Dr Therese Coffey is the junior minister in Defra and some time fairly soon will be asked to sign off a government response to Gavin Gamble’s e-petition to ban driven grouse shooting assuming that it passes 10,000 signatures (which it will).
Dr Coffey closed the debate on grouse shooting almost a year ago in a very poor manner. She blatantly ignored the widespread existence of wildlife crime on grouse moors and sent a strong signal to the wildlife criminals that the government, yes the government, was turning a blind eye to criminality and that she as biodiversity minister was turning a blind eye to the killing of protected wildlife. As I say, it was shameful.
This is the type of hubris that governments and politicians exhibit when they believe that they are so secure in their jobs that they can get away with anything, however crass and however much it flies in the face of the evidence. But things have changed greatly in the last 12 months.
For one thing, the last general election removed any thought that the Labour Party was dead and buried and it showed that a similar act of hubris, talking up fox hunting, hurt the Conservatives in the ballot box.
For another thing, we have a new Secretary of State at Defra who has already moved on ivory sales and penalties for animal cruelty – Michael Gove won’t see grouse shooting as a vote winner for his party and he won’t see why his department should be so aligned with wildlife crime as previous ministers have allowed it to be. We’ve also seen the Minister of State in Defra, George Eustice, trailing the possibility that post-Brexit grouse moors should not receive agricultural support in our future farming policy. And whereas the lines in the Bluffer’s Guide to Moorland Imbalance were seen to be useful tactically a year ago they are now more generally seen as hopeless, wrong and a liability (see here just for examples). An air of electoral, economic and environmental realism might just be blowing through the Defra corridors – it’s not quite an Ophelia yet, but keep signing Gavin Gamble’s e-petition to ban driven grouse shooting and the chill breeze will strengthen.
But also, and this comes as no surprise, the killing of birds of prey has continued apparently unabated in the past year. The results of the 2016 Hen Harrier survey show a decline in numbers in all parts of the UK but more importantly there were, again, no Hen Harriers nesting on English grouse moors and only 7 pairs (3 of which were successful) in the whole of England and yet the Defra response was wholly complacent. To say that the Defra Hen Harrier Inaction Plan has been a massive failure is to give it more credit than it deserves. Did I, and other, tell you so? Yes, we did. And then yesterday North Yorkshire Police were hunting for a missing satellite-tagged Hen Harrier on grouse moors in the Yorkshire Dales National Park to add to the very long list of ‘the disappeared’.
Rory Stewart signed off the previous two government responses to e-petitions on banning grouse shooting – and they were utterly hopeless (see here and here). They stoked up resentment and public determination to sort out grouse shooting and helped to lower Defra’s reputation as a serious government department even further. Dr Coffey could begin to put that right and she should start her civil servants thinking about that right now. Does the Conservative Party want their mindless and unquestioning support for a rich person’s hobby which is underpinned by wildlife crime to be an election issue whenever the next general election will come? If not, then do something to defuse the situation now because I predict that Labour will be on this subject soon and the ‘Rich toffs’ hobby floods your home‘ and ‘Public pays wildlife criminals to trash National Parks‘ headlines won’t necessarily go down that well anywhere in the country but will certainly endanger Calder Valley, Pendle, Morecambe and Lunesdale, Rossendale and Darwen and the seat of the former Chief Exec of the Countryside Alliance in Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire, Simon Hart. But aside from electoral self interest, surely Dr Coffey wants to do the right thing for the public even if it means losing the braying approval of some of her more antediluvian MPs.
And to help Dr Coffey, this blog will provide her with some reminders of the issues over the next few weeks before the government response emerges – we haven’t got to 10,000 signatures yet after all. Blogs will be entitled ‘Dr Coffey’s reading list’ and there may be quite a few of them.
Once Defra civil servants and Dr Coffey have reminded themselves of the issues then here is a short list of ‘do’s and ‘don’t’s for her to smarten up Defra’s act -and for which this blog and others will praise her:
The government response should:
- be published within 2 weeks of Gavin Gamble’s e-petition reaching 10,000 signatures
- announce that vicarious liability for wildlife crimes will be introduced in England because of the unacceptably high levels of wildlife crime
- announce that Defra will ask the RSPB to come forward with proposals for licensing of shooting estates within a month and that Defra will respond to them by Christmas
- acknowledge the level of concern about driven grouse shooting which led to 123,077 signatures being gained last year for an absolute ban on this hobby (I’m not expecting Dr Coffey to say anything nicer than that about a ban)
- confirm that Defra is looking at removal of farming subsidies from grouse moors in its post-Brexit agricultural strategy
- confirm that the evidence for wider environmental damage of heather burning has increased recently and that this is an issue that government will address and that this will require widespread changes to grouse moor management (burning and draining)
- mention where the government is with dealing with the RSPB complaint to the EU over unsustainable moorland management due to grouse shooting practices
- acknowledge that the plight of the Hen Harrier has not improved in two breeding seasons since the Defra Hen Harrier plan was launched and that the grouse shooting industry has not cleaned up its act and is on a last warning
- announce that the details of the 15-year Natural England Hen Harrier study will be published by Christmas 2017 in a government report with further recommendations for Hen Harrier conservation
- acknowledge that wildlife crime applies to many other protected species other than the Hen Harrier
- announce that the National Capital Committee has been asked to compile a report on ecosystem services and grouse moor management
- announce a review of the economic costs and benefits of intensive grouse moor management will be carried out by independent academics and published by Christmas 2018.
The government response should not:
- say that funding of the NWCU is a sufficient response to combatting bird of prey persecution in the uplands (because nobody who knows has ever suggested such a thing)
- say or suggest that grouse shooting provides a nett economic benefit to the nation (because there are no such figures)
- suggest that the current Hen Harrier Action Plan is remotely fit for purpose
- praise gamekeepers
- conflate benefits of all shooting (economic or environmental) with benefits of grouse shooting (because it makes the government department and/or its ministers look either stupid or biased)