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The Lobby: protecting our way of life

As the general election approaches, Nick Herbert, Chairman of the Countryside Alliance, tells James Heale how he is fighting to preserve the essence of the countryside in this article for My Countryside magazine.


Campaigner, lobbyist, envoy and peer – Nick Herbert is a politician who wears many hats. But it is the role of a huntsman with which he is most passionate, having been master and huntsman of the Newmarket Beagles. From his adolescence in rural Essex to his current chairmanship of the Countryside Alliance, Lord Herbert has spent much of his 35 years in politics championing field sports. When we meet to discuss the upcoming general election, he is quick to mention the pride he takes in his role. “I wrote the first paper that proposed the creation of what became the Countryside Alliance. For me to be able to return as Chairman, it has been the most enormous privilege.”

The Alliance is non-partisan but Herbert sits on the government benches in the Upper House. Has his party – which won 96 of the most 100 rural seats in 2019 – risked taking those areas for granted? “Yes, I think the Conservative Party sometimes has forgotten about rural voters. Whether that’s in our domestic food production, whether it’s in the conservation of the countryside, whether it’s in the needs and concerns of rural voters I think the countryside needs a voice. And I think the Countryside Alliance has an obligation to give it one.” 

The Alliance has criticised the disproportionate impact of Tory initiatives like the ban on new oil boilers in rural areas. Voters here “can be overlooked with policies that can impact upon them,” warns Herbert, “particularly the cost of fuel. Sometimes rural communities are treated as though they’re wealthy and privileged. And that’s to miss the fact that there are millions of people in rural areas who are by no means highly paid.”

Given the economic pressures, it is no surprise that Labour are forecast to make gains on a par with Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide – a victory which triggered the bitter seven-year battle to ban traditional hunting. Some fear that a similar result this time would prompt another crackdown on field sports. Steve Reed, Labour’s environment spokesman, promised a full ban on trail hunting and drag hunting last month as “Something we’ll do in the first term of a Labour government”.  

Herbert is scathing of those who seek a return to what he calls “deeply prejudiced, illiberal, thoughtless politics”. He says: “There seem to be Labour politicians who want to ban hunting again, not noticing the fact that it’s been banned once already. 

It feels to me a little bit like Groundhog Day.” Reed’s comments sparked an immediate backlash, with more than 10,000 emails sent by Countryside Alliance supporters – a warning shot of its ability to mobilise people. “I hope Keir Starmer shows the same resolve in seeing off this attempt as he has in other areas because it is a cul de sac for Labour. It will do them no good.”

In the current climate, he admits too that some of “our communities haven’t collectively sufficiently learned the lesson from last time.” Herbert, who also chairs the College of Policing, is clear that there needs to be zero tolerance for anyone found guilty of raptor persecution or breaches of the Hunting Act. “We have to have our house in order if we’re going to be able to promote our way of life and defend ourselves. We have to understand where there are legitimate public and political concerns versus the ones that, frankly, are not legitimate and are simply just deeply prejudicial. I want to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself.”

Ennobled in 2020, Herbert has seen first-hand how much the Upper House has changed: “Twenty years ago, the House of Lords chucked out the Hunting Bill altogether and eventually it was passed by use of the Parliament Act. I think the House of Lords is a rather different chamber now and I think that’s a reflection of the way our politics has changed.”

Herbert is a veteran of such battles, having helped found the Countryside Movement – the forerunner to the Alliance – in the 1990s. He spent much of his twenties working at the British Field Sports Society and 

recalls tentatively suggesting one day that they expand their selection of reading material. “They only took The Daily Telegraph and what was then The Sporting Life. When I suggested that it might be a good idea if they took The Guardian as well, the very nice General who ran the organisation exploded and said, ‘What on earth would we want The Guardian for?’.” 

He laughs but adds: ‘‘It did seem to me to be a symptom of the fact that the lobby wasn’t ready for what was about to unfold.” The Alliance has sought to avoid a similar repeat this time around. “We’re now avid Guardian readers,” he remarks drily. “Some of us have even written for The Guardian.”

Prior to entering the Lords, Herbert sat for Arundel and South Downs from 2005 until 2019: “I was very fortunate my majority increased with every successive general election, and I decided I’d better quit while I was ahead.” He is now concerned with the pipeline of future talent, amid fears that voters are being put off from engaging in the political process from the parish council to parliament. To aid this he has helped set up the Future Countryside initiative to “speak for the countryside in its widest sense.” For him, a lifelong countryside enthusiast, it is deeply personal: “We owe it to successive generations to protect what we have.” Otherwise, he warns: “We can hardly be surprised if we find that we have elected politicians or organisations that are charged with some responsibility in the countryside that are staffed by people who don’t have a full understanding of what we do.”

Twenty years after the Hunting Act, Herbert says: “What strikes me is how much has changed and yet how little.” His view of the countryside echoes Tennyson: “tho’ much is taken, much abides.” There may be “much greater populism” with the rise of social media but “from the point of view of the issues, so much of the countryside has remained unchanged.” Traditional hunting with hounds is banned but “the packs of hounds continue to go out. People continue to take part in shooting and fishing. The countryside faces enormous pressures from urbanisation, roads, development. And yet, in essence, it is still there.” 

As the election approaches, Herbert and his team at the Alliance will fight to ensure that essence remains, whatever the result.

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