact that your civil servants may be telling you its all OK and no one remembers the sales fiasco, of all the issues you list with the possible exception of Badgers this is the one that still has the greatest potential to blow up into a major political disaster - and there individual conservative parliamentary seats are at risk. How many MP's can any party afford to lose over an issue like this ? The answer is simple: no one supports the present proposals which leave Defra in complete control; you need to go back to the Independent Panel report and simply follow it's sensible proposals - for that, you will get widespread support, could turn a big political disaster into something for which you get credit and kill the issue as a general election risk.

    1. A rather more adult style than the hectoring, parental style of the author! As an exercise in influencing decision makers who have yet to start the job its a bit of an own goal.

  2. There is nothing necessarily wrong with wildlife crime. I am a wildlife criminal and proud of it.

    I have uncovered a surprising consensus between Richard Benyon MP and Paul Flynn MP with respect to the Hunting Act. My MP wrote to Mr Benyon last year to ask him if he supported the terms of the exemption for flushing out and stalking in the Hunting Act and their inclusion of the condition that the flushed animal is shot as soon as possible. Mr Benyon replied that he did not think the animals should have to be shot.

    This is perhaps no surprise as Mr Benyon is an opponent of the Hunting Act.

    What is perhaps more surprising is that when I 'phoned Mr Paul Flynn MP a fervant supporter of the Hunting Act it turns out that he does not support it either.

    Mr Flynn stated that the Hunting Act was 'full of inconsistencies, anomalies and absurdities'. When I asked him if I should comply with the law when I use my collies to flush wild deer he said 'certainly not!'.

    He then sent me an email saying that the law has 'unintended consequences' and comparing it to a law prohibiting the wearing of suits of armour in the House of Commons.

    You should not blanketly condemn all crime Mark. That's a highly prejudiced and discriminatory position.

    The simple fact is that there are good laws and bad laws and plain dumb laws. Crimes such as rape, murder, poisoning raptors are thoroughly despicable crimes.

    Sitting on a bus wearing the wrong skin, scolding your husband or a man loving another man were all once illegal but breaking those laws was justified as the laws were wrong.

    Turning up to a Parliamentary debate dressed in a full suit of mediaeval armour I am ambivalent about - it would certainly play havoc with the metal detectors. However one thing I am certain of - breaking the Hunting Act by refusing to kill wildlife is completely justified. Indeed as a crime it is a civil and moral good.

    And Paul Flynn MP backs this position. Where the law is absurd it's fine to break it.

    One of the things that Defra could do is conduct a root and branch review of wildlife law and get rid of the obviously nonsensical bits. Until that is done we cannot really condemn or oppose wildlife crime per se.

    1. Giles
      You have commented on this blog on a number of occasions about the specific aspect of the Hunting Act that you have a beef with and which, you argue, criminalises you. I believe that you have a point in that respect but is it really helpful to come out with statements such as "there's nothing necessarily wrong with wildlife crime?".
      There are no doubt a number of things on the statute books that potentially criminalise people inappropriately (for example most people would not wish to consider their 16 years and a day old son a rapist if he had consensual sex with his 15 years and 364 days old girl-friend but he would, technically, be one) and it is appropriate to campaign against such specific issues but these anomalies do not affect the general position that crime is "a bad thing". Just as we all understand what is meant when we say that rape is a dreadful crime I think we all know and understand what is meant when we refer to wildlife crime and the need to take tough action on it. It was fairly clear that Mark's original post was referring to illegal and - to most people - wholly unacceptable persecution of birds of prey, not to shooing a few deer out of your wood with a your dogs and then failing to shoot them. I guess that most conservationists would certainly wish for tougher and more effective actions by the Government to put an end to Hen Harrier persecution and I'd like to think you would too, Giles.

      1. Hi Jonathan - yes I agree with you. However whether or not it is 'helpful' to point out that wildlife crime is not necessarily a bad thing it is nevertheless true. I'm doing my best to forge a consensus which is why I am so pleased to have got Mr Flynn to agree with Richard Benyon. I think you'd have to agree that getting a prominent Labour anti hunter to agree with someone that Mark would characterise as a pro hunt grouse moor owning Tory toff is pretty good going.

        I am definitely in favour of wildlife crime - not all wildlife crime and certainly not persecuting birds of prey but some wildlife crime I do think is a "Good Thing". Just as I think some other crimes can be a good thing. There is nothing sacrosanct about wildlife crime.

    2. Giles, you know how to grab the reader's attention. I gasped at your opening gambit but then reading on there could be something in what you say. I'd be inclined to argue against bad law from within the system and bring about change that way. But then maybe if that approach had been adhered to 100 years ago I would still be without a vote? Perhaps it might be an idea for that project to move on at pace and for men to make way for women in positions of power. Less testosterone, less preening and more caring?

      1. Hi Martha - I did my best to bring about change within the system by taking this issue right through the courts including the European court.

        I feel that I am faced with a simple choice - don't flush any more deer on my land - and to be frank I am not sure how I would actually do this without getting rid of the dogs or not going out with them - flush the deer out and shoot them all - or just carry on.

        What I do is actually very gentle and very humane. I have also done it with very young children who've had a great time. I'm helping to bring up a new generation of wildlife criminals!

        Surely the testosterone fuelled option is to mount a line of guns to slaughter wildlife? We really should not feel we have to reach for a gun and blast everything to kingdom come as a solution to every problem.

        And you could be right about women in power although I got my MP to write to Mary Creagh about this and she very much supports the law as it stands although for some reason she is completely unprepared to say why she feels the animals should have to die.

        1. Giles, I can't speak for Mary Creagh, I had in mind women of huge courage and compassion, such as Aung San suu kyi, Corey Aquino and youngsters such as Malala Yousafzai and Brittany Trillford (speaking for the environment). You'd want people such as these on your side in a crisis?

          And people such as your good self who talk agreeably and with common sense on outlets for opinion such as this.

          1. " had in mind women of huge courage and compassion" ah not Mary Creagh then!

          2. She might have made it to the list had she been prepared to discuss her position on the issue you raised.

        2. Giles, I think that I totally get what you're trying to say. If I understand you right, if indeed the legislators have managed to pass a law which immediately compels one to shoot deer if one flushes them (other animals too?), as in an act to spare the deers from suffering, then I'm with you 100 %. Please continue to practice your civic disobediance! Especially as you've apparently done everything one can through the democratic channels, to no avail.

          So this law was made to protect deers in hunt, so that there would be no prolonged agony, just a chase-flush-kill type of activity? (am clueless about hunting practices)

          But as a by-product there's this stupid consequence where every case of flushing the deer (even accidentally?) means they need to then be killed? As in saving them from having to live after having been through a frightful moment?

          Boggles the mind, if this is the case.

          But are you sure that the right thing is to announce that "I am definitely in favour of wildlife crime".

          Trust me, I get the point. But I see at least two problems: 1) the sentence is so loud it drowns the message 2) when wildlife crimes are rampant in the world, you are, in an apparently very sincere attempt to do good, belittling a huge tragedy and one of the great problems of our time.

          "What I do is actually very gentle and very humane." But the sentence sounds cruel and uncaring. Might there not be a better choice of words, than to declare that you're definitely in favour of wildlife crime?

          1. Hi Minna, to coin a phrase if you are not for it you are against it. Those that adopt a blanket position against all wildlife crime are supporting the senseless destruction of wildlife. It's as simple as that.

            We need to get away from the stupid notion that its being a criminal offence that makes an activity wrong. This is quite obviously untrue.

            If you can't take this simple fact on board have a chat with Paul Flynn MP - he has been very clear to me that I should not obey the Hunting Act when flushing deer. He is in favour of wildlife crime too.

            To quote from an email he sent me:

            It's not the Hunting Act that is absurd, it's the unintended consequences.

            What Mr Flynn is in reality saying is that he does not think the law should require animals shot so therefore I should not obey it.

            Of course Mr Flynn's views are irrelevant to my decision whether or not to commit a criminal offence or not. That decision is based quite rightly on whether I agree with the law - and I don't - so I break it. It's very simple.

            If anyone actually objects to me committing wildlife crime blathering on about some mythical outdated duty to respect the bigoted imbeciles who pass these laws will not make one jot of difference. What they would need to do is prosecute me.

            They won't prosecute me because if they do I might decide to obey the Hunting Act and in truth no one actually wants that because in reality and in effect no one actually fully supports the law.

            Anyone can make pious pronouncements about respect for the law but it is actions that count not words. The reality is that the police, the RSPCA and LACS are all actively supporting wildlife crime when it is clearly justified.

            I am merely pointing out the true situation on the ground.

            Thanks for your response.

          2. (For some reason I'm not able to reply to your comment to mine, Giles, so I'm putting it here, and hope that it comes out in a somewhat chronological order)

            How could you so grossly misunderstand me? I sincerely apologize if I wrote so poorly that my intended message was turned upside down and inside out, leading you to false impressions.

            If you purposefully twisted my message and used it to your own purposes, shame on you.

            "Those that adopt a blanket position against all wildlife crime are supporting the senseless destruction of wildlife. It's as simple as that."

            That there is a fault in law, is not the fault of wildlife crime. The fault lies solely on man. Change the law, don't condone wildlife crime. Meanwhile, do continue to not obey that law.

    3. Hi Giles,

      I have seen your comments many times before. Whilst I don't necessarily think what you do is wrong - in general I can't see a problem, I do take issue with the determined assault on the law as it stands. Where I live we have a huge problem with lamping and poaching, not just deer, but anything that moves including badgers, hares, people's cats, foxes etc. Police are not routinely trained in wildlife law (more's the pity) and it takes quite some pushing for them to even arrest someone taking part in this activity. I think on that basis you are safe as houses so I think you are arguing a rather pointless cause.
      We also have a problem with badger digging and baiting (again with dogs), which also comes under the hunting act. We have had situations where people are digging for badgers but insist they were digging to flush a fox (it is difficult to prove badgers unless you have cast iron evidence that a badger was at home at the time, believe me). However as they have no firearm with them (only dogs) they can still be successfully prosecuted for hunting with dogs and have their dogs taken from them. Several times this and last year I was asked to view evidence of what the law seeks to prevent (badgers or other animals being attacked by dogs after a chase). It is quite clear to me, and I have no doubt it would be to a magistrate should by some amazing quirk you actually be prosecuted (if you have I really am genuinely impressed at the interest of the local police but it would be daft) that there is a vast difference between what you do and what they do. But let me be frank. We need this law. Just as, as Jonathan Wallace pointed out we need laws on rape. No law is perfect, because humans do not fit a one size fits all box and laws cannot take everything into account for everyone. I'm pretty sure anyone who works in wildlife crime will tell you they want these laws strengthened, not weakened. If it were opened up to the requirement to prove that an animal had been injured we are entering an even greyer area where the defence expects to SEE those injuries and have them examined by a vet to prove they were caused by a dog, and which dog. You get the point. Every little loophole every little way of twisting the truth. Especially in an arena where wildlife and wildlife crime is poorly understood and wool is easily pulled over the eyes of magistrates. If flushing without a gun were legal, that would be the instant defence for every one of these criminals. "I tried to stop it" would be the cry, in fact it has been, even with video sound evidence! At present, no gun, no defence. I like it that way.

      1. Hi Jo, you support the law as it is and yet you clearly don't think I should have to obey it? If that's your position then you too support wildlife crime which kind of illustrates my point.

      2. And here we go again! The truth is that Giles is an anarchist who believes that the Government should not have the right to force people to kill. That's why he latches on to the Hunting issue and that's why he extols the virtues of breaking the law. It has nothing to do with animal welfare, wildlife management, conservation or anything else.

        1. I support the state's right to get us to kill things but only where there is justification for it. For example when other wise animals would be left to suffer unreasonably or perhaps with some invasive species. Indeed I believe that all laws should be justified and that one has a right to challenge them when one thinks they are not and in such circumstances when the state fails to justify them one has the right to break them. To that extent I support crime.

        2. "The truth is that Giles is an anarchist who believes that the Government should not have the right to force people to kill. That's why he latches on to the Hunting issue and that's why he extols the virtues of breaking the law."

          You may believe that, others believe Giles is just a chap that wants to maintain the biodiversity of his woodland without having to resort to miles of expensive and unsightly fencing or killing things. He has devised an effective and enjoyable way of doing this, however due to an absurdity in the law he cannot do this legally.

          If you believe that makes him an anarchist then perhaps you need to get out more...

      3. "No law is perfect"

        In this particular case, because it was designed to appease ideologues and garner the populist vote. That it should contain such a ludicrous element, designed, among other things, to eliminate any possible element of enjoyment of a chase should surprise no-one.

      4. You're the exact opposite of volataire who would fight to the death for my right to say something he did not agree with Jo!

  3. George Eustace? That would be George Eustice then?

    As I understand it Owen Paterson is 'widely enthusiastic' about ridding the country(side) of TB and the question should be more like - How many DISEASED badgers and TB CATTLE SLAUGHTERED will there be in the TB affected areas in 2020?

    “Who should you trust?” - you ask. Good question. As you know the Civil Servants don't actually report to the Ministers – that's why Robbie M (FERA) was free to mislead the public on the vaccination efficacy and omitted to say that the vaccination 'trial' was somewhat selective – that's why Dr Cheesman was able to brief against his own Administration – that's why NE comes up with deliberately ridiculously low estimates of UK badger population of 190,000

    “Please try to remember that you don’t work for the NFU” – you quite rightly say. I would add - “Please don't accept a 1 Million pounds bribe that supports a policy that encourages a deadly pathogen to let rip in our country for 15+ years

    1. Trimbush - yes my misspelling is already corrected. Funny that - I knew it was eustice and I'm amazed I didn't spot it earlier.

  4. Can't quite follow your reasoning for capping agri-environment payments. If it is good for the environment, why does it matter who owns that environment? And it rather goes against your grand scheme for the RSPB to conquer and colonise all the other wildlife NGOs which you keep saying will make the conservation lobby more powerful.

    It's not the ownership that is the problem; it is the scheme. If it (ELS) isn't actually any good for the environment, no point in capping it depending on ownership - change it so that it actually works.

    Maybe you were being ironic and I missed it, though.

    1. Jamie - my fault for not being 100% clear - although I think I was 66% clear! Have inserted the word 'subsidy' in the blog to make it clearer. I agree that the payments for 'doing good' (not good enough, but good), the ELS payments, should not be capped. but the useless (IMHO) Single Farm Payment should be capped because it is simply money for owning land - not doing good things. It is not linked to an outcome and doesn't necessarily cause a good one.

      You and I agree. I would like Defra to improve ELS and then make more money available for it (and HLS) so that more farmers can do more good - and the money for that should come from SFPs.

      Thank you.

  5. Just to make more of the E that is missing in DFRA at the moment, we should add some support for Coastal Access. the contrast between the Welsh Assembly and the English could not be more significant. Benyon said it was a "sledgehamme to miss a nut".

    I know there will be those who share Benyon's dislike for the great unwashed. The reality is that big steps forward in conservation legislation have generally coincided with equally big steps forward in access provision too. And it is the provision of access on FC ground that saved FC from Spelman's plans, not the quality of their habitats.

    Other than the lack of access, another good blog post

  6. Mark,without being too disrespectful farmers must do good as you definitely look on the healthy top end of being correct weight.Food in UK is so cheap you and I and everyone else spend more on leisure than on food.
    Well done the UK farmer even though I am out of touch I do know that is correct and it is also a disgusting fact.Even then people moan about the price of food---amazing.
    Strange how your likes/dislikes button gets lots of dislikes on correct facts.
    Personally think those buttons are waste of time,let those who press them say what they like or dislike about a comment or blog.

  7. David, you are right - but access slipped off the Defra radar long before biodiversity - at the time of the Countryside Commission/ English nature merger. As expected, the larger stronger chick followed its instincts and pushed the smaller, weaker out of the nest. Which was the central reason I was so concerned at the prospect of Forest Services disappearing into NE or, even worse, NE into EA.

    Thinking a bit more how duff policies can unravel, it is worth remembering that the idea of access to all woodland having apparently been put to bed at the time of CROW because of access to FC forests, the sales proposals resulted in the Ramblers resurrecting the call for access to all woodlands - not quite what the advocates of sales were after, and why I'm convinced own goals like Buzzardgate and Bowland betty will eventually come back to bite the people who supported them.

  8. Overall an excellent intro for the new Ministers. Surprised however that you didn't mention Hen Harriers directly, and the totally ridiculous situation the Government have forced NE into.

  9. Perhaps you could ask him to remove the three NFU patsies, including the chairman, from the DEFRA board to get a more unbiased view on environmental affairs. Also ask him why the geezer that introduced horseburgers to our supermarket shelves, is still on the DEFRA board.


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