I don’t know how often readers of this blog go back a few days and read the comments that continue to accrue on earlier posts. And I don’t know whether I would recommend it either – sometimes a late post is the best of the lot, but not always.
So, I have little idea how many of you are aware of an exchange of comments between myself and Philip Merricks on this blog concerning Simon Barnes’s imminent departure from The Times which has ranged from whether or not I am too adversarial to whether or not David Cameron is too adversarial, and from breeding wader numbers at Elmley to Hen Harriers in the hills. Philip’s comments are well worth reading but I thought I would address one of them, the first, in a separate blog.
Philip thinks I am too adversarial and I should take a much more emollient position on the things that concern me (those aren’t his words exactly – but you can check them out yourself).
Philip prays in aid one of the undoubted heroes of nature conservation, Dr Norman Moore. Philip writes;
‘The situation is eerily similar to the wide gulf that existed in those disturbed times of the 1970s and early ‘80s when farmers and conservationists were at war with each other. And yet through thoughtful nurturing by some great men led by Dr Norman Moore, then chief Scientist of NCC (Natural England’s predecessor body) the two sides came together and out of that togetherness developed the concept of agri-environment management which has grown to be a unifying force between today’s farmers and conservationists. A development which is universally supported.‘
‘What a difference to Dr Norman Moore (former Chief Scientist at Nature Conservancy Council) who, in his book, ‘The Bird of Time – the Science and Politics of Nature Conservation’ wrote (p 104) “No group of people can do more for conservation than farmers, the people who manage most of the countryside. Conservationists and farmers have been kept apart when they should have been working together.” So perhaps you can see that I believe that the Norman Moore approach will deliver more for wildlife in the long term.’.
Well Philip – shall we see?
First, the very initiation of FWAG, about which I do know something, was partly caused by lots of people jumping up and down and saying that things had to be better than they were – and if only we could go back to those days now we would count ourselves lucky. As always, it is dissatisfaction that brings about social change and at the time when change is proposed there are always voices saying ‘I’m sure we can sort this out with a friendly chat’. It’s rarely true, because there is always a reason why the status quo is as it is, and always a group of people whom it suits very well to keep it like that. This was true when women’s suffrage was proposed, when the abolition of slavery was proposed and when workers’ rights were proposed. Experience shows that the vested interests are pretty good at keeping things just as they always have been until people come together and agitate for change.
It’s always worth checking when people use the words ‘reasonable’ and ‘balanced’ as terms of approbation, and ‘divisive’, ‘adversarial’ and ‘unhelpful’ as criticisms whether they really mean ‘agree with me and keep quiet’.
Second, the suggestion that we should settle things with a good British compromise and a quiet chat is very attractive to all of us, including me. But it does take two to compromise and, as I have written here, grouse moor managers and the NFU (at least under its former leadership) have not been mindful to compromise at all. Eventually one has to realise that being reasonable is just wasting time and the alternative is not to be unreasonable but to go over the heads of grouse moor managers or the NFU straight to government to get what you want (and what they don’t want to give you). That involves campaigning for change and involves stirring things up.
Third, it’s worth pointing out that Norman Moore’s book was published in 1987 – more than a quarter of a century ago. When Philip writes of the ‘long run’ he fails to acknowledge that we are now living in the ‘long run’. Since 1987 farmland birds have continued to decline despite the inception, demise and partial resurrection of FWAG, despite an awful lot of talking and despite increasing knowledge of what needs to be done and how it can be done. When the Game Conservancy developed conservation headlands did the NFU adopt them with alacrity? No. When the RSPB developed skylark patches and persuaded Defra to fund them through agri-environment schemes did the NFU adopt them with grateful eagerness? No! When the NFU were allowed to adopt a voluntary approach to delivering a replacement for set-aside through the Campaign for the Farmed Environment did it succeed? No!!
There is a difference between farming and illegal killing of Hen Harriers (in fact, quite a few!). One difference, is that there are, quite clearly, and identifiably, many many wonderful farmers. You can visit their farms and see the good work they have done (like you have at Elmley, Philip!) and see the results on the ground. You can praise them as individuals (as I did in Fighting for Birds but Philip didn’t quote those passages) and the approaches they have adopted.
This was the RSPB’s approach to farming for the whole time I was Conservation Director (and before, and after). That’s why the RSPB invented the Volunteer Farmer Alliance project and spent millions of pounds on working with farmers over the years. I’m rather pleased about that. How does one adopt the same approach with upland grouse moors when there are practically no breeding Hen Harriers in England and no group of upland managers who can be identified as the ‘good guys’?
Farming is a legal activity, on the whole practised according to the law, with good guys and bad guys. And the good guys don’t say many good words about the NFU but they are too nervous to criticise the powerful NFU hierarchy in public. With farming, nature conservationists can work with individual good guys even when the elected representatives of farming are (or at least have been), in my opinion, an anti-environmental bunch.
Killing Hen Harriers is not legal and it hasn’t been legal for 60 years. There are now fewer Hen Harriers breeding in England than when they were protected by the Churchill government back then. The good guys in grouse shooting are invisible – they are silent, they are passive and they have been incapable of influencing the bad guys. And the bad guys are criminals. They aren’t pursuing their business interests legally but unsympathetically, as regards the environment and wildlife, they are killing protected species, destroying protected habitats and doing more of both now than they were in the past. These are the circumstances when an adversarial approach is perfectly reasonable.
And for an example of somewhat pointless talking see the exchange of letters between the RSPB and the Moorland Association. Those same letters could have been written a decade ago. Talking to the intransigent does nothing to change the world – you should try it but not persist once it is shown to be futile.
Please sign this e-petition to ban driven grouse shooting which recently passed 6000 signatures, and has just entered only its 6th week.