Happy Birthday Wild Justice

A year. When you’re young a year can seem like forever. When you’re older, a year goes past in a blink. That annual magazine subscription you meant to cancel? Just came out of your bank account. Again. That language you planned to learn? Er, non. The gym habit you were going to build over the year? Like your muscles – still underdeveloped. Those plans you had to save the world? I’ve got to tell you, fella, that was WAY more than a year ago…

So, here we are. In a modern room in an historic building off Old Chancery Lane. We’re here to celebrate a year of Wild Justice (set up to ‘fight for wildlife’ by challenging legislation in the courts). Celebrating what can be achieved in a year. We’re an eclectic group. There are artists (Turner-prize winning Jeremy Deller modelling shabby chic, while the always humble MarkATM looks well-dressed in a ‘little bit out of my comfort zone’ kind of a way). There’s a handful of writers, including the effervescent and (to quote her husband) ‘pathologically optimistic’ Amy-Jane Beer and the always marvellous Gill Lewis (author of Sky Hawk and Sky Dancer et al) and The Guardian’s Patrick Barkham (who if there was a ‘nicest person in the UK’ competition would be in the running every year [though I suspect he might rightfully object – like my old English teachers – to anyone using the ‘weak’ word nice]). There’s a magazine editor (Rebbeca Armstrong of Birdwatch who Mark Avery once described as ‘calm, sensible and knowledgeable’ which is true but perhaps makes her sound far less of the inspirational figure she actually is) and conservationists like the brilliant Debbie Pain and Rob Sheldon (who is just great but would probably hate me saying anything nice about him). There are Doctors, Professors, high-flying lawyers, actors, musicians and campaigners who couldn’t walk down the street without someone looking at them and mouthing, “Are you that person off the tele?”. And, in keeping with a Wild Justice event, there’s not an ego on display.

‘In keeping’ because that’s not the way the trio of Wild Justiceers – Dr Mark Avery, Dr Ruth Tingay, and Chris Packham CBE – ever present themselves (and if you think they do, you’ve never met them). They really don’t have to prove anything to anyone, especially here, now, amongst friends, but I think most of us would forgive them a little strut if they felt like strutting a little. After all, this has been one heck of a year. And it’s not like Wild Justice is all they do. They campaign, they write, they present, they speak up, they encourage and support. But, no, Wild Justice doesn’t do strutting.

Anyway, time to get things up and running. Wild Justice work with (to quote Mark) a ‘brilliant team of lawyers’ from Leigh Day and Matrix Chambers, and the evening was kicked off by Matrix’s David Wolfe QC, who explained how he got involved and how much of a pleasure it is to work with Wild Justice because of the way they operate: “very focussed, articulate, make quick decisions, and [crucially] raise money fast“. Can’t dispute that in any way (not that I’d argue with a QC, because I would lose. Every time).

David was followed by Mark Avery. He introduces himself saying, “I’m Mark Avery and I’m one third of Wild Justice“. Maybe it’s habit, but he has to be one of the most recognisably ‘larger than life’ characters in conservation. And we’re all here because we’ve supported WJ, or donated, or written about them. We all know who Mark is, but the fact that he still introduces himself is really touching. And he means it. When he sees you he beams, and when you’re about to leave he grips your hand like a bear grabbing a salmon and says thanks for coming like he’s still surprised you’d make the effort. Anyway, he points out – in case we’re not sure which WJer is which – that he’s the tallest, oldest, and heaviest. And thanks everyone for their support, without which “we can’t do anything“.

I’m perhaps labouring these points because if you believe some of the muppets on social media, Mark Avery is some sort of grumpy goose who goes around stomping on anyone he disagrees with and has a particular argument with shooters (who think that what WJ “is doing is bonkers“). Which isn’t accurate at all. In fact (to barely supressed gasps) he thanks a writer from a shooting magazine for coming this evening, saying they were invited because while “they think we’re bonkers too, they’ve been straight with us“. In other words, they had bothered to read what Wild Justice have been doing and instead of going down the increasingly well-worn knee-jerk route had actually thought about, for example, whether General Licences were indeed outdated, unscientific, and needed re-examining rather than bleating about vast flocks of crows descending on lambs or the end of songbirds as we know them.

Mark concluded by hinting at what was coming next from the group. He wasn’t prepared to give all the details for understandable reasons (you wouldn’t expect Jurgen Klopp to give away team tactics in the run up to a Champions League match, nor would you hand an opposition QC a quick briefing on what you were planning to take to court), but there was mention of fish and culls, and we all understood, and (I think it’s correct to say) most of us applauded. Put it this way: when Wild Justice asks for money to fund the next campaigns, we’ll give it to them.

Next up was Ruth Tingay. Before I got to know Ruth she seemed a bit remote and serious, but she’s actually mischievous, brilliant, very funny – and serious (about wildlife anyway). She takes no cr*p from anyone but has a heart the size of a house. She still seems surprised that Wild Justice works, that three disparate people somehow manage to get things done. She says the secret is that Mark does all the work – and red wine, which may perhaps oil the wheels a touch, but I think David Wolfe had it about right: they’re articulate and focussed individuals, and, I’d add, they love wildlife, respect each other hugely, and are bloody good fun to be around. Work hard, play hard, and take the p*ss out of each other types. It may not work for everyone, but it certainly works for them.

To illustrate just how different they are, though, Ruth whipped out her phone and said she was going to play three music tracks. Could we guess which was the favourite of which team member? Chris (as Ruth pointed out) held his head in his hands at this point, but as a rather lovely piece of opera trickled into the room perhaps it was Mark who I should have been watching, as Ruth simply said, “This is Mark’s favourite and it’s…appalling“. It was actually Vissi d’arte from Tosca, Mark confirmed later – though as my operatic knowledge stops at Delibes’ ‘Flower Duet’ – and that only because of working for British Airways in a former life – I’m spectacularly under-qualified to comment further. Next up was Penetration’s “Shout above the Noise“, a classic from 1979 (which I remember well, but I was more of a ‘New Dawn Fades‘ “directionless so plain to see” nihilist around that time). That was Chris’s choice of course, and it’s well worth reading a recent interview he gave to the Big Issue called “Punk is coming back to save the planet” to see how much he reveres this track. And Ruth’s? I could never have guessed in advance, but when the familiar bouncing intro to Men at Work’s “A Land Down Under” rang out it sort of made sense (“You’d better run, you’d better take cover“, indeed).

Ruth (centre) with the legal team including David Wolfe and Carol Day to her left.

Anyway, Ruth also brought up the legal team, who looked far too young be so darned intelligent and who stood a little awkwardly in the spotlight, but as all the WJ trio always point out without the legal brains fighting for wildlife in court there’d be no ‘justice’ in Wild Justice. She is, she said simply, “in awe of them“.

Ruth ambled back into the audience as Chris Packham walked on (giving her a perfectly-timed slow hand clap, which out of context sounds really odd, but if you were there spoke volumes about how close they are).

Chris is always quotable of course, and while I tried to keep up my note-taking is amateurish at the best of times. I managed to get “we all came together because we had a natural distaste of injustice“, that while we may not like to admit that “the world is going to hell in a handcart” he’s still optimistic that “problems can be solved – but it must be now” and that “prevention rather than cure is less painful”. He stands so straight when he’s speaking, the words queuing up to be released like they’re under pressure. We’ve been “ringing the bell without driving the ambulance off the site“, he says, that “we’ve got to make trouble to make a difference“. He’s talking very much to like-minded people, of course, but it feels like he’s talking with us not at us. That when he says, “We will not shut up and go away” he means not just Wild Justice but all of us. And he knows we understand that.

Then it’s over, and those of us not driving drain our glasses, feel part of something precious and important, and reflect on how much you can do in a year (or, possibly, think about writing a blog which begins with thinking about how quickly a year goes by). Most of us wander off to catch trains or carry on the conversation elsewhere. Only one of us gets home late that night to find a dead badger tied to his gate – the second time in a few months that a frightened, ignorant, ‘countryside campaigner’ has tried to send a warning to Chris Packham. In the classiest of responses, Chris (who would have been as appalled to see a wild animal treated so disrespectfully as to have his family attacked like this) simply said, “I’d be grateful if you have an issue with me and my views if you could express it without killing innocent animals. What do you think @DailyMailUK @BASCnews?”

It takes determination to campaign against the status quo. It takes courage to tell the establishment that laws which have been designed to benefit landowners don’t protect wildlife. It takes integrity to invite your detractors to debate with you when they hint about violence and stringing you up. On the other hand, when you don’t have a valid argument, when you’ve been told ‘to take action’ by lobbyists, when you’re too stupid to understand how self-defeating an action can be, and when you just don’t like or care about wildlife or like or care about the people who do – you tie dead badgers to a gate in the middle of the night and you run away.

Wild Justice’s birthday and this senseless, cowardly act were probably not directly related, but they were connected. In just twelve months, by standing up for wildlife, by demonstrating in court that some laws are badly-written and archaic, Wild Justice has ‘made a difference’. They have lit a fire under prejudices and ‘traditions’ that are unfit for the twenty-first century. As Chris said in London, “We pick fights because we know that we’re right“. Every one of us that supports Wild Justice knows it too.

This is a long read but I’d like to add one more thing. Can I just say thank you for everything you do, WJ, and may this birthday be the first of many. Cheers.