On Monday 5th October DEFRA Minister Rory Stewart joined a panel of speakers at a Conservative Party Conference fringe event hosted by the Countryside Alliance to discuss “who are the real conservationists?”

Jim Barrington, animal welfare consultant to the Countryside Alliance, opened the talk by stating that the countryside was there as a result of the hard work of people who lived and worked there.

He argued that field sports were “almost universally good” for the countryside, but that moves towards an animal rights view in the debate often created difficulties. He emphasised that, although the default position was usually protection, this did not work for all species.

He used the example of the badger cull, which he said was working. He took the view that from a welfare standpoint, it was better to cull than leave badgers to suffer with the disease. Further to this, he raised the issue of communities directly affected being left out of the debate, such as dairy farmers dealing with bovine TB, and suggested that social media was creating an unbalanced debate.

David Bowles, head of public affairs at the RSPCA stressed the need to “look at the science” and “take the emotion out” of the debate. He emphasised that the RSPCA’s work was “based on science” and that it was not against making “tough decisions” such as supporting the badger cull if beneficial for bovine TB rates.

Ian Coghill, chairman of the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, outlined three models for conservation. The first, the ‘protect and preserve’ model, focused on wildlife sanctuaries, which he said had some value for specific species, but was not ideal.

The second model he highlighted was the ‘rewilding’ model, where areas were restored to wilderness and apex predators and keystone species were reintroduced. He argued, however, that this was not a policy that could be applied strategically, and was more of an ad hoc approach due to land ownership rights.

He stated that a more appropriate focus was the ‘engage and adapt’ model. He noted that with a population of 64m people, it was necessary to find a means by which one could be a successful farmer or forester and still retain healthy wildlife numbers in order for wildlife to prosper. In this respect, he added that field sports and shooting were beneficial.

Rory Stewart OBE MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Food and Rural Affairs, was sympathetic to the view that policy should be reliant on science, although he noted that understanding of the science could change “quite dramatically.” He cited the example of a policy in his constituency of Penrith and The Border which shifted from maximising sheep numbers to removing them all.

Praising the skills, love, heritage and knowledge present in the countryside, he called for a conversation in a “rough, tough, honest, open fashion”, which he said meant the UK could have “the greatest landscape of any European country”.

Responding to a question from a member of the National Parks of North Yorkshire, Rory Stewart commented that the Government needed to be “honest” on plans for national parks, and that the public ought to see them and be given a chance to comment.

Chair Tim Bonner, Chief Executive of the Countryside Alliance added that plans should go ahead with the consent of local communities, as the countryside was not “just a landscape”, but the people and communities who lived there.

Answering a question about rewilding, and whether sheep should be banned from the fells, Rory Stewart insisted that he was “absolutely not” in agreement with this view, stating that he believed “very strongly” that “the cultural value of farmers” was very important, with the focus on “pasture over appearance” in the English countryside “since the Iron Age”. He emphasised that this was a “unique meeting of pastured and wild” and that these landscapes ought not to be lost.

Ian Coghill of the GWCT added that the danger with rewilding was that there was “no system for unravelling it” if anything went wrong. He stressed the importance of listening to the people who lived and worked on the land.

On hen harriers in England, Rory Stewart spoke of the need to increase the population whilst ensuring support for grouse shooting. He called on shooting groups and organisations such as the RSPB to work together to find “a solution that sticks.”

A representative of the RSPB responded by urging Stewart to call on the Government to increase incentives for landowners to enhance ecosystems services and maintain wildlife numbers. Stewart concluded that financial measures were “secondary” to coming to an agreement on aims and objectives for conservation.