Mary Wakefield

Natural England is overwhelmed – and farmers are paying the price

4 May 2019

9:00 AM

4 May 2019

9:00 AM

Last week, on the first day of the government’s ban on farmers shooting pest birds, I walked across St James’s Park and came across a pigeon murdered by a crow. It was on its back, wings spread, with a nasty hole torn in its chest. It looked like a botch job by an amateur heart surgeon, or an allegory for the whole messy, sorry affair.

The ban — a sudden revoking of the old general licences to shoot — was announced right in the middle of the crop-sowing season by Natural England, a semi-autonomous offshoot of Defra. It consulted no one and gave baffled farmers just a few days’ notice, insisting that this was the only possible course of action after lobbying group Wild Justice claimed the licences were illegal.

Wild Justice was founded by the punky little TV presenter Chris Packham and now the countryside has risen up in revolt against him. The online air is thick with petitions and counter-petitions. There’s one demanding that the revoking be revoked; another insisting Packham’s sacked from the BBC for not being ‘impartial’. Someone’s been hanging dead crows on Packham’s garden gate — though whose side they’re actually on is anyone’s guess. And there’s now a trend for sending him photos of newborn lambs savaged by crows.

Well, we all know it happens. As James Delingpole points out in his article, nature is gruesome. Like him, I’ve seen a lamb with bleeding holes where its eyes once were and a crow standing thoughtfully on its head. In County Durham one spring I saw a pair of crows murdering a pigeon. One stood on the poor pigeon’s wings, pinning it to the ground while the other pecked a hole in its chest. That’s why I’m so sure I know how the park pigeon met its end. But what’s the point in trying to re-educate Packham and the Wild Justice gang? What can anyone possibly hope to gain by sending him photos of crow-blind lambs? Chris is a vegan and a re–wilder, for heaven’s sake. He’s not interested in ensuring that the farming industry is humane and productive — he wants an end to it.

Intensive farming is the arch-enemy of eco-warriors. It’s pushing us towards an ‘ecological apocalypse’, they say. Packham’s plan for ending the suffering of lambs would be to stop breeding them altogether. The idea for the Wild Justice petition against the general licence came last year, said Packham, after he met a man casually shooting pigeon in a wood. If he was interested in a utilitarian calculation of animal rights, he’d be all for people bagging pigeon for the pot — it must be the most ethical source of meat there is: happy birds, raised free, killed cleanly.

But what worries Packham and his friends isn’t animal suffering so much as man feeling entitled to inflict it. Let nature take care of itself, they say; man shouldn’t control or cull. Instead, let’s reintroduce bears, wolves and lynx. It’s not clear how Chris will cope when a wolf gobbles his pet poodle, nor am I sure what Wild Justice thinks man is, if not an animal. But then that’s the paradox at the heart of eco-fundamentalism: man mustn’t behave like a beast, but he mustn’t assume he’s any better than one either.

Wild Justice’s actions are understandable, given what it believes, and they should have been predictable too. What’s not at all understandable is the behaviour of Natural England, an organisation set up to help the countryside, presided over by a Conservative government.

Natural England knew in early March that Packham and his pals were planning to call for a judicial review of the licence to shoot pests, and it understood the chaos a sudden withdrawal of the licence would cause, so why didn’t it consult, or ask for legal help? God knows there’s enough money swilling about in shooting circles.

Natural England did write to a few of the countryside crews — the British Association of Shooting and Conservation and the National Farmers’ Union — but as BASC has exposed, that was only to reassure them that Wild Justice posed no threat. The letter to BASC from NE read: ‘We are of the view that general licences are a legitimate regulatory tool… while a decision is to be taken regarding the options for review [planned for this summer], the three contested general licences remain in place.’

Only they didn’t. And come 25 April the licences were gone.

Natural England is committed, it says, to working in an open and collaborative way with farmers — so why has there been no consulting on any interim measures? The new provisional licence that’s supposed to tide farmers over until the season ends isn’t fit for purpose, says BASC, and I can vouch for the fact that it’s almost impossible to apply for. I had a go, but after downloading Adobe Flash Player, at the website’s request, for the fifteenth time, I gave up.

None of this is Chris Packham’s fault because none of this is even what he had in mind. The Wild Justice petition requests the general licences are reviewed and amended not this year, but in time for next spring. Packham says they never wanted a sudden ban. Nor was one necessary, if Scottish Natural Heritage is anything to go by. SNH — the equivalent of NE, but in Scotland — has the same type of licences with the same difficulties under EU law, and yet no plans for any immediate change without consultation.

Some sense foul play — Natural England is itself a hotbed of eco-maniacs, they say, deliberately out to thwart farmers.

Much more likely, it’s simply understaffed and overwhelmed. In the past ten years, Natural England has had its budget and its staff numbers nearly halved. In January, before the general licence row even emerged, staff were said to be demoralised and quite unable to cope. In the end, the whole shooting party is under Defra’s control, and it’s to Defra that the poor frustrated farmers should complain.

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