I might have solved a minor mystery. Last week, after a public outcry (1, 2), the government dropped its proposal to spend our money on capturing buzzards and destroying their nests to help pheasant shoots (3). The scheme was championed by Richard Benyon, the minister charged, as one of David Cameron’s little jokes, with protecting wildlife and biodiversity. Benyon is the owner of a huge stately home called Englefield House, and the 20,000-acre walled estate that surrounds it (4). The estate employs gamekeepers to stock it with pheasants and kill the animals that might eat them.
The rationale for this proposal was the weakest I have ever seen. The government intended to find new ways of persecuting buzzards, on the grounds that “anecdotal evidence” suggests that their predation of pheasants “can be significant at the local site level.” (5) No reference was given. Research held by DEFRA shows that just 1-2% of young pheasants are taken by all birds of prey (6). So where did the “anecdotal evidence” come from?
Yesterday I found a video, filmed in 2009, in which one of the gamekeepers on Richard Benyon’s estate names buzzards as the first of the predators he blames for eating his pheasants (7). Could the source of the “anecdotal evidence” have been Benyon’s own gamekeeper? In either case, has any recent minister proposed a more self-serving use of public money?
This story is symbolic of government policy in the countryside. As Britain heads towards Edwardian levels of inequality, the countryside reverts to a playground for the rich, in which anything that cannot be shot and eaten is shot and hung from a gibbet. The aristocracy is back in charge.
The number of pheasants the land owners release could be seen as a cipher for the state of society. In 1960, 50 pheasants were released for every 100 hectares of estates in the UK (8). This number rose slowly until the 1980s, when it climbed rapidly. It slowed in the 1990s, then shot up again as the City boomed. The graph I have seen ends in 2005, at 300 birds per hundred hectares. But between 2004 and today the total release of pheasants in the UK has risen from 35 to 40 million (9, 10). I would like to propose the pheasant, rather than the Gini coefficient, as the unit for measuring inequality.
This growth has been accompanied by a rapid consolidation of landownership. When Kevin Cahill’s book Who Owns Britain was published in 2002, 69% of the land was in the hands of 0.6% of the population (11). Since then the concentration has intensified: between 2005 and 2011, government statistics show, the number of landholdings in England has fallen by 10%, while the average size of holding has risen by 12% (12). This could be one of the fastest consolidations of ownership since the Highland Clearances.
But according to Cameron’s government, this has not gone far enough. It has lobbied against European proposals to cap the amount of farm subsidy a single estate can harvest, on the grounds that this “would impede consolidation” (13).
The government wants the resurgent aristocracy to be hampered by as few concessions to the rest of society as possible. This year, for example, only one pair of hen harriers has attempted to mate in England: the lowest number for around a century (14). Yet there is enough habitat in the uplands to support at least 300 pairs (15). Where are they? They have been shot and poisoned by grouse-shooting estates.
As the law stands, only the gamekeepers who carry out these killings can be prosecuted for them. The landowners who commission them are not liable. At the beginning of this year, Scotland introduced a new law of vicarious liability, which will make the owners responsible for illegal persecution of wildlife by their staff (16). But when Richard Benyon was challenged in the House of Commons to introduce the same law to England, he dismissed the proposal out of hand (17). It is entirely coincidental that Benyon also owns an 8000-acre grouse estate (18).
Doubtless this also has nothing to do with the mysterious abandonment by the agency his department controls – Natural England – of its case against a grouse shoot in the Pennines. Natural England was prosecuting the Walshaw Moor estate, owned by the retail baron Richard Bannister, for damaging a site of special scientific interest (19, 20). After dropping the case, it agreed that he could continue burning blanket bog (21): a practice that not only damages wildlife but also releases astonishing quantities of carbon dioxide as the peat ignites (22). Natural England refuses to explain why it abandoned the prosecution.
This agency has been reduced to a husk on Benyon’s watch. In 2009, it published a mild and tentative document called Vital Uplands (23). It proposed that the land might be managed a little more sustainably, a few trees might be allowed to grow, there might be a little less burning and a little more wildlife. The landowners went beserk. The Moorland Association, whose 200 members own and manage most of the grouse estates in England, denounced it on the grounds that it would invoke the frightful prospect of “encroachment of scrub and trees” (24).
In February this year, Natural England’s chairman, Poul Christensen, turned up at a meeting of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), publicly apologised for the document and denounced his agency’s thought crimes (25). Vital Uplands was abandoned and its webpages deleted. Natural England explained that it had dropped the report because the government expected the agency “to work effectively with farmers and grouse moor managers” (26).
Not that it had to worry. Poul Christensen, a dairy farmer, sometimes seems to be more loyal to his industry than to conservation. The same goes for some of the other directors. Attending the meeting at which Christensen denounced his own staff was the NFU’s outgoing uplands farming spokesman, a large landowner called Will Cockbain (27). Where is he now? On the board of Natural England (28).
Last week Benyon’s department extended this appointments policy when it nominated nine new members of the national parks authorities (29). Among them were two chief executives (30), a former county chair of the NFU and a former director of the Country Land and Business Association (31).
In the countryside, as in the towns, policy is becoming the preserve of the 1%. The rest us pay the land owners to expand their estates and destroy the wildlife. That’s what they mean when they say we’re all in this together.
This article was first published in the Guardian 4 June 2012, for more articles by George Monbiot
(6) DS Allen et al, 2000. Raptors and the rearing of Pheasants: problems and management needs. ADAS Consulting Ltd. Unpublished report to British Association for Shooting and Conservation. Available from DEFRA, Bristol.
(11) Kevin Cahill, 2002. Who Owns Britain: the hidden facts behind landownership in the UK and Ireland. Canongate, Edinburgh.
(17) http://bit.ly/K7h8zkDomestic (UK)
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This post was written by George Monbiot