Defra is the government department responsible for wildlife and their new Secretary of State, Michael Gove, wants to know the answer to this question ‘If we want the UK’s approach to environmental protection and enhancement to be seen as the best in the world, what does that mean and what does it look like at a local, national and global level?‘.
Defra’s response to the results of the UK Hen Harrier survey which showed (as we already knew) that Hen Harrier numbers in England are close to zero and numbers are falling elsewhere in the UK too, was as follows: ‘We take the protection of wildlife extremely seriously and have robust measures in place to protect all wild birds, including the hen harrier. Anyone who kills or injures a wild bird is committing an offence and could face jail if convicted.’.
Well, that’s the type of robotic and misleading non-statement that is the reason why Defra has very few friends in wildlife conservation. It’s a May-like response to the issue.
Defra doesn’t take wildlife conservation the least bit seriously and that is exemplified by their lack of interest in wildlife crime.
Does Defra take the protection of wildlife very seriously? Not according to my reading of NGO end of year assessments of Defra’s achievements in the last two years (2016, 2015) and not according to my own review of their lack of achievement. Defra’s 25-year plan for wildlife may take that long to emerge. Remember that the Conservative manifesto was, according to me at least, the worst of all the main political parties at the last general election (slightly worse than UKIP’s!). Defra has a much stronger reputation for killing wildlife (Badgers, Buzzard licenses) than for saving it.
Does Defra take the protection of Hen Harriers very seriously? Hell no! Under successive Conservative ministers things have got worse, no action has been taken and the impression has been given that Defra ministers are far closer to the wildlife criminals who kill Hen Harriers than to wildlife conservationists. Harsh? I think not. Richard Benyon, GWCT trustee and grouse moor owner, refused to consider vicarious liability for wildlife crime for England and did nothing to address the killing of Hen Harriers. Rory Stewart produced a Defra Hen Harrier plan that was a plan for grouse moor managers to be able to ‘deal’ with Hen Harriers rather than a way of dealing with wildlife crime. And Therese Coffey could not bring herself to announce a single measure to improve the plight of the Hen Harrier, and hardly a word even to acknowledge it, in her summing up of the government’s position n the Westminster Hall debate. In the last seven years not a single Defra minister has done a single thing which realistically addresses wildlife crime. So does Defra take the protection of Hen Harriers seriously? Hell no! And does it have ‘robust measures’ in place to protect Hen Harriers? Hell no! That’s why there were only four pairs in 2016.
Gove’s problem: Michael Gove might be enough of a savvy politician (for he is, at his best certainly that – despite many lapses of judgement along the way) to realise that his department’s dire performance before he arrived is one of the reasons (clearly not the biggest) for the poor showing of the Conservative party in the general election. Support for fox-hunting was a vote loser. Broken promises on an ivory ban was a vote loser. Kept promises on badger culls are a massive vote loser. And the perception that Defra is run for the benefit of the landed and not the many is definitely a vote loser because it goes to the matter not of competence (which can be solved by doing better) but of attitude.
The Conservative party has made a huge mistake in getting itself into the position of being the nasty-to-wildlife party whose most vociferous supporters are those people who are nastiest to wildlife. This is not Mr Gove’s fault, but it is his problem now. there are lots of things the new Secretary of State could do to make things better, for wildlife and for this party’s chances in the next general election. Taking a new direction on raptor crime would be a good place to start, because although it is not the most important issue in his portfolio it is one which would do some good for wildlife and at the same time do some good for the perception of the nasty-to-wildlife party.