Set up to attack shooting and wildlife management, Wild Justice has achieved almost nothing of substance since its creation, writes Tim Bonner. This article was first published in the Spring issue of My Countryside magazine.
Two years ago, the BBC presenter Chris Packham popped up on Farming Today on BBC Radio 4 to announce the creation of a new organisation, Wild Justice, set up to ‘fight for wildlife’ through the legal system and to change the law. The BBC giving its presenter a platform to launch a political campaign was unfortunately not that unusual, although it would seem at the very least questionable for a licence fee-funded national broadcaster to promote such activity. However, the BBC had decided some time before that Chris Packham was not a regular BBC presenter so its Editorial Guidelines did not apply to him. In an advanced example of corporate obfuscation worthy of the BBC satire W1A, the BBC Trust concluded in 2016 that he was a ‘recurrent’ presenter – not a regular one – despite the fact that he had regularly presented programmes for the BBC for more than a decade.That BBC Farming Today interview was particularly galling as Chris Packham was given his usual opportunity by a breathless interviewer to spin his line about acting for ‘threatened species which can’t take legal cases in their own name’ without a single question about Wild Justice’s real motivation or any alternative voice challenging its proposed campaign of legal activism.
A few weeks earlier, BBC Farming Today had covered the launch of the British Game Alliance, set up to market game and promote standards, and this had apparently required comment from the League Against Cruel Sports, an organisation with no knowledge or involvement in the game market. Many of us were deeply cynical about the motivation of Chris Packham and his fellow Wild Justice directors, Mark Avery and Ruth Tingay, who had all been involved almost exclusively in campaigns against shooting and wildlife management. Yet we were given no platform to express our concerns and when we challenged the decision not to provide any alternative voice we were fobbed off with the frankly pathetic excuse that Wild Justice was ‘not controversial’.
It may be that the stated aims of the new group were wrapped in the cuddliest possible language, and Wild Justice may have set its objects as:
- Nature conservation, primarily in UK;
- Advocacy to make UK laws, policies and practices more wildlife-friendly;
- Use of UK legal system to further nature conservation objectives;
- Encourage public participation in nature conservation issues.
It was quite obvious, however, to anyone with the slightest understanding of the agenda pursued by its three activists (as they describe themselves) that its real purpose would be to attack shooting and wildlife management, and in the last two years that is all that it has done.
In January, the High Court threw out Wild Justice’s latest in a series of Judicial Reviews in which it had argued that General Licences for the control of avian species such as pigeons and crows in Wales were unlawful. The Judge Harman rejected all three of Wild Justice’s claims against Natural Resources Wales’ General Licences and described the current approach as ‘rational’.
The ruling means that the control of listed pest bird species can continue in Wales and was welcomed by conservationists, farmers and pest controllers. The judge also sent a clear message as to his view of the validity of Wild Justice’s arguments by awarding the highest possible costs against it.
This was not Wild Justice’s first failure; in fact, in the two years of its existence it is very difficult to find anything positive that it has achieved. Its first legal foray, a case against General Licences in England, did cause Natural England to make a foolish and premature decision to withdraw those licences, but they were eventually reinstated and have just been renewed in very similar form to the original. Wild Justice’s claim therefore resulted in nothing other than leaving livestock and vulnerable species open to avian predation during the breeding season. Strangely, it is not that keen on promoting this achievement.
Wild Justice brought another Judicial Review, this time against Defra in relation to the release of pheasants and partridges on or near special protected sites. The Alliance, along with our colleagues at BASC, the National Gamekeepers Organisation and the Game Farmers’ Association, intervened in the action and eventually the Secretary of State said that he would introduce an interim licensing scheme to allow the release of pheasants and partridges in these areas at sustainable levels. Such a scheme, if and when it is introduced, will have a marginal -- if any -- impact on affected shoots and when Wild Justice discontinued the case and applied for costs, the judge rejected its application out of hand saying: “Plainly, it cannot be said that [Wild Justice] has been wholly or even substantially successful in relation to its claim as originally pleaded… I am inclined to the view that it would not have been successful.”
Nor has Wild Justice been successful when it has, briefly, moved on from its obsession with shooting. Its attempt to persuade the courts that the badger cull is inhumane fell at the first hurdle with the judge refusing to grant permission for a Judicial Review and concluding that “the Chief Scientist had rationally concluded that there was a high level of compliance” with best practice.
In fact, it seems that Wild Justice has achieved almost nothing of substance in the two years of its existence other than to waste significant amounts of government resources -- and that of organisations forced to intervene on its pointless actions -- whilst happily spending the money it has crowdfunded from gullible supporters.
Worse than the waste and pointlessness, however, is the lie. Wild Justice was founded on a blatant dishonesty that its purpose was to improve wild animal welfare and nature conservation
When Chris Packham was granted that sycophantic interview on BBC Farming Today and made all sorts of grandiose claims about the issues it intended to address, in reality, Wild Justice has followed the classic animal rights agenda. Game shooting and badgers are its abiding obsessions, and its driver is hatred of the people who are involved. Its weapon is the pointless pursuit of arcane legal points which soak up government time and resources to no positive end, but which inflate the egos of its participants and give an outlet for their dislike of large parts of the rural community.
The one serious impact that Wild Justice’s legal actions has had is to confirm the view of many within government that the legal structures that we have inherited from the EU, especially the Habitats Directive and its reliance on the ‘precautionary principle’, which legal activists increasingly use in an attempt to stop anyone from doing anything they disapprove of in the countryside, cannot remain in their current form. It would be a sweet irony if all Wild Justice actually achieved was to promote changes to the very law it relies on. In the meantime, unfortunately, pointless legal actions seem likely to continue until Wild Justice runs out of other people’s money, but the Alliance and our colleagues will be working tirelessly to ensure that its record of failure continues.