Despite death threats following his victory against Natural England, Chris Packham remains determined to give nature a voice.
Following a successful challenge to bird-killing regulations, the BBC presenter faced a barrage of abuse. He tells us why he won’t give in to bullies
Chris Packham tells me how, a few years ago, he was out in the woods when his dogs ran off barking, and there was a man with a gun who he didn’t recognise. “I said to him, ‘what are you doing?’ He replied, ‘I’m shooting vermin.’ So, I asked him which species. And he said, ‘oh, you know, jays, magpies, crows, that sort of thing.’ And this man was just going out on a Sunday afternoon to kill birds, perfectly ‘legally’, despite them having no negative impact on any human life at all. That afternoon was a turning point in my life.”
This chance encounter in the New Forest led Packham to conceive a new type of environmental group that would use the law to fight for nature. Until April, few outside conservation circles and Packham’s Twitter followers had heard of Wild Justice, but then it scored a stunning victory in its first contest. In plucky, David-andGoliath style, the fledgling not-forprofit organisation, which pays its lawyers entirely from small donations crowdfunded online, took on the
Government’s wildlife advisor, Natural England – and won.
Delighted but not surprised, is Packham’s verdict. “The lawyers go deep into it, they look into it in detail. We knew that we had a very, very robust case, legally.”
Battle of the birds
The challenge was to the general licensing system in England, by which carrion crows, rooks, magpies, jays, jackdaws, woodpigeons and 10 other species of bird could be killed ‘legally’, without the need for farmers and landowners to apply for licences on a case-bycase basis. Before it came to court, Natural England suddenly conceded that the longstanding system was illegal and revoked it, thrilling wildlife lovers but angering many farmers, gamekeepers and others who see these birds only as ‘pests’. In the firestorm that ensued, death threats were issued against the Springwatch presenter and there was an ugly incident – soon dubbed ‘crowgate’ – in which two dead crows were strung up on his gate. A fierce and sometimes toxic debate raged on social media, while Packham mounted a characteristically passionate defence of the Wild Justice action,
appearing on Good Morning Britain and making front-page news.
The incoming chair of Natural England, Tony Juniper, a respected conservationist who formerly worked for WWF, the Wildlife Trusts, BirdLife International and Friends of the Earth, found himself criticised, too. Yet the U-turn came on his first day in the job; unfortunate timing, perhaps, but he’d played no part in the dramatic decision.
“Crowgate has exposed the fact that a percentage of those opposed to what we are doing are very unpleasant bullies,” says Packham, who received a CBE in May for services to nature conservation, first announced in the New Year Honours list. “They’re not people who want a rational discussion in any creative form, they’re people who want to intimidate, bully, suppress, terrorise…”
Yet Packham does not regret taking a stand and is undeterred by any risk to his personal safety, telling BBC Wildlife Magazine that he is “more determined than ever” to use Wild Justice to give a voice to carrion crows and other species that “can’t speak up to defend themselves.” He remains remarkably upbeat and is keen to praise the Hampshire police for their help, revealing that several credible leads into the threats made to him, including DNA evidence, are being actively investigated.
The media has often portrayed Natural England’s repeal of the general licences in black-and-white terms. Commentators have framed the uproar as a dispute between ‘town’ and ‘country’, pitting naturalists and conservationists against farming and rural interests. In reality, the situation is more nuanced.
For a start, Packham points out, the law has not changed – only parliament can do that. What the Wild Justice legal team has done is prove that the way in which it was being administered was unlawful. In effect, Packham says, Natural England has been asked to implement the law properly. Michael Gove, the environment secretary, has now personally taken charge of a review of the bird-control licensing system.
Behind the headlines
Another nuance lost in the media and Twitter storm is that Packham, a country-dweller himself, is not always averse to the lethal control of some birds, such as carrion crows and woodpigeons. “I’ve never been antishooting, you know,” he says, “not at a fundamental level.” Packham is simply advocating that each time it should be justified – for example, when farmers have crops or livestock to protect – as indeed the law requires. The RSPB, quite openly, kills crows (and foxes) on its nature reserves – near to ground-nesting waders and tern colonies, for instance. So do other conservation organisations.
“Crowgate has exposed the fact that a percentage of those opposed to what we are doing are very unpleasant bullies.”
Packham’s detractors insist that if mediumsized generalist predators, such as corvids, are not controlled, then curlews, lapwings, redshanks, skylarks and other declining farmland birds will continue to disappear. They say that the Wild Justice action has, ironically, made it harder to protect these scarce and struggling species.
“Let’s keep one thing at the forefront of our minds,” Packham says. “Crows and other predators are not responsible for the declines in our farmland birds in any shape or form. What’s responsible, and it’s been proven without any ambiguity, is the intensification of agriculture. We know full well that early cutting for silage is decimating the curlew and lapwing population, as are practices such as rolling and topping, and so on.”
Would he pull the trigger if he knew it would save a curlew nest from predation? Packham’s thoughtful reply turns the question on its head: “There are various nonlethal alternatives, but I’m not against people doing it if it’s science-based conservation, supervised by Natural England. However, the real question is: would I change farming policy so that curlews as a species weren’t so rare that they were going to be impacted by the loss of just one nest?
“Species like curlews have become rare because they’ve been mowed, shredded and rolled for way too long. And then their
Chris Packham is unfazed by the abuse sent to his New Forest home in a heated row over bird-killing regulations. Right: a death-threat letter even made front-page news.
Clockwise from left: two dead carrion crows were hung outside Packham’s home; carrion crows are becoming more abundant on farmland; before 23 April, jays could be freely killed; crows predate the eggs and chicks of curlews. Below: Packham with Michael Gove.