News: Walk for Wildlife
Ten thousand people marched through London on 22 September, highlighting action for wildlife. What did they achieve?
What is the legacy of Chris Packham’s march, and will it have a lasting impact on how we approach UK nature?
F rom the organisers’ point of view, there are things that could have gone better. The main BBC or ITV news programmes and websites could have covered the event, and more than two MPs could have showed their support – step forward the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas and Labour’s Kerry McCarthy.
There were also comments on Twitter from, among others, Tim Bonner of the Countryside Alliance: “Once you get beyond the amusement at the pathetic turnout for @ChrisGPackham’s march, there is a serious issue. The nasty, divisive politics he and his camp followers promote is only negative for wildlife and the countryside.”
“Perfect doesn’t happen,” Packham says, a couple of days after the event, “but 10,000 people with polite banners turning out on a rainy September morning, and kids dressed up in funny costumes and walking through the streets of London to the sound of birdsong – the 44 million birds we have lost over the past five decades – has to be a good first step.” Especially, perhaps, given the whole thing was organised by this one man and an assistant, in just two months, and was paid for out of his own pocket – a high, five-figure sum. Political importance But the big question is: what has Chris Packham’s ‘Walk for Wildlife’ and publication of the ‘People’s Manifesto for Wildlife’ – containing “200 ideas to make a difference in UK conservation” – actually achieved? In the long run, how will it be remembered and what, if anything, will be its legacy?
Well, Mark Avery, the campaigner and former RSPB director of conservation, reports on his website the reaction of an unnamed MP who responded to the manifesto thus: “I read it, and I think I got to page 67 before I found something I could agree with. No wonder wildlife is at risk with this sort of level of political understanding.”
Is the manifesto politically naive? Martin Spray is chief executive of the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) and a former civil servant who worked in the Treasury, so he is someone who has an appreciation of realpolitik. He laughs at the notion that the manifesto lacks political understanding. “It’s a little rough and ready,” he concedes, “but it was written and edited by 20 people [21, if you include Packham] who brought together a whole lot of issues that relate to wildlife loss. It has come to a point where we need to be more outspoken. Of course, we recognise the importance of politics, but politics is not delivering.” Dividing opinion It’s not just the Countryside Alliance and the broader field-sports community that felt antagonised by the walk. A week before the march took place, Emily Ellis, a blogger from the Yorkshire Dales, posted on her website how her love of the moors was being destroyed. “It takes passion to transfer passion, but as soon as you talk about the moors someone will insist on drowning the flames in politics,” she wrote. “Enjoying the moors, apparently, equates to condoning brutal murder… of protected species.” Ellis is someone who does not shoot (though she has worked as a beater), but she lives among people who do.
So how does Ellis feel about the Walk for Wildlife and its manifesto? She responds with praise for the good ideas within the manifesto: “Encouraging more outdoor access, diversity and involvement of young people are all so important right now,” she says. But she is highly critical of other aspects. “The most shocking part was, for want of a better phrase, the ‘Highland clearances’
section,” she says. Here, she’s referring to proposals for the uplands that suggest putting vast tracts of our dales and fells into public ownership. “You can’t say, 'It’s alright, we’ll buy you out', and expect that to be okay, when you’re proposing to strip farmers of their home and identity.”
Overall, Ellis says, there was a feeling that people from her background and with her views would not have been welcome at the march. “Because I grew up in a shooting community, my love for wildlife is 'not valid', and that is soul-destroying.”
Andrew Gilruth, director of communications at the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT), was also critical. “Out of frustration of things not happening to the degree they would like them to, they are trying to make them happen by coercion,” he observes. “If children are not interested in wildlife, then we are going to force them to be. And if you go down the coercion route, people start to find a way round it.”
Mainstream conservation groups, on the whole, have been supportive of what Packham is trying to achieve – despite Packham criticising them in the introduction to the manifesto. “The UK’s conservation community cannot be selfish,” he says. “We must let bygones be bygones, all put our egos back in the box and forget about corporate strategies or ‘our competitors’.”
"Is it a fair point?" is the question put to RSPB director of conservation Martin Harper. He says: “I have worked for environmental NGOs for 22 years, and I’ve always worked with other organisations. The campaign for wildlife law reform and the Marine Act were multi-partner advocacy campaigns, and most of the big speciesrecovery and landscape-scale projects are done in partnership. Yes, we have to do more together but I’ve never used the phrase ‘competitor’. These are allies, and always have been.”
Harper nevertheless applauds Packham’s “great leadership of the conservation community” and the way he pulled people together with no organisational support. In the manifesto, 18 ‘ministers’ presented ideas for 17 different ‘ministries’ (one ministerial position was a job share between two young conservationists). The ideas Harper singles out were Robert Macfarlane’s ‘Ministry of Natural Culture and Education’, which advocated putting nature at the heart of the curriculum, from nursery to secondary school; and Carol Day’s ‘Ministry of Wildlife Law’ about building environmental rights into new legislation. “These ideas address the problem of how do you get the underpinning of nature in decisionmaking,” Harper says.
There were also specific ideas on how to increase representation of women and people from ethnic minorities within the conservation sector. As the ‘Minister of Social Inclusion’, writer and ecologist Amy-Jane Beer says, “You don’t have to be a white, able-bodied, middle-aged,
“You don't have to be a white, ablebodied, middle-aged, middle-class cisgender male to write about nature.”
middle-class, cisgender male to write about nature, to present it on TV, or to discuss it intelligently in a public forum. But you wouldn’t necessarily know that from the media output.”
Martin Harper also picks out the contribution of young naturalist Mya-Rose Craig (‘Ministry of Diversity in Nature and Conservation’), noting: “If you have more diverse staff and people around, you make better decisions.” But, of the major groups contacted (RSPB, WWT, The Wildlife Trusts and GWCT) not one put forward a woman to discuss the march and manifesto.
One of the single biggest impacts on how our wildlife fares is farming. It is the reason for the contribution of Miles King, the ‘Minister for Food and Farming’ (and, in his day job, CEO of People Need Nature). However, a representative of the NFU described the manifesto as hiding “extreme and sinister agendas, which would be catastrophic for nature and rural communities.”
King’s contribution does highlight some, perhaps unpalatable truths. Half of the wheat grown in the UK goes to feed animals, leading to a situation where 85 per cent of our farmland is used to produce meat that provides only 18 per cent of the calories we consume.
King’s manifesto idea is to “launch a public-education campaign to change what we eat – less meat and more fruit, vegetables and pulses”, and while that is laudable, how much difference it would make to overall meat and dairy consumption is questionable. The point is that the crisis in our wildlife is systemic and not going to be solved by one or two – or even 200 – simple fixes.
Perhaps the last word should go to Packham himself. “An hour and a half after the march had ended, when I was sitting on the train to go home, I started work on draft two of the manifesto,” he says. “I’m setting up a not-for-profit company, so people can organise their own walks for wildlife, and I’ll run another one next year. I’m not going to let the momentum drop.”
JAMES FAIR writes about wildlife, conservation and travel. jamesfairwildlife.co.uk
FIND OUT MORE
Wildlife politics: lawcom.gov.uk/project/wildlife-law; learn more about the UK Government policy and laws that affect our wildlife.
Left: it may have rained on their parade but a damp day didn't hold back the crowds during The People's Walk for Wildlife.
Right: adults and children alike took to the streets of London during the walk – some with impressive costumes and banners.
Chris Packham is already planning to stage another event next year.