Peter Melchett, campaigner, farmer and wildlife-lover passed away yesterday. He will be sorely missed and fondly remembered.
He lived in northwest Norfolk, near Ringstead, and every time I pass the entrance to his farm I think of him, and will always do so. A little further up the road, towards the coast, there is a thick hedge on the edge of his land which sometimes holds a large Corn Bunting roost in winter. Peter was very proud of the wildlife of Courtyard Farm and how his actions had improved it. He was always keen to talk about farming and wildlife.
Peter was a mentor to many of us – he was to me. He had a wealth of experience in government and in environmental organisations which he was generous enough to share. His advice was always wise and kind.
Most will probably remember Peter as the Executive Director of Greenpeace UK and latterly as the Policy Director of the Soil Association, but before many of us knew him he was a junior minister in the Wilson and Callaghan governments. Peter Mond, 4th Baron Melchett, inherited his title in 1973 and was the youngest government minister appointed in modern times. He was a Northern Ireland minister during the troubles and was praised for his openness, achievement and bravery in that role. After the 1979 victory of Margaret Thatcher, Peter was a Front Bench Opposition spokesman in The Lords on the environment and played a significant role in improving the details of the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act. He left front line politics in 1983 (at the age of 35!).
Peter became CEO of Greenpeace UK in 1989 and held that role until 2001. The organisation grew in staff, income and clout during his tenure.
One of the memorable events of that period was the ‘trashing’ of a trial field of GM crops (Oil Seed Rape if I recall correctly) as a protest by the Greenpeace 28. Peter led from the front and was one of the 28 facing charges in Norwich Crown Court weeks later. I gave evidence in that trial as the RSPB was, and I personally was, heavily involved in those issues. In fact, there were two trials, so we all had to do it twice as the jury did not agree in the first round and so we were all back again for a retrial where the Greenpeace 28 were acquitted. My role was tiny, I was in the witness box for around 10 minutes as I recall (twice) but I had sleepless nights before each appearance because a court is an intimidating place, and an unfamiliar place for me, but mainly because I didn’t want to say the wrong thing, mis-speak or give the wrong impression because the fate of 28 people depended just a little bit on my evidence. I wonder whether I lost more sleep over those trials than Peter did but I was able to tease him subsequently that he’d still be in prison if it weren’t for me.
When Peter left Greenpeace he took up a role with Iceland Foods briefly and then became the Policy Director of the Soil Association. I saw him less often in this period but we used to meet up for a chat now and again and had a number of serendipitous encounters at events where Peter would always greet me, as he did everyone, with a warm smiling face.
I remember having a meal in a London pub with Peter where he spied someone else’s dessert being delivered and said ‘That looks good. What’s that?’, to which I replied ‘I think it’s Eton Mess isn’t it?’. Peter looked thoughtful before saying ‘I certainly don’t remember ever having that at school’ and then bursting into laughter. He had some that evening.
Peter Melchett was always a very generous and wise environmentalist. He has always been one of my heroes and always will be.