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Artillery Row

Keep Britain’s countryside free from bureaucracy

Now that we have left the EU, the UK government no longer needs to pander to pressure groups like Wild Justice

Lawsuits often tell you less about their subject-matter than about the litigants bringing them. This is true in spades as regards litigation for a cause, as witness an instance last week of rather silly environmental lawfare.

Glance at any garden or wood, and you will see plenty of birds that no-one would really miss

Under wildlife law (largely derived from EU law), it is illegal to kill or injure wild birds without a licence. This is all very well as regards endangered species like eagles, curlews or hen harriers, but there is a fairly obvious problem. Glance at any garden or wood, and you will see plenty of birds that no-one would really miss. Carrion crows, magpies, jackdaws, starlings, pigeons and the like are hardly in short supply, and in any case can be bad for livestock, crops and birds we do want to preserve, not to mention on occasion posing threats to human health. DEFRA and its devolved equivalents in Scotland and Wales therefore issue general licences saying, in effect, that anyone can shoot or trap these species provided it is directly aimed at the protection of one or more of these interests.

This was not good enough for Wild Justice, a pressure group headed by Chris Packham of the BBC’s Countryfile and two other well-known wildlife activists. Choosing Wales as a target, they demanded that NRF (Natural Resources Wales, the Welsh nature conservation authority) either withdraw all its general licences unless it could show that no other form of control would work, or severely curtail the seasons and circumstances in which they applied. When NRF refused, they sued. The claim – which if granted would have produced something close to a judicial order peremptorily banning the shooting of any wild bird in Wales without special permission – thankfully failed. But the whole episode does show up an interesting clash of values. One is tempted to say it’s between town and country, but that is too clichéd: more precisely, it is between easy-going, tolerant rurality against bossy technocratic rurality.

By tradition, deep country in Wales (and England) is pleasantly and good-naturedly anarchic. Look and listen carefully, and you can on occasion still catch lingering traces of characters from P.G. Wodehouse’s Market Snodsbury or even R.S. Surtees’ Handley Cross. Our countryside is not overseen and administered according to the orders of an enlightened bureaucracy meticulously trained in community and environmental management, but instead entrusted to the good sense of the landowners who live in and farm it, subject to relatively few restrictions imposed by DEFRA.

Most of us are quite happy with an arrangement of this kind: indeed, this informality is also a feature of Britain that makes it attractive to tourists from European countries such as the Netherlands, Germany or Denmark, where most things in the countryside are micromanaged to an extraordinary degree.

Freedom is at a discount, at least when it comes to individual stakeholders in the countryside

Unfortunately, it is precisely this trust in the good sense of those who work the countryside, and the lack of top-down dictation by experts, which get the goat of environmental activists like Wild Justice. If you read their arguments, wrapped up in innocuous phrases such as “a fair deal for wildlife”, they amount to this: the landscape, and the activities people are allowed to engage in there, must be governed by “the science” as promulgated by trained experts. In the context of land management, this is taken to mean that no animal or bird should ever be allowed to be killed because a landowner considers it a proper way to manage his business, but only if there is clear scientific proof that some environmental advantage will result.

In other words, freedom is at a discount, at least when it comes to individual stakeholders in the countryside (as against those who merely reside in it and make their living broadcasting about what others should be allowed to do in it). Even though landowners large and small have every interest in preserving the long-term productivity of their ecosystem, they cannot be trusted. Their freedom to do things their own way, possibly making mistakes, must be drastically curtailed and control transferred to those who know better. Not that this is new.

Wild Justice previously fought tooth and nail against giving farmers the right in carefully defined cases to shoot badgers if they thought it appropriate. It does not like traditional landowners’ activities, having previously called for the banning of driven grouse shoots, bullied DEFRA into restrictions on gamebird rearing and release, and complained more generally that pheasants are problematical because they eat adders. It has demanded that any shooting of wild game be bureaucratically controlled, with birds shot officially checked off (or as it puts it in its inimitable bureaucratese, “Mandatory bag size data to be collected and submitted for analysis/monitoring purposes”). No surprise, then, that those who actually make their living in the countryside, rather than simply residing in it while making largish sums of money broadcasting about what others should be allowed to do in it, are less than impressed by Chris Packham’s ideas.

When it comes to the effect of human activity on wildlife, it’s not only that Wild Justice demands that decisions be taken by expert administrators rather than those immediately involved. There is also an interesting steer when it comes to drawing the balance between nature and humanity. The rural landscape in this country may be charmingly unmodulated and unmanicured: but at present it is, with a few exceptions, overwhelmingly man-made. It bears little resemblance to what it would be like if we humans were not there: scrubby uncultivated woodland is not enormously widespread, and neither are animals such as lynx which once populated the kingdom.

The immediate threat to regulate the countryside within an inch of its life has for now been parried

Chris Packham and Wild Justice seem instinctively to think this is a bad idea. Apart from disliking many of the things that farmers do, they also call for extensive rewilding: encouraging or reintroducing species that used to be widespread but have disappeared or become marginalised, allowing numerous fields to revert to uncultivated meadow, encouraging growth of trees on upland sites, and so on. More generally they seem to take the view that, all other things being equal, we should seek to move closer to the situation which would obtain if humanity was not there: that too much of the landscape has been modified by us humans, and there is virtue in aiming to undo this. Wild Justice has thus accepted, as if it were obvious, that shooting management “must not adversely affect the population of any native species in order to increase the shootable surplus of gamebirds”, and indeed extended the principle to all animals, on the basis that it doubts whether native wildlife should “be killed simply to increase the availability of another species to be killed by recreational shooters.”

Now, to a limited extent it is right to be cautious about interfering with nature. It is undoubtedly to the benefit of humanity that the flow of potential floodwater into inhabited valleys be inhibited by encouraging areas of upland vegetation, and that hedgerows should contain more than a monoculture of wildlife. Both these are fairly straightforward to do and it is right to back such measures.

But it is by no means obvious that we should on a more general level prefer a state of nature to a man-made landscape. Put bluntly, why should the species called humanity give way to other species? This is an important question, and the answer is by no means obvious. The idea that landscapes unaffected by human activities are somehow inherently better, or more reflective of morality or virtue, than those where we have left our stamp is distinctly problematical. Obviously, people have a right to hold such a view, but they should realise that if they do, they may have difficulty in repelling the idea that they are not so much activists in a good cause, as a depressing band of misanthropes who simply find the majority of humanity unattractive.

Going back to last week’s events, the immediate threat to regulate the countryside within an inch of its life has for now been parried. But the legal pressure remains. Wild Justice is a proponent of environmental lawfare, devoted to using the law to promote its ends; and while it failed here, our law remains remarkably friendly to attempts of this sort.

The present UK rules on nature conservation are much informed by, and indeed to a large extent derived from, tight EU environmental legislation on wildlife and habitats. This is legislation which is not only dirigiste, but embodies something known as the “precautionary principle”: a rule which, summed up, says that if there is any unclarity about the effect of an activity on particular habitats or wildlife, then if in doubt it should be banned. In some cases, for example critically endangered species, this may be right. But elsewhere, we have a good deal more flexibility since 1 January. True, we are bound generally under the Trade and Co-operation Agreement with the EU not to reduce environmental standards. But this only applies to reduction “in a manner affecting trade or investment between the Parties”, and in addition leaves us free to “exercise reasonable discretion and to make bona fide decisions regarding the allocation of environmental enforcement resources.”

If the government wishes to return the English countryside to its state of benevolent non-regulation on such matters as the relation between pheasants and adders, and discourage mischievous lawsuits by wildlife obsessives, it seems to have a good deal of room for manoeuvre.

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