Rural Wrongs

Hunting for the truth in a polarised world. A new project is investigating the impact of the hunting ban on the populations and welfare of fox, deer and brown hare.

The Rural Wrongs project

The ban on hunting was supposed to make life better for the fox and other quarry species. But has it? If the 2004 Hunting Act, which banned the hunting of wild mammals in England and Wales, and the 2002 Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act, which did the same north of the border, had made a significant improvement to their welfare, we should have heard about it by now. Those opposed to hunting would have made sure of that. However, anecdotal evidence suggestions that the opposite has happened and that attitudes towards the previously hunted species have now changed.

Setting up scientific trials to assess the impact of different activities – such as hunting, shooting and snaring – is time-consuming and expensive. This may explain why there have been no peer-reviewed experiments to look at the impact of the hunting ban. However, sufficient time has now passed to allow us to make a reasonable judgement about the efficacy of the ban in terms of its impact on the populations of the quarry species and wild animal welfare.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that in some areas far greater numbers of foxes are being shot or snared than was the case in the past. This could imply that hunting, in its traditional form, acted as a constraint on killing. As for red deer, the ban has transformed a community-based management activity in the West County into a pest control exercise or one for commercial gain, and there is evidence to suggest that the health of the herd is suffering as a result. Poor or reckless shooting can lead to wounding and an agonising death. With hunting with dogs, in contrast, the animal is either killed or it escapes.

The SNP and the Greens in Scotland, and the Labour Party in England and Wales, have made it clear that they would like to reduce the exemptions in the hunting legislation and introduce the concepts of recklessness and vicarious liability, making landowners liable for prosecution. Such changes could threaten the future of trail hunting, as well as the existing forms of hunting that remain legal, for example the use of two dogs as a form of pest control. Either the current legislation will be amended in such a way as to be a death-knell for all forms of hunting – that is what the animal rights lobby wants – or it will be repealed and replaced with something which works better. If that’s to happen, then the case needs to be made now, before it is too late. That is the purpose of Rural Wrongs.

Between 1997 and 2004, the UK Parliament spent 700 hours debating and taking evidence on whether or not hunting with dogs should be banned. It eventually became clear that science – and often junk science – was simply used as a Trojan horse to bolster decisions which were based on sentimentality and prejudice. We can see the same happening again with the current government’s recent pledge to ban the import of hunting trophies from Africa. Many conservation scientists have pointed out that trophy hunting, when practised well, brings great benefits both for wildlife and local communities. The government has chosen to listen, instead, to a cohort of ill-informed celebrities who know little or nothing about the subject.

By exposing how animal rights groups and the pro-banners use social media and naïve journalists to further their aims, Rural Wrongs will inject a new sense of realism into future debates on these contentious issues. This is no minor parochial matter: hunting may be in the last chance saloon in this country, but other field sports are under threat too.

We have begun interviewing a wide range of individuals and organisations, including scientists, conservationists, animal welfare experts, field sports organisations, land managers, and gamekeepers. This will not be a work of propaganda where the science is cherry-picked to provide “proof” of a certain predetermined point of view; we leave that to the animal rights groups. Rather, it will make a real attempt to gather evidence which will help to shape future debate and inform decision makers.

This is a multimedia project. We will be using social media and a dedicated website, and a report will be published both electronically and in hardcopy format. The project will also reach a wider audience through film and podcast.

Charlie Pye-Smith and Jim Barrington, who launched Rural Wrongs in summer 2021, have already collaborated on several projects which have focused on field sports and wildlife management. The Rural Wrongs project can be seen as a sequel to Rural Rites: Hunting and the Politics of Prejudice, published by the All Party Parliamentary Middle Way Group in 2006, and The Facts of Rural Life: Why We Need Better Wildlife Management, published by the Veterinary Association for Wildlife Management in 2015.

If you have any information which could help to establish what has happened to the fox, the deer or the hare in your part of the country, and you would like to share it with Jim or Charlie, or if you would like to support the project, please get in touch with them via: rural.wrongs@gmail.com

Sir Johnny Scott Bt. is an author, historian and Joint Master and Chairman of the North Pennine Hunt. He will be familiar to many through the BBC television series Clarissa and the Countryman, which he wrote and co-presented with the late Clarissa Dickson Wright. A life-long campaigner on rural  issues, he supports and represents a wide range of countryside organisations. His latest book, The Countryman Though the Seasons is a perfect example of someone who not only cares about wildlife, but understands what is necessary for it to flourish. Here, he gives his views on the effect the Hunting Act has had on the fox.

The fox population has undoubtedly fallen dramatically since the Hunting Act 2004 and up here in the Borders, Hunts would be hard pressed to find a fox, were venery allowed.

Fox numbers have significantly declined in some areas of the UK since the passing of the Hunting Act.

This is the same sad story across the country and a recent survey by The British Trust For Ornithology indicates that the red fox population has crashed by between 20% and 50%, depending on region. A crowning success story for the League Against Cruel Sports, but then, the welfare of the the red fox was never a consideration in their ambition to ban hunting.

The population crash is largely due to the increase in commercial shooting, a phenomena which started in the mid 70’s with the bonus culture and has grown exponentially ever since. Even vast areas of the Cheviot now have totally artificial commercial pheasant and partridge shooting on ground that never had a single pheasant or partridge before.

Keepers are under enormous pressure to provide big bags and exterminating foxes is seen as a priority. The courtesy of a closed season, historically part of venery, is never considered and the simplest method of maximising the reduction of fox numbers is to kill milky vixens. Not only that, but keepers now have vastly improved technology – night vision scopes and heat seeking equipment etc. A dog fox who loses his vixen during the breeding season, invariable turns rogue and farmers who were previously more than happy to leave fox control to the Hunts, now take matters into their own hands, with the inevitable increase in wounded foxes dying an excruciating, lingering death.

The Countryman Though the Seasons with topics covering wildlife, customs, folklore, sport and natural history.

Have attitudes changed towards Charlie ?

Sadly, yes. A whole generation has grown up who have never experienced venery and who do not appreciation the centuries old admiration and respect that foxes enjoyed before the ban.

There is also a tragic social consequence. The older generation of farmer enjoyed the social benefits of living in hunting country and were included in all the social events, even if they did not hunt themselves. Now Hunts are no longer allowed to control foxes, the younger generation can see no reason why trail hunting should continue over their land and no longer feel part of the Hunt social life of their parents, which is one of the reasons attendances are dropping away at Point to Points.

The Hunting Act 2004 has been an utter disaster to the welfare of the fox population and to the history, culture and heritage of rural Britain.



Ask anyone about falconry and they may tell you about the birds of prey they’ve seen displayed at various events. They might have witnessed a falconry demonstration at a country show in which these birds entertain the crowds by swooping over the heads of the audience to grab a piece of meat – a lure- being swung around by the handler.

What they are unlikely to have seen is the way in which falcons hunt a live prey, which in the UK is more often the crow. Yet something that even many falconers probably haven’t seen is falcon racing.

Falcon in full pursuit of its prey

Those country show demonstrations are educational, especially through the commentary, but they are limited in what they can do and obviously can’t give a fuller picture of what this sport is about. This is the problem Nick Fox and his team are addressing. They have created a far more realistic process in which the birds are tested, while at the same time providing entertainment for both falconers and general public alike.

Roprey and handler

Dr Nick Fox OBE is a world renown expert in falconry, as well as numerous other field sports and is heavily involved in conservation projects and work for animal welfare. For many years, Nick and his colleagues have bred various birds of prey for use in this country and around the world, not solely with the aim of promoting the activity, but also to conserve the numerous species that are hunted with raptors in foreign parts. Breeding the various types of falcon – Gyr, Saker, Peregrine and others – has not only allowed for cross-breeding, but helps conservation inasmuch as they can now be purchased rather than taken from the wild.

The Flat Race for falcons originated in the Middle East and is simply a test of speed over a course of usually 300 or 400 hundred metres. Modern technology has allowed precise timings and provides an opportunity for prospective buyers to see the birds in action.

The falcons that take part are the best of the best, some being owned by Royal Families from the UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait, but that shouldn’t put falconers off trying this new form of display and training.

A Gyr falcon catches its prey

A more spectacular event, however, is the Hunt Race. An artificial prey bird– Roprey, as it’s called – is radio-controlled just like a drone, but with far greater manoeuvrability and speed the falcons can be put through their paces within a given area. Briefly, the rules are these: the Roprey handler will release the machine at the same time the falconer releases the bird. Each have tiny altimeters attached and when both have reached a height of 120 metres, a horn is sounded and the Roprey drops sharply, giving the falcon the incentive to follow at up to a staggering 220 kph.

What then transpires is a kind of short but exceedingly fast aerial battle not dissimilar to the ‘dogfights’ of WW2. The Roprey has to be eventually caught and both falcon and ‘prey’ must land within a given arena. The process is timed to produce a winner.

The Roprey was developed by Nick Fox and his team

One of the problems faced by all field sports is that they often take place out of the public eye. This allows certain groups to achieve their aims with false propaganda. With all field sports coming under pressure to one degree or another, it’s important that as many members of the public see and understand the conservation importance of these activities.

It would be hard to think of a better way to explain falconry than what Nick Fox and his team are doing.

If you want to see more, visit: www.vowley.com




The Veterinary Association for Wildlife Management (VAWM) has just announced its new website. For those who already know of the existence of this body of vets – and even more so for those who don’t – see  https://vawm.org.uk/

I have had the privilege of working with these experts for a good many years and it is undoubtedly the case that their knowledge and expertise has benefitted and informed the debate surrounding wildlife management, animal welfare and the various associated activities.

It perhaps isn’t so surprising that VAWM stands and speakers have appeared at various Game Fairs, given that many visitors would be supportive of countryside management activities and therefore eager to hear a scientific perspective of those practices. At other events, though, it might be thought that the audiences would not appear so sympathetic, but that has shown not to be the case on many occasions.

VAWM speakers have been invited to present the case for wildlife management, in particular hunting with hounds, at numerous events, but a meeting of the animal welfare society of the Royal Veterinary College in London – an animal welfare group within an animal welfare profession – stands out. VAWM’s former chairman, Chris House, was one of the guest speakers. Sadly, Chris passed away last year, but my enduring memory of him was how he calmly and expertly explained VAWM’s position. It was quite remarkable to see these young professionals, who are dedicating their lives to animal welfare, fully accept the arguments for wildlife management and, as part of that process, the responsible use of scenting hounds. There was not one dissenting voice that evening.

It’s not so different at numerous schools, colleges and universities when VAWM literature is disseminated. Indeed, it would be hard for any reasonable person to argue against the ‘mission statement’ VAWM has produced:

The British countryside has been changed irrevocably by human habitation, farming, and numerous damaging activities. Biodiversity is being lost. Once-common species have become vulnerable. Loss of apex predators has left mesopredator populations to flourish, to the detriment of their prey species. It has left browsing herbivores to damage what should be species-rich woodlands. One mesopredator, the badger, has become a fountain of disease that has crippled cattle farming and driven some farmers to suicide.

Only wildlife management can mitigate the changes man has wrought and deal with these problems. The Veterinary Association for Wildlife Management (VAWM) exists to promote it, with good practice. As veterinary surgeons, our first priority is animal welfare. We use the latest research and veterinary science as the basis of what we recommend for effective and humane wildlife management.

The Veterinary Association for Wildlife Management is a membership organization for veterinary surgeons in the UK with an interest in wildlife management. Its members include practitioners, academics, and vets in industry

Effective wildlife management protects:

  • Biodiversity and vulnerable species
  • The health and welfare of livestock and pets
  • The livelihood of farmers and other guardians of the physical environment
  • Public health

Since its inception, VAWM literature has always been an important educational and informative resource, often correcting false or unsubstantiated propaganda.  Having seen first hand how this can change minds only emphasises the importance of such material, which is now it is available to be downloaded from the new website.

Commissioned by VAWM, The Facts of Rural Life by Charlie Pye-Smith, explains the need for wildlife management.

In some ways, it’s slightly comical to hear criticism of VAWM coming from anti-hunting groups, obviously due to the fact that their spurious claims are so often dismissed by science. Founded by Dr Lewis Thomas and Professor Twink Allen to provide a veterinary perspective on the arguments surrounding the debate on hunting with hounds, VAWM has now widened its perspectives under its new chairman, David Renney, to encompass all aspects of wildlife management.

That beginning, however, has never been shied away from, given that the body’s former name (Vets for Hunting), is mentioned numerous times in VAWM’s documents. Yet this fact is often ‘revealed’ by antis whenever VAWM is involved in any debate, as if somehow it is a shameful little secret that negates the scientific views expressed.

Such a criticism might be even partially justified if a similar sized body of veterinarians and scientists could be found in support of the Hunting Act.




Asking what methods of wildlife management anti-hunting or anti-shooting groups actually support, as opposed to the activities they are keen to condemn, should always be part of any debate surrounding field sports.

The usual response is either a deafening silence or an idealistic ‘leave it all to nature’. Practical examples of how these alternative models of the countryside might look tend to be few in number, but more recently a picture has started to emerge which shows what happens when some of these idealistic theories are put into practice.

Wild Justice is a group set up to “fight for wildlife” by naturalist and TV presenter Chris Packham, former RSPB Conservation Director Mark Avery and raptor specialist Ruth Tingay. One of its first actions related to the general licences issued by Natural England to farmers and landowners for control of pest bird species to protect livestock and newly sprouting crops.

The group brought a legal challenge last year on the basis that licences were too loosely worded and allowed “the casual killing of wildlife, falsely in the name of conservation”, resulting in Natural England’s decision to avoid a court case and withdraw the licences, even at a critical time of year

It appears that little thought was given by Wild Justice to what would occur in the absence of such predator control and a high degree of anger and frustration was expressed by farmers, along with some appalling scenes of dead and dying lambs filling social media.

This move by Wild Justice didn’t just affect livestock and crops. It also meant that rare species, such as yellowhammers, curlews, turtle doves and linnets, the eggs and young of which are taken by crows, jays, magpies and other predatory species, were also affected.

The delight shown by a spokesman for Wild Justice following government agencies backing down was in stark contrast to conservationists like Mary Colwell, who said the timing of the general licence withdrawal was putting curlews in even graver danger of extinction.

The consequence of the original legal threat continues, once again at a critical time, in relation to control of predators on Special Protection Areas and Special Areas of Conservation, some of which were established precisely to protect curlews. Wild Justice is also preparing legal action against Natural Resources Wales issuing general licences.

These situations could have been resolved by dialogue and a more conciliatory approach, but it would appear that Wild Justice’s determination to end shooting at all costs has created a kind of tunnel-vision version of conservation.

Chris Packham’s organisation isn’t the only one afflicted with this condition. Back in the 1960s, the League Against Cruel Sports started purchasing land in the West Country in order to prevent hunting with hounds, in particular stag hunting. Putting down feed encouraged red deer onto the largest ‘sanctuary’ Baronsdown. The attraction of abundant food meant that unnaturally large numbers of deer gathered there, and this brought problems.

The deer started to suffer from lungworm and were treated with a domestic animal wormer, a drug never designed for use on wild animals. Deer were not controlled on League land, but those wandering off the sanctuary could be taken by stalkers and, as it takes approximately six weeks before the animal is clear of the wormer, this created a serious difficulty for sale of the venison and thereby the wider management of the deer herds. But an even bigger problem was approaching.

Bovine TB is rife in the West Country and not just spread by badgers. Deer accumulating in large numbers are obviously more susceptible to the disease, particularly those herds not being moved on, as happened with hunting with hounds. Research undertaken by ADAS for the Exmoor National Park Authority and published in the report The health of the wild red deer of Exmoor (2008) showed that mismanagement by the LACS on Baronsdown had caused one of the largest outbreaks of bTB in deer ever seen, something denied by the League. However, a detailed map of the area and incidents of bTB in deer tells a very different story.

There is little firm scientific evidence of what effect the Hunting Act has had on the previously hunted species, but with at least one reputable report stating that the fox population has dropped by about one third and with the condition of some herds of red deer in the West Country known to be deteriorating, this law can hardly be regarded as a success.

Once again, in its determination to see an end to hunting with hounds, an organisation has allowed itself to become blinded to the wider aspects of wildlife management and animal welfare.

A toxic mix of animal rights idealism and prejudice politics was behind the Hunting Act and a similar combination was behind the change of policy by Bradford Metropolitan District Council and its decision to ban grouse shooting on Ilkley Moor.

Up until 2018, grouse shooting had taken place on this land, which is an important breeding ground for threatened ground-nesting birds such as skylarks, curlews, plovers and lapwings (the Council had terminated the sporting lease once before but decided to reinstate it to avoid paying the bills to repair the exposed peat after kids kept setting fire to the heather).

Management was undertaken by estate gamekeepers at no cost to the public purse. Following a campaign by animal rightists, including the League Against Cruel Sports, the Labour run council decided to prohibit grouse shooting and take over the management of the land.

Baildon Moor forms part of the wider moor and earlier in April this year a tractor was filmed mowing heather at this critical breeding time. Contact was made with Bradford Council, who admit that they own and manage that part of the moor, but denied they were to blame and said they had contacted the police and Natural England. An investigation is currently in progress.

What cannot be denied, however, is that management of Baildon Moor is the responsibility of Bradford Council. It is doubtful anyone would mow part of the moor just for the fun of it, so what is the answer? Is it that the council’s land manager or tenant was unaware of the breeding season or that he was simply reckless and didn’t care? Either way, it reflects poorly on Bradford Council, as well as those who call for landowners to be held liable of the actions of their employees or agents – or does that only apply to shooting estates?

In exchanges via social media regarding the Baildon Moor incident, those in favour of a shooting ban appear defensive and evasive, even referring to the legitimate concern expressed by bodies like the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust and Countryside Alliance as an “extraordinary attack” and “nasty”. Such statements are no different in tone to the outraged responses from hunt saboteurs when accused of violent and abusive actions, despite film footage of their behaviour.

What can’t be denied are the similarities in these sorry accounts, in which an emphasis and desire by these anti-hunting/anti-shooting groups to end a particular activity has overshadowed any thought as to what might follow.

It is a view fuelled by the belief that they are always absolutely right, that any discussion about compromise is a betrayal and that victory only comes when something is banned.

This article first appeared on the website of the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust: https://www.gwct.org.uk

There’s nothing unusual about disagreements amongst scientists – indeed it is that exchange of theories and ideas which often leads to consensus and thereby conclusions.

The BBC programme Inside Science on Radio 4 is deservedly well-respected, explaining and commenting on sometimes complex issues in a way that the science can be easily understood by the average person. It’s sad, therefore, that this track record was somewhat tarnished last month. An episode on bovine TB and DEFRA’s recent statement to phase out the badger cull when and where practicable involved an interview – indeed the only interview – with Professor Rosie Woodroffe, a well-known opponent of the cull.

What surprised a number of scientists who are experts in the pathology and epidemiology of bTB, the battle against it in cattle and the efficacy of the badger cull, was the fact that not one of them was also interviewed, allowing Professor Woodroffe to make some outlandish comments without being challenged. In championing the use of vaccine in both badgers and cattle, she added that the main route of transmission is from cattle-to-cattle and that there is no real problem for those badgers that contract the disease.

Professor Woodroffe also said that the current culls have produced no positive results in reducing the number of reactor cattle and that the culls have caused disruption in badger groups forcing infected animals into territories left vacant by those removed, known as perturbation.

The BBC has now received letters of complaint regarding the programme.

Dr Lewis Thomas, secretary of the Veterinary Association for Wildlife Management said, “What Professor Rosie Woodroffe fails to recognise in her plausible but flawed response is that there is no effective vaccine against bovine TB for either cattle or badgers. The only vaccine available, the Bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG) vaccine is not a reliable or efficacious vaccine in man and other mammals (only 70% efficacy in man). It has been in existence for nearly a century and attempts to improve it over the years have not met with success. The so-called recent breakthrough in cattle vaccination, production of the DIVA test that differentiates vaccinated cattle from infected cattle, is no advance in immunisation/protection of cattle over previous unsatisfactory trials with BCG.”

Continuing, Dr Thomas states, “Ms Woodroffe makes the remarkable claim that badgers do not suffer from the disease. She is clearly unaware of the pathology of the disease in badgers. Tuberculosis is a severe disease in any species and the badger is no exception. It has been documented in detail some 20 years ago as a cause of lingering death with extreme emaciation and progressive respiratory distress, resulting in it being the single largest cause of death in adult badgers.”

Roger Blowey, Fellow of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, was equally annoyed by the programme, “I was amazed at the hugely biased interview with Professor Woodroffe in last week’s programme. The actual current state of knowledge regarding bTB in cattle was totally ignored”. Addressing further points regarding vaccination, he said, “A perturbation effect has only ever been shown to exist during the Krebs/RBCT cull, and even then for several years post culling, bTB levels in cattle were considerably reduced in the 2km perturbation zone…Cattle vaccination has been tried in the past, and found to be unsuccessful. In a massive UK trial, over 6000 calves were vaccinated every 6 months for ten years. At the end of the trial it was found that the vaccine had not eradicated TB from any of the herds. It was for this reason that the Government of the day decided to adopt the ‘test and cull approach, a strategy that was enormously effective, almost eliminating TB from the UK by the mid-1980s. Unfortunately, from the 1990s the massive -probably 20 fold – rise in the badger population, combined with the explosive increase in bTB in badgers, has led us to the current situation…The only UK badger vaccination trial (in South Gloucestershire) found that, after 4. 5 years of TB vaccination of badgers, there was absolutely no measurable effect on bTB in cattle. In comparison, after 4 years of badger culling, there was a 66% reduction in bTB in the Gloucester cull zone.”

Emaciated female badger, half normal weight and with advanced lesions of bTB throughout her body. The disease “doesn’t really do the badgers any harm” according to Professor Woodroffe.

The DEFRA announcement, if read carefully, states that culling can reduce when circumstances allow, but what perhaps should have been predicted was a hijacking of the press release by groups vehemently opposed to the cull, along with their false claims that culling was always wrong and had never worked, while at the same time promoting the effectiveness of vaccination.

At the time of writing, no response has been received from the BBC or from Professor Woodroffe.

A relevant question is raised by Dr Thomas. “Why does the government consistently appoint people to head up enquiries whose area of expertise is not in the relevant field?” he asks. “In the case of bovine TB, scientists have been employed who are not experts in the epidemiology of the disease. This has occurred in other fields, such as the examination of the physiology of deer during hunting, and often leads to incorrect conclusions.”

Such fake news has become a fact of life in controversial matters, especially where animals are concerned, but what is far more depressing is a well-respected science-based programme, on this occasion, dropping its standards to join in.


No doubt the statement in the Conservative Party 2019 general election manifesto, namely that there would be no change to the Hunting Act, will be leapt upon by anti-hunting groups.

In the great scheme of things, this was probably a wise move, knowing that the animal rightists and parts of the media will always exaggerate hunting’s importance as a vote-changing issue when, in reality, it is nothing of the sort.

The Labour Party’s 50 point animal welfare plan.

Nevertheless, it will be taken by some as an indication that hunting’s days are numbered and, as predicted, animal rightists and others with political prejudices can now turn their attention to other field sports. That should be a real worry, not only for those who support hunting and shooting, but also for genuine conservationists. Politicians who are concerned with the realities of the countryside rather than making populist statements should also be wary and apprehensive, because once on that animal rights path it will be very hard to get off it.

Think back to that time in the run-up to the Hunting Act. Shooting was the alternative method advocated by anti-hunting groups and subsequently this law, once it had passed, was hailed as being perfectly worded and enforceable. Now – mysteriously- shooting has become a target itself and the anti-hunting groups’ various reasons to amend the Hunting Act continue to grow. Their vehicle for further tightening this legislation is, of course, the Labour Party and the animal welfare policies contained in their 2019 manifesto cunningly slip into animal rights. Under the guise of ‘closing loopholes’ in the Hunting Act to prevent ‘illegal hunting’, there would be a recklessness clause and the introduction of custodial sentences.

Terrier work, currently allowed in the Hunting Act permitting gamekeepers to use this method when controlling foxes, would be made illegal – a step that reneges on previous promises of the Labour Party not to interfere with shooting. And continuing in this anti field sports vein, there would be a ‘review’ of grouse shooting. The line between cruelty offences towards domestic animals and wild animals would be blurred and while at one level this is sensible, it doesn’t take a genius to see where this is leading or how such a new law might be applied to legitimate and properly organised field sports.

One might easily think, if they were to believe the claims of certain animal rights groups and their spurious public opinion polls, that such policies would sway many voters into supporting any political party that makes them an election promise. But no, such bold claims have been proven to be groundless and nothing more than bluster, given the results of the 12th December. The architect of the Labour’s animal welfare policies, shadow DEFRA minister Sue Hayman, lost her Workington seat, an indication that for all the speculation about how Workington Man might vote, obviously he wasn’t too impressed with this class war nonsense, as he voted Conservative.

An anti responds to the Boxing Day tweet of newly elected Greg Smith MP

Even with a clear majority, some in the new Conservative government need a bit of education. Warning politicians of falling for the easy or purely emotional demands from animal rights groups should be a priority for everyone who supports field sports, as is standing up to animal rights groups bullying. The trouble is, if voicing what can appear to be an unpopular policy is uncomfortable, it is doubly so for politicians and so it is sad that one sensible voice has just left the House of Commons.

As one of the few Labour MPs to oppose the introduction of the Hunting Act, Kate Hoey has never swayed from the view that the use of dogs, in particular scenting hounds, in wildlife management. It was because of that commitment that Kate was invited to become the Chair of the Countryside Alliance, a position she held for a number of years. It was therefore a privilege to hear Kate make her first speech after standing down as a Member of Parliament and, fittingly, the occasion was the annual dinner of the Veterinary Association for Wildlife Management. While the Commons has lost a strong supporter of field sports, it would be good to think that this is not the end of her Westminster career, as voices such as Kate’s are vital in the debates surrounding hunting and shooting.

Kate Hoey speaking at the annual dinner of the Veterinary Association for Wildlife Management earlier this month.

If ever there was a time for hyperbole and untruths to be exposed, it’s now, with exaggeration and outright lies apparently rife everywhere whenever issues such as climate change, meat eating, the badger cull, trophy hunting and shooting are debated, in addition to the perennial arguments about hunting with hounds.

It’s not helped by conservation bodies that sometimes join forces with animal rights groups, as has happened in a recently formed coalition opposed to grouse shooting estates, seemingly in ignorance of their own policies on wildlife that are diametrically opposed to each other.

Neither is it helped by the utter ignorance of some in the media.

Boxing Day this year saw large crowds of supporters attend hunt meets up and down the country, this despite the futile attempts of some antis to have such gatherings banned on council owned properties. Certain journalists do understand the arguments, but other most definitely do not, as was clearly the case in one radio interview in which I took part. Hunting is ‘killing for fun’ and those who take part ‘delight in seeing a terrified animal run for its life and torn to pieces’ – the usual old lines trotted out by those who have never been anywhere near a hunt and gain all their knowledge via social media.

Even when it was pointed out that doctors, nurses and families with children attend the meets, they were all dismissed as sadists. The fact that hundreds of veterinarians, many being members of the Veterinary Association for Wildlife Management, also support hunting with hounds, the response to this was a staggering, “Well, they shouldn’t”.

Somehow, a radio interviewer is more clued-up on wildlife matters than those who have spent years studying the science of veterinary issues, conservation and animal welfare.

The West Norfolk Hunt Boxing Day meet at Raynham Hall

But the most annoying aspect of this interview, which admittedly became somewhat heated on both sides, was the refusal by the interviewer to suggest any other acceptable method of wildlife management when challenged. That, according to the interviewer, was something the Countryside Alliance should invent; so simply because he doesn’t like a particular activity, those who hold a different view should change their ways and take part in something else. Arrogance and ignorance in equal measure.

Even with the overblown, false and frankly ridiculous claims put about on social media that a Corbyn-led government was about to take power, the reality on the ground thankfully turned out to be very different and, in a similar way, the true support for hunting with hounds was very clearly evident on Boxing Day.

To paraphrase what Mark Twain is supposed to have said, “Rumours of the death of hunting have been grossly exaggerated.”

Listening to Luke Pollard, MP for Plymouth Sutton & Devonport, announcing Labour’s call for a review of grouse shooting was, if it wasn’t so serious, somewhat laughable. The claim that grouse shooting could be having detrimental effects on the climate and wildlife was obviously a cover for yet another attack on rural communities – in other words people who are perceived to be rich and generally don’t vote for the Labour Party.

Only last year, the Countryside Alliance, working along with the Fabian Society, produced a report, Labour Country suggesting what should be Labour’s priorities for the countryside and warning that all too often some in the party are swayed by animal rights thinking. It didn’t take long for that useful report to be ignored.

Labour Country – a document by the Fabian Society and the Countryside Alliance.

Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Sue Hayman, said last year that the Hunting Act would be strengthened under Labour, despite this being a law that is entirely the product of her party when in power and hailed at that time to be robust legislation. One might have thought that if improving animal welfare was the real motive behind the hunting ban, at least a little bit of research might have been undertaken first to see precisely what effect this law has had on those species previously hunted. But no, that, as revealed subsequently by so many Labour MPs and supporters, was not the aim of the Hunting Act – it was a class motivated attack on Labour’s political opponents.

The same Hayman report talks of ending the badger cull and follows that trend of simply banning things without a thought as to the consequences. What, precisely, is Labour’s policy to curb bovine TB? Perhaps she thinks that the real culprits are farmers and their lack of biosecurity and that badgers are innocent victims in all of this? Only those ignorant of the pathology and epidemiology of bovine TB would swallow such a claim.

Or does the fact that well over half a billion pounds of taxpayers’ money spent on compensating farmers for the loss of cattle to the disease matters less than being kind to badgers? The joke is that ignoring bovine TB in badgers is certainly not helping them – they suffer for perhaps over a year, slowly becoming more emaciated while increasingly spreading the disease as they near their end. Vaccination is still not proven, as at least one Wildlife Trust was honest enough to admit recently, and yet many continue to use this argument, probably knowing that the public will naturally lean towards this as a solution, rather than culling.
And so it is with the latest move by Corbyn’s urban-based Labour Party. Jumping on the joint bandwagons of animal welfare and climate change, the call for a review of grouse shooting makes totally false claims of shooting estates draining and drying out moors, public subsidies and the viability of ‘alternative’ use of upland areas. These arguments were easily exposed as rubbish by representatives of pro-shooting organisations and in a damning article by former cricketer Sir Ian Botham in the Daily Telegraph.

The accusation that grouse moors are environmentally damaging and bad for animal welfare fails to recognise that it is the work of gamekeepers in controlling natural predators that creates the conditions for birds such as lapwings, golden plover, curlew and raptors such as hen harriers. Without such control, these birds would simply not exist in such numbers. Of course, there are some bad, even illegal, practices and they should rightly be exposed and prosecuted, but a bigger picture exists that is highly beneficial to conservation and diversity. So why can’t Corbyn and co see this? But we already know the answer to that question – it doesn’t matter to them. The real target is the people who do it.

Therefore, whenever the detail of the Hunting Act is raised with those MPs who support it, they run a mile. They can’t answer basic questions, because they

don’t understand hunting with hounds. All they know is that they can claim to the largely uniformed public that wild animals will no longer be ‘terrorised by being chased and killed for fun’. Labour is playing the same game once more, this time with shooting.

Odd that during the passage of the Hunting Act, the then Labour government bent over backwards to avoid attacking shooting. This is why the use of a terrier underground to flush out a mammal is exempt. The section is headed Use of dogs below ground to protect birds for shooting, but not, you will note, to protect a lamb or hen harrier. I wonder what the Hunting Act supporting Chris Packham and Mark Avery think of that piece of ‘principled’ logic?

A Corbyn government, riddled with class warriors, would be disastrous for the countryside and wildlife management.

But under Corbyn and his fellow hard left-wingers, the Labour Party doesn’t have to worry about keeping their class war credential too secret while supposedly caring for animal welfare, they can ditch all such pretence and now moving on to shooting, which was always next in line for banning, and it begins with this ‘review’. If it’s anything like the Portcullis House Hearings into hunting, as organised by Alun Michael, the then minister in charge of the Hunting Bill, it will be nothing more than a farce; a show for the public to convince them into thinking that any move is ‘evidence-based’, when in reality it is simply a mechanism to achieve a ban.

Those naïve enough to believe the Labour Party on matters of animal welfare won’t change their minds when presented with the facts. It’s a situation that’s further confused by groups like Conservatives against Fox Hunting – a body that, oddly enough, seems to mirror exactly those policies advocated by the Labour Party.

What is more important is to highlight to people like Zac Goldsmith, the new DEFRA Minister for Animal Welfare, and the wider team, that in the case of wild animal  welfare it is not animal rights thinking that works, but the much tougher route of understanding humane wildlife management that can eventually achieve the desired aims of a balanced, diverse, and thereby healthy, eco-system.

This article first appeared on the Free Market Conservatives website: https://freemarketconservatives.org/ 

The fiasco that followed Natural England’s decision to withdraw General Licences for control of certain species led to a consultation on how this area of wildlife management is conducted. It also allowed Dr Nick Fox to raise some very pertinent issues in his submission, showing how we need a much better approach from our legislators.



My name is Dr Nicholas Fox, OBE, BSc, CEd, PhD. I have been a professional applied zoologist for 41 years. I farm five lowland livestock farms in Wales, an upland livestock farm in the Northumberland National Park and a lowland grassland farm in Wiltshire. I breed and hunt with falcons. I have specialised in the ethics of wildlife management and welfare since 1995, both in UK and internationally. Through The Bevis Trust http://www.bevistrust.com we try to reconcile the needs of food production and of wildlife in a farming context. I am responding as a private individual who has used these licences since they started.

Historical Background

British wildlife legislation has been a piece-meal patch-up approach since at least 1830. There is no underlying ethical consistency and much of the legislation has been reactive or political with very little understanding of the factors influencing wildlife demographics or welfare. As a result, one class – birds – has received considerable attention whereas other groups such as insects, amphibians and reptiles have had almost none; this despite us losing perhaps 75% of our insects in the past 25 years or so. Currently about 83% of our human population is urban, with little or no practical experience of wildlife management and welfare issues, yet is a voting majority to influence them.

The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 was intended to fulfil UK’s obligations under the EU Birds Directive. If we leave the EU, theoretically we will no longer be under this obligation and will be able finally to undertake the long-awaited review of this out-dated Act. Currently it has massive inconsistencies and presumptions. To manage wildlife effectively requires a science-based approach to factors that both increase and depress populations and an understanding of how species influence one another. Too often our approach targets the wrong priorities by starting with the individual. But to face the uncertain future of climate change we must prioritise the systemic issues before addressing individual issues, thus:
1. Planet Earth and sustainable global systems.
2. Shared regional resources, the ‘commons’.
3. Habitats for full biodiversity.
4. Single species management programmes.
5. Individual animal welfare.

This is not to say that individual welfare or species welfare does not matter, of course they do. But as a simple example, there is no point in getting exercised with a protectionist approach about Otters if another policy has allowed the rivers to dry up or be polluted. We therefore need joined up thinking right from the top, including limiting human impact on wild habitats. For example, a ‘Right to Roam’ might work at low pressure, but at higher pressures the continual disturbance makes an area untenable for ground-nesting species such as Curlews or Lapwings. The birds either give up trying to nest, or if they succeed in laying eggs, constantly being disturbed off their nests exposes the eggs or chicks to predators and the population goes into an irreversible decline. A Wildlife Trust has recently bought two fields neighbouring one of our farms. Now it is used almost hourly for exercising dogs, with the unintended consequence that the Skylarks, Hares, Lapwings and Grey Partridges cannot settle there any more. Our current legislation is failing these species at the systemic level.

An example of unintended impact or by-catch through lack of systemic legislation is electrocution. In our study of electrocutions in Mongolia we found that on average, one Saker falcon is killed per week per 10km of power line. Below is a sample of 600 falcons collected. In Britain I have had six falcons electrocuted yet Britain has no legislation for safety for wildlife on power lines. Most British power poles are lethal.


Why kill wildlife?

To address the issue of legislation controlling the direct killing of wildlife, one needs to understand why animals are killed. The General Licences under consideration are based solely on the premise of pest control, for various purposes, yet this is by no means the only consideration. Until now, users have not raised the issues because as long as there was a legal route, their motivation did not particularly matter. Consider the following:

Reasons for killing
P= Population Management
F= Food
R = Recreation

Numbers killed
1 = 10 – 100
2 = 100 – 1,000
3 = 1000 – 10,000
4 = 10,000 – 100,000
5 = 100,000 – 1 million
6 = 1 million – 10 million
7 = 10 million – 100 million
8 = 100 million – 500 million

Reasons for killing, methods and numbers of some wild animals killed annually in the UK.
(from Fox, N. C. and H. Macdonald. 1997. Welfare Aspects of Killing or Capturing Wild Vertebrates in Britain. The Hawk Board.)


In these examples above, one can quibble about the exact figures; they are not particularly relevant. The point is to understand why animals are killed. Cross-checking then to the legislation affecting each, it is easy to see that some of the legislation is non-existent or ineffective. Numerically the domestic cat has by far the largest impact on wildlife numbers and welfare. There are no controls at all on cats. Section 14 is ignored. Our small mammal, reptile and amphibian populations are fading, with local extinctions widening to reductions in range, yet the responsibilities of cat-owners are not addressed for political reasons.
Looking at the other species, people who intentionally kill wildlife do so for three main reasons: pest or population control, recreation and food, (or derivatives such as skins or trophies). These reasons are not mutually exclusive, for example Rabbits and Woodpigeons are killed for all three reasons. People have different views on these reasons. For example, Buddhists think that animals should not be killed even as pests. In Mongolia we find Steppe Eagles nesting on the open ground, undisturbed by passers-by. But in Britain we kill flies, wasps, cockroaches, slugs, rats, mice and so on without any controls, and we are happy to dose livestock for internal parasites so that chemicals such as Ivermectin enter the ecosystem.

Other people believe that animals should not be hunted for sport or recreation. Fishing is a major sport in UK and about 35 million gamebirds are bred and released for shooting each year. Proponents quote the commercial benefits or the consequential conservation benefits.

Other people believe that animals, including farm animals, should not be killed for food. Each group vies to impose its opinions onto other groups who think differently and there is then the ethical question of how to decide whose opinion to follow – perhaps using a democratic process (which is in huge disrepute at the moment) – or whether actually individuals should be free to follow their own consciences.

Moving in closer on these issues:

Food. If one accepts killing and eating animals for food then the criteria to bear in mind are sustainability and welfare. Can the population sustain the harvest rate indefinitely and are the methods used humane? Are there inconsistencies, such as halal killing of animals even to supply non-religious markets? In the case of wild animals killed for food, such as some in the current discussion, is there any justification for a legal restriction provided that sustainability or welfare are not compromised? We buy 16,000 Woodpigeons each year to feed to our breeding falcons.

Recreation. If one accepts killing for recreation then, in addition to the criteria of sustainability and welfare, it makes sense to make it as ‘efficient’ as possible. This means maximising the number of people/days of recreation while minimising the impact or numbers of animals killed. Under recreational criteria one kill per person/day is more ‘efficient’ than 10 kills per person/day. Driven shooting is less ‘efficient’ than rough shooting, which is less ‘efficient’ than falconry, which is less ‘efficient’ than photography. Cat-keeping is the least ‘efficient’ in recreational terms because the deaths involved do not accrue significant enjoyment to the owner, more likely the reverse.

The WCA is inconsistent in that it acknowledges that certain species are hunted recreationally – as ‘game’. The game species are treated less restrictively than other species. Thus one can shoot a Blackcock in season without a licence, but you cannot shoot a Carrion Crow or a Starling without a licence. This raises huge anomalies. When the legislation was drawn up, the needs of the shooting sector were considered but other sectors weren’t. Falconers hunt corvids and some gulls recreationally as well as for pest control. The Woodpigeon is a major recreational species for shooting, but not acknowledged as ‘game’. We therefore need to rid ourselves of the old 1830 Victorian concept of ‘game species’ and consider ‘huntable species’ as a whole. The ‘Wild Justice’ intervention was on the basis that General Licences are being used to kill some birds recreationally, and yet paradoxically, Wild Justice did not address the species which can be killed recreationally, the game birds.

Pest control. Before 1981 there were few legal restrictions on pest controls. To this day there are no restrictions on hunting Rats and Mice. In 1981, to comply with the Birds Directive, pest birds were protected, then General or Species Licences enabled them to be killed in certain circumstances. These restrictions were not applied to ‘game’ species. You do not have to prove that a Snipe was pecking the eyes out of your sheep or decimating your wheat before killing it. We thus have an absurd legal situation. Cat-owners don’t need to comply with any of it; they can just let their cats kill anything they like, anywhere, at any time of year.

Under the conditions of the General Licences for pest control, one is restricted to certain situations: to ‘protect’ farm livestock, or air safety for examples. Let’s look at the ‘pest’ concept:
Animal pests, unlike plant pests, can move around quickly. They can be a pest in one place but not in another. In Britain it is illegal to set a Larsen cage trap for Magpies in a garden because a garden is not agricultural. You must set it on the other side of the hedge in the field, because Magpies can only be killed for ‘agricultural purposes’. There is also the question of density. Woodpigeons in low numbers do not do significant damage, but in hordes they can devastate a crop, so people kill them. The situation thus merges from ‘pest control’ to ‘population management’.

Knowing that a Woodpigeon can devastate crops, isn’t it better to kill them before they damage the crop? Isn’t a pre-emptive strike the best strategy? The whole point of the exercise after all is to grow a good crop, rather than to kill pigeons. Or should one wait until the crop is ruined, and then kill the pigeons? That seems a bit futile. Or maybe scare them away so that they raid someone else’s field? But not all the pigeons are feeding on your own field; should one only kill the pigeons that you catch in the act right there, on the field? If you had to apply to a civil servant for a licence to kill the pigeon, how long would it take for the licence to arrive and in what way is the civil servant better placed to make the decision than you are? The civil servant has not even seen your field.

What if you go to town and build a massive pigeon ‘cliff’, full of human apartments. And when the pigeons come and make a mess, first you decide to deter them so that they go to someone else’s pigeon ‘cliff’, but then when there are too many to deter, you decide to kill them. But you are too squeamish to do it yourself and you don’t want the tenants to see either, so you employ a professional pest controller to do it for you. So, legally, did you kill the pigeons, or did he? After all, like the prison guard at Auschwitz, he was simply doing what he was paid to do. If you hire someone else to do your work, does that exonerate you? And then, when you look at the pile of dead pigeons, some have got rings on; they were owned by someone, private property (different legislation). And some are clearly phenotypically rare, protected Rock Doves. Same species, but killing them is illegal (The WCA glosses over their scientific classification). The Rock Dove, like the Scottish Wild Cat, is being lost through uncontrolled genetic introgression with domestic species.

Who has broken which law? If we shift the time baseline back a hundred years, maybe the site where you built the block of flats was a field, producing food, or an area of woodland hosting wildlife. If you go back further, maybe it was a wetland, alive with wildlife. Britain has lost about 85% of its wetlands now, so that humans could use the land. If we shift the baseline forward fifty years instead, will the block of flats still be there? Few high rise buildings, however ‘sustainable’ survive that long. Who, really, is the pest? And, referring back to my list of priorities, what does this portend for the future of our planet?

In pest control, as in hunting for food, the efficiency strategy is one of minimum effort for maximum gain. The difference being that in hunting for food, retrieving the prey is essential, whereas in pest control it isn’t. The aim of pest control is to eliminate the pest, as quickly and cheaply as possible. It is critical to understand this, because it affects the ‘ethics’ of the hunter. When hunting for food he will minimise risk and only shoot where he has a good chance of retrieving the body. Pigeons are good to eat. But in pest control, people will shoot at long ranges, in the forlorn hope that a stray pellet may cause the prey to die later. Obviously this can create a lot more suffering. I have seen people shoot at foxes with No. 5 shot in shotguns at 80 metres. There is no way this will kill outright; there is insufficient penetration. The pellets will lodge under the skin and may get infected because each pellet pulls in a little tuft of fur in with it. We saw this in our fox shooting study; while people imagine ‘skilled marksmen’ killing cleanly, this is a fantasy. In pest control the prime motivation is to get rid of the pest. Welfare is secondary, or not at all.

What if, despite our best efforts to control the pest, their numbers do not go down or their ‘pesty’ activity does not decrease? Maybe instead of reducing the total population, we are just creaming off a harvestable surplus on a sustainable basis? Or maybe our efforts are insufficient and too localised and as fast as we kill off the pest on our patch more flood in from elsewhere. Maybe we should focus our efforts on late winter when the population is at its lowest and our impact will be maximal? In some situations pest control might be a waste of time and effort, or financially unjustified. But in others, such as Mice and Rats in the house, it is a question of keeping our fingers in the dam. Wild boar were re-introduced into the Forest of Dean on the Welsh border a few years ago. Their numbers increased year on year until local people started complaining about them. But others wanted them left alone. The Forestry Commission carries out a low profile culling operation but it is failing to meet its targets for a balanced population. So gradually the pigs are destroying the forest ecosystem because the wildlife management regime is not robust enough. It is our human demographic planet problem in microcosm.

Crows have pecked out the eye and torn the udder of this ewe, then ripped out the tongue of the lamb before it was born. I had to shoot her. Should I have shot the crow before it attacked the sheep? How would I have known which crow to shoot? Or should I be trying to grow soya on a Welsh hillside instead of sheep?


Similarly, at the end of July each year, we thin out the young Canada Geese just before they fledge. In this way we keep a tolerable number of geese, but prevent them getting out of hand. Is this pest control? Or population management? What – exactly – are we ‘protecting’? It’s a job I hate doing, but let it slip and the Canada Geese start to crowd out the other waterfowl species.

Non-lethal Methods

There are lots of non-lethal methods for deterring wildlife pests. One can shout ‘BOO’! Or cover your garden with concrete or polythene. Or put up a scare crow. Or use bangers. Or falcons. Or drones. Or distress calls. Nets. Lasers. Even running around a field waving a piece of paper labelled ‘General Licence’ might do the trick! The concept is clearly ridiculous. Would one need to prove that one had used just one of these methods, in which case shouting ‘Boo’ would do? Or all of them? This aspect of General Licences must have been dreamed up by someone in an office. It is a completely and utterly unenforceable farce. By all means employ deterrents, but you don’t need licences for that. How would you know which birds are the ex-deterred ones and which ones are the yet-to-be-deterred ones?


The welfare of individual animals is a criterion running through much of our wildlife legislation, sometimes at the expense of the welfare of populations or of habitats. But often, even at the individual level, legislation misses its target because welfare issues are not properly understood. There is also a common misunderstanding of the difference between ‘suffering’ and ‘cruelty’. Briefly, suffering is about pain experienced by an animal, whereas cruelty is about another deriving enjoyment from that suffering. When licensing certain methods for killing wildlife, British law is totally inconsistent. For example it is legal to kill a Rabbit with a dog, but not a Hare.


A comparison of the methods and criteria

Again, one can quibble over exact figures (the data are for 1997), but the overall picture is indisputable. If you are interested in natural predation look at column 1, at enforcement, column 2, and if you are concerned about animal welfare, look at the last four columns. Our current legislation has little significant bearing on animal welfare. The Hunting with Dogs Act ignored fox welfare in favour of political prejudice, despite the high rates of suffering entailed in alternatives such as shooting.

(see Fox, N. C., N. Blay, A. G. Greenwood, D. Wise and E. Potapov. 2005. Wounding rates in shooting foxes [Vulpes vulpes]. Journal of Animal Welfare 14: 93-102.)


A large amount of wildlife legislation is unenforceable and a waste of time. In rural areas the police will not investigate burglaries, thefts, squatting or fly-tipping, let alone wildlife offences. I had a falcon shot by a gamekeeper, on film, in front of 20 witnesses including a JP, and the police would not prosecute. How many prosecutions have resulted from the existing General Licences and statistically, what impact have these had on the species in question? Anything at all? It is a paper exercise tying people up in the red tape which politicians periodically announce they are going to get rid of, but never do. Look at UK’s procrastination on International Humane Trapping Standards. Look at the muddle of species and trap designs. But Rats and Mice, not being fur-bearing mammals, are still trapped at all times of year in huge numbers without restrictive legislation of any sort, in houses throughout the land. Is a Rat less sentient that a ‘fur-bearing’ Stoat? Who cares?

The Hunting with Dogs Act damaged wildlife legislation almost terminally. Everyone knew it was a political move. It is therefore widely ignored. Because police are virtually inactive in rural Britain it has always been peer-pressure encouraging people to broadly keep within the law. When the law is clearly politically motivated, respect is lost, peer-pressure falls away and the whole legal edifice crumbles. If the General Licences fail to provide the cover that is needed, for example for a gamekeeper to protect game birds, then the obvious option is for the keeper to have a few chickens as well. The he can ‘protect’ them as livestock.

The reality is that these licences were brought in to provide a let-out clause for our obligations under the Birds Directive. They are totally unenforceable and incomprehensible, and the current legal challenge has arisen over a back-door attempt to impact game bird shooting. This is not the way to approach wildlife legislation. Wildlife deserves better than to be a political football, a victim of who shouts loudest on the social media. The Natural England civil servants meanwhile, rather than facing the legal challenge themselves, passed the legal hot potato straight on to the thousands of end-users, potentially criminalising everyone while saving their own skins.


Given the pointlessness of the whole General Licensing situation, but bearing in mind our obligation to comply with the Birds Directive, I would either re-instate the General Licences as they were, on the basis that by the time a legal challenge has ground its way through we will have left the EU, or move the affected species across into the ‘Game Bird’ box, as Huntable Species. If this requires changes in statute law, then perhaps now is the time for a proper review of the WCA. Whichever you do, it doesn’t really matter. Events have gone too far. Respect has been lost. People will ignore the carefully worded Licences, or not understand them. Who’s going to enforce them anyway? Will Crows become extinct if they lose all protection? Of course not! Could we for once, instead of agonising over points of law which are beyond the concern of almost everybody, focus on legislation that will have significant benefit for all wildlife and the entire planet?

Last week, I attended an event in Parliament aimed at highlighting ‘A People’s Manifesto for Wildlife’, a series of essays focussing on wildlife conservation, food production, landscape protection and education. The project was conceived by TV presenter Chris Packham, who spoke at the event.
(see http://www.chrispackham.co.uk/a-peoples-manifesto-for-wildlife)

I have a dislike of anything that begins with the word “People’s” this or that, which implies a united voice of the entire population while in reality it is often nothing of the sort. But putting that to one side for the moment, Packham’s manifesto bought together the thoughts of an interesting group of writers, perhaps some more qualified than others, to express views on the countryside. This is a smart move, as serious issues and realistic suggestions are mixed together with the views of those with more extreme agendas – the former giving credibility to the latter.

Chris Packham at the House of Lords last week

That style was very obvious when Packham spoke to MPs and parliamentary staff, following what must have been a busy few weeks for him. He began by referring to an abusive letter sent to him following the legal action taken against Natural England by his group Wild Justice. This resulted in three general licences to control corvids and pigeons being revoked, as they were deemed illegal. This occurred at a time of year when many lambs, and the young of songbirds and rarer birds such as curlew and lapwing, are born. All can fall prey to predator/scavenger birds like corvids. It led to an angry response from farmers and other land managers.

Dead crows were hung on the gate of Packham’s New Forest home, unpleasant substances were posted to him and it was reported that he received death threats. All very nasty and while few would justify such actions, it must be said that this is no different to similar tactics, and worse, employed for decades by some anti-hunting groups against pro-hunting people and the Countryside Alliance offices. The publicity sparked off by the general licence fiasco was considerable. Packham was understandably aggrieved, but it was strange that he should solicit a response on Twitter from the Countryside Alliance, the British Association for Shooting and Conservation and other bodies as though they were in some way responsible. It’s a bit like a postman who has been bitten by a dog hoping for an apology from the Kennel Club.

No one can disagree that humans are currently consuming far more of the earth’s resources than the planet can tolerate – some countries being far worse offenders than others – and in doing so humans are destroying eco-systems and the life within them at an alarming rate. Putting aside the abusive letter, Packham continued in a vein that highlighted the need for change if we are to avoid destroying the planet. Some of his views on what measures need to be taken are sensible and achievable.

The variety and amount of pesticides purchased in the UK may well be known, but that does not necessarily tell us how much is actually used in the countryside and Packham is justified in calling for better data. Making it clear he is now a vegan, Packham nevertheless praised those farmers who take animal welfare seriously and are looking after their farms in a sustainable and conservation-minded fashion. Many would agree that something should be done to curb the supermarkets, who have enormous power and squeeze farmers’ profits. We all know that cheap, poorer welfare products from other countries undercut our farmers. All worthy stuff and delivered in a very convincing manner.

I am slightly unclear which methods of wildlife management Packham supports and for what precise reasons. He condemns the use of snares “to kill animals” (something for which they should not be used, as they are designed for holding an animal). But one could argue that he should have known that their use would probably rise following the ban on hunting with dogs. At the same time he admitted that there is a necessity to manage wild animals and spoke of the need to cull deer near his home. But this is where the obfuscation starts to kick in.

Although the Hunting Act wasn’t mentioned in his talk to Parliamentarians, one wonders why he is happy to promote this law when there is no scientific research to show that the use of dogs in wildlife management is inherently cruel and should be banned. The data that he rightly calls for is a bit scanty regarding the fox, deer and brown hare following the hunting ban. However, the figures and information we do have – none of which was commissioned by the anti-hunting groups – is disturbing. Fox numbers are down by about one third. We know that thousands of hares were shot out as a direct result of the hunting ban. And some of the herds of red deer in the West Country are now threatened because of a change in their status. At the same time, Packham is happy to include hunt saboteurs in his events and promote the League Against Cruel Sports.

I doubt he talks very much about culling deer or other animals at the rallies and other meetings he attends when animal rightists are present. His language will be different too. In that environment shooters are “psychopaths”, those culling badgers are “brutalist thugs, liars and frauds”, fox hunting is compared to “slavery, homophobia and racism.”*

This aggressive tone is clear in Packham’s introductory page about Wild Justice, the new group which recently took Natural England to court. Last week, following questions from two Peers about the anger and frustration caused by the revocation of the general licences, Packham said that it was never his intention to see them immediately revoked. But when considering this legal action did the possibility not cross his mind? Certainly, Mark Avery, one of the founders of Wild Justice,  appeared delighted by the revocation of the licences.

Did Natural England offer to amend the three general licences some time back if Wild Justice agreed to halt their legal action? It’s a question Andrew Gilruth, Director of Communications at the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, asked via social media. At the time of going to press, there has been no answer. Is it wrong to assume that a high-profile legal action would give Wild Justice a significant publicity boost? It wouldn’t be the first time that conflict has been shown to be more beneficial than compromise.

Such is the anger over the revocation of these general licences that Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, has now removed the power of Natural England to issue such licences to shoot birds that fall into the pest category. Defra will now be responsible for doing so.

Packham says on the Wild Justice website, “The message is clear . . . if you are breaking the law, if the law is weak, if the law is flawed – we are coming for you.” Just think about this for a moment. If you are breaking the law, evidence should be legally gathered and passed to the police or Crown Prosecution Service. It will then be for the legal process to decide if anyone is guilty. If the law is weak or flawed, no matter how much you may dislike the situation, the correct route is to lobby Parliament for change, not to threaten to become some sort of vigilante.

If Packham genuinely believes a wide range of organisations and individuals need to cooperate if we are to successfully tackle the problems of climate change, pollution, the destruction of the earth’s resources and what he calls a war on wildlife, he should realise that there are some people with extreme views who will use him and these important causes for their own ends.

Knowing who can effect change and who your real friends are is of paramount importance.


*Protest march to Downing Street 12th August 2017, tweet 26th August 2013 & Evening Standard 12th August 2017.