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Countryfile


Mark Avery, co-director of Wild Justice writes:

It’s over a fortnight ago that I drove for three hours to Yorkshire to be interviewed by Countryfile about Wild Justice’s successful (and ongoing) legal challenge over the general licences.

I spent several hot hours in the sun at Wheldrake Ings and talked to Charlotte Smith (right, above) and was filmed by the BBC film crew. There was lots of walking up and down, quite a lot of leaning on a gate, some time waiting for the local flying school planes to move on and some time seeing some birds and lots of Painted Lady butterflies.

On the same day, the team interviewed my mate Tony Juniper, now Chair of Natural England, a local farmer and some time later they talked to Andrew Gilruth of GWCT. I knew all that was happening but not what had happened. So I was as interested as everyone else to see the programme when broadcast. Well, actually I’ve only just looked at it because the Cricket World Cup Final was much more interesting and then I had some work to do and some family phone calls to make and take, so I’ve only looked at it this morning.

You can look at it now too on BBC iPlayer – it starts c14 minutes into the programme. It’s a pretty fair piece and I don’t have any complaints about the treatment of Wild Justice. When you do several takes of the same thing you tend to think ‘They’ve missed out some of the best bits I said’ but that’s life. And the piece has certainly gone down well with many, as Wild Justice has received many emails and donations directly linked to the Countryfile programme – thank you!

Having said that of course, it isn’t the programme that Wild Justice would have made about the subject but that’s not really the point. We know that Countryfile has form in leaning towards the opinions, however ungrounded in facts, of farmers and shooters and we all have to take that as read.

There is one passage that I would have liked to be included where I listed the things wrong with the general licences, not just their unlawfulness as pointed out by our challenge, but also the species on them (there is no excuse for Jackdaw, Rook, Jay or Magpie being listed for their impacts on wildlife), for the fact that they are not understood by the people that use them, the fact that bird identification sklills by users of the general licences are often very poor, the fact that there is no monitoring of the numbers of birds killed or of what species and no enforcement on the ground of the provisions of the licences. But there you go.

The section with the farmer was interesting – I wonder whether he has been meeting the actual conditions of the general licences all these years? And of course he is killing birds to protect birds – that is the party line even though it is barely grounded in science at all. He may well believe what he says even though he has been misled on the science.

Andrew Gilruth just made the outrageous suggestion that some unnamed species are ‘entirely reliant’ on people using the general licences – really? Which species are entirely reliant on Jays being killed, Andrew – and what is the evidence? And are even Curlew ‘entirely reliant’ on gamekeepers killing birds, Andrew? How about Foxes? The exaggeration slips so easily off the tongue of the GWCT spin doctor who I tend to think of as the ‘Grand Insinuator’ these days.

There was a piece not used by Countryfile where Gilruth was banging on about his insinuation that Wild Justice had been offered a deal to go away by Natural England. I know they were planning to film this because they asked me questions about it which I answered on camera before they spoke to Andrew. Charlotte Smith asked me a question and I said something like ‘I don’t know what he’s on about. Do you? Where is this information which GWCT claims to have got through a Freedom of Information request but hasn’t published? Have you seen it because I haven’t’. When I was shown the smoking gun, which would have been pointing at Natural England not Wild Justice, I pointed out that was simply NE’s letter conceding the challenge and they had to say something but they certainly didn’t say what GWCT seemed to be suggesting. Natural England behaved badly enough in this case (see here) but to offer a ‘deal’ when they knew that the law was against them would have been a sacking offence. It’s hardly surprising this did not appear in the programme. By the way, the CEO of GWCT is Teresa Dent who is also a Board member of Natural England…

And then there was Tony Juniper. Tony’s first day as Chair of Natural England coincided with the revocation of the general licences but he had played no part in the decision-making process leading up to that decision. I had to laugh when he said that it would be good if everbody sat down and talked about things – I’m sure that that’s what was said of Tony when he was laying about government and industry in his good old days at FoE! And we haven’t had a phone call from the Chair of Natural England to come round for a cup of tea yet but we’ll certainly answer the call if he makes it, and is serious. In fact there are some matters on our list which, after a bit more research, we may want a chat about. Watch this space.

But Tony ended with the alarming news that NE can’t do its job properly because of lack of resources. That is probably true – lack of resources and lack of will have been two of the big handicaps that have held back NE in its work for many years. It is to be hoped that, together, Marian Spain (who has had a torrid time but is more of a nature conservationist than her predecessor) and Tony Juniper (who is certainly a nature conservationist) will be able to remedy the lack of nerve. Unless NE demonstrates some balls then no amount of money will help them deliver what they should do for the public. I am hopeful that things will change but the jury is still out – it’s obviously too soon to tell.

Countryfile asked me, on camera, what I thought of Natural England, perhaps expecting a rude response but from memory I said something like this ‘I think they are wonderful. Obviously Tony Juniper, their new Chair is a mate, and I have many other friends who work in Natural England, so of course I think they are wonderful. But they are nowhere near as wonderful as they used to be. And they need government support and resources to be really wonderful once again.’. Something very close to that anyway. But Countryfile, for their own reasons didn’t broadcast that. If they had stuck that on the end, then the piece would have ended on a note of agreement. No criticism of Countryfile intended, but, as you can see, the editor is in a very powerful position to create a narrative with the pieces recorded in completely independent and unsighted interviews, and it’s what is left on the cuttting room floor which is as important as what is included. That’s why my preference is for live broadcasts – then you live with your mistakes and triumphs and nobody controls the message.

So Tony, you’d have had that call for more resources from Wild Justice – but Countryfile cut it out.