The Countryside Alliance hosted two of the most popular fringe events at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester this year on Brexit and the countryside, and the future of wildlife law.
An audience of over 150 people gathered to hear the Defra Secretary of State, The Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, in conversation with Countryside Alliance Chief Executive, Tim Bonner. Mr Gove was questioned by Tim, and members of the audience, on a range of issues including environmental policy, wildlife management, animal welfare, and trade in the context of leaving the EU.
Mr Gove started by setting out his vision for the countryside and said that in 15 to 20 years’ time the countryside would be “healthier and more productive” than ever before. Tim asked if Defra was ready for Brexit and Mr Gove assured the audience that Defra was changing to meet its new demands but said he had a “mild prejudice” to keeping Government departments in the same shape and said that there was merit in combining environment and farming in one department.
Discussing a new agricultural policy, Tim said that some upland communities were concerned about the threats of land use change from ‘rewilding’ policies. Mr Gove said that upland communities were “vital” and was committed to supporting upland farming. However, he said that the Government might want to see some areas of “experimentation” to try and capture the benefit of the land in other ways and said that some changes in land use had benefits for tourism and other industries.
Mr Gove said that securing tariff-free access to the EU market for food and farming was “an uber high priority” although he stopped short of calling this a ‘red line’ for the Government. Tim raised the importance of trade with Europe to the shooting industry with the movement of game birds, firearms and ammunition, and Mr Gove said it was the Government’s aim to maintain tariff-free trade across the entire supply chain for the rural economy which would also include shooting.
On workers from the EU, Mr Gove said “there might well be the case” for a need for a new Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme and stated that during any transition period workers from the EU would be invited to register if they wanted to continue to work in the UK.
Mr Gove said that the UK had played a part in some EU regulations that had helped improve the environment, however there were others that could be improved. He said that Brexit offered the opportunity to create new institutions to capture the desire to operate on the basis of principle and evidence.
There was another packed meeting room for our discussion on the future of wildlife law. The writer and philosopher, Sir Roger Scruton, and resident animal welfare expert, Jim Barrington, discussed the principles that should underpin our approach to wildlife policy outside of the European Union and how this can be delivered in practice.
Jim began by saying that there was an urgent need for a better understanding of the issues involved in wildlife management and warned that this task was often made harder by social media, a point stressed by former MP Sir Gerald Howarth in the audience. Sir Roger said that “the British people were Puritans” and “didn’t like seeing people having fun” which he thought was an underlying reason why people objected to hunting and shooting as part of wildlife management.
Sir Roger stated that animals do not have rights otherwise they would have duties, but stressed that there is a duty on humans to treat animals fairly. He thought that fairness was missing from existing wildlife law and suggested there should be a new, single, piece of wildlife law to establish common principles for management across all species in a consistent way. He said that wildlife law should balance the need for protection with the need for management and claimed this balance had often been missed by EU laws which he said had undermined the English Common Law principle of freedom. He reminded people that the first right granted after the French Revolution, was the right to hunt in the royal forests, but he claimed this right was in danger today.
Jim said that life for animals in the wild was very different to domestic animals, and that there was a clear need for management. He said that opponents of wildlife management were quick to say what they objected to, but less forthcoming in what they would like to see instead, and highlighted examples of where a lack of management had led to poor standards in animal welfare, particularly amongst deer populations.
Here you can listen to a full recording of the Wildlife Law meeting.