Chris Pack­ham

De­spite death threats fol­low­ing his vic­tory against Nat­u­ral Eng­land, Chris Pack­ham re­mains de­ter­mined to give na­ture a voice.

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - Contents - Re­port by Ben Hoare

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…”

Speak­ing up

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.

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