Political and legal threats to the activities we are passionate about demonstrate why the Alliance must remain strong and effective, writes our Chairman, Nick Herbert. This article first appeared in the Winter issue of 'My Countryside' magazine.
It is vital that the Countryside Alliance (CA) remains a strong and effective campaigning organisation to protect the rural way of life. Last year’s General Election saw the most serious threat to our countryside activities for over a decade. For the first time restrictions to both shooting and hunting were proposed by a major political party.
While the election of the Conservatives means that we do not currently expect government measures to attack us, we cannot be complacent. There is still the possibility of backbench initiatives, while vociferous and well funded animal rights pressure groups continue to press for restrictions. We must use this time wisely to ensure that all rural activities are placed on a more secure footing to resist political attack in future.
I believe the defence of countryside activities like hunting and shooting will rest on three pillars – the science and evidence of their benefit; upholding the highest standards of conduct; and retaining social licence, which means broad public approval for our activities.
I particularly want to emphasise the importance of standards in the conduct of hunting and shooting. Environmental issues have soared up the political agenda, while social media has changed the way news is generated and campaigns develop. Single incidents, even if misrepresented, can result in huge and rapid political pressure for change. Our activities take place on private land, but in the public eye, and they must be conducted accordingly.
We have already seen attempts by the Labour frontbench since the election to move amendments to the Agriculture Bill which would have denied payments to any farmer who had permitted legal exempt hunting on their land in the last 15 years. We have also seen attempts by the League Against Cruel Sports to promote a new motion to prohibit trail hunting on National Trust land. Meanwhile, in Scotland whilst the Scottish Countryside Alliance has guided hunting through this Parliament unharmed, it is bound to return to the political agenda after next year’s Scottish elections.
Only recently the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill before Parliament was used by hostile MPs as a platform to mount strong attacks on hunting, and we expect further animal welfare legislation in the next Session. Parliamentary Bills can be amended by backbenchers, and we have seen how easily issues can flare up at Westminster in the current rather febrile political environment. We could see further attempts to restrict both shooting and hunting at any time. The CA’s political team will be vigilant in watching legislative developments and where necessary lobbying MPs, Peers and government.
We saw a very good example of the work of the Alliance’s political team in relation to local Covid restrictions. Through effective behind-the-scenes lobbying we ensured that hunting and shooting, provided they took all the relevant precautions and observed the rules, could continue (this was before the national lockdowns). Of course, there was no reason why these outdoor sports should not have been exempted as other organised sporting activities were, but that is not how our opponents wanted to present it or indeed how some in government saw it, and our intervention proved crucial. It was telling that Labour spokesmen could not resist attacking the exemptions in the House of Commons, and concerning that they remain so out of touch with rural opinion.
We have also been working hard to counter efforts by anti-shooting campaigners to restrict the activity using judicial reviews under the Habitats Directive. The most recent attack has been on the release of game birds on European Protected Sites. The government has responded by saying it will introduce a temporary general licence. However, there is no common-sense justification for backdoor restrictions on shooting where, far from evidence of harm, their contribution towards conservation and biodiversity is immense. The CA has been working closely with other shooting organisations to co-ordinate our response, and our political team has been actively engaging with ministers, officials, MPs and Peers. This battle is not over, and continues to be a cause of concern. Maintaining our political team and fighting these court cases is costly, and we have prioritised this work despite having to cut spending sharply in the CA as a result of the loss of income from fundraising events which cannot currently take place. We are very grateful to all our members and supporters who contributed generously to our appeal for funds to help us through this challenging period. It is still possible to support our appeal.
The escalating political and legal threats to the activities we are passionate about demonstrate why the CA is so needed, quite apart from our wider role in speaking for the countryside and rural communities. I would like to extend my thanks to all our members for your continued support.