Defra’s ministerial farming and shooting merry-go-round

Remember when the UK had a Ministry for the Environment with a separate Minister? No? That’s hardly surprising because we’ve not had a Secretary of State responsible for just the Environment since John Gummer (now Lord Deben) in 1997 – a Conservative politician who BBC Wildlife magazine described as the “Environment Secretary against which all others are judged“, described by Friends of the Earth as “the best Environment Secretary we’ve ever had“, but is perhaps more widely remembered as the politician who in 1990 at the height of the first BSE outbreak attempted to feed a burger to his four-year-old daughter in front of television cameras.

The ‘environment’ is now bundled within Defra, a vast department ‘responsible’ (in the loosest sense of the term given the appalling decisions made on eg the badger slaughter for the dairy industry and fudging restrictions on the routine burning of the uplands for grouse farmers, the nonsense talked about flood defences, etc) with farming and what is called ‘rural affairs’ (which the National Farmers Union have interpreted largely as theft of farm machinery, broadband, and keeping ‘activists’ – hunt monitors especially – at bay).

Defra was actually created by a Labour politician, Margaret Beckett, in June 2001, when the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) was merged with part of the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) as punishment for mishandling the foot and mouth disease (FMD) crisis which closed down the countryside and ripped through farming in the months earlier. The disease began when contaminated swill fed to pigs at Burnside Farm in Heddon-on-the-Wall wasn’t heat sterilised. In other words, in an all-too-familiar scenario for those of us that follow the ‘badger cull’, FMD took hold because of lax bio-security.

Early holders of the Defra portfolio were if not quite pro-wildlife were at least not exactly hostile to it. Recent holders, though, have largely come from a land-owning, farming background who have voted against proposals to tackle climate change and have often been spectacularly close to hunting and shooting lobbyists. Since 2010 (when the Conservatives took office again) Secretaries of State have included Owen Paterson, a consistent and vocal supporter of fox hunting and notorious climate change sceptic who was sacked by then prime minister David Cameron who feared that Paterson’s ludicrous view that climate change was not a serious problem would cost the Conservative party votes in the 2015 election); and Liz Truss, who has generally voted against measures to prevent climate change and is another vocal supporter for repeal of the Hunting Act; Andrea Leadsom, who has regularly voted against measures to prevent climate change. At least Theresa Villiers, who though she appears to have little interest in the environment outside of airport expansion (she is against) before she was appointed and has generally voted against measures to tackle climate change, did at least change her mind on repeal of the Hunting Act saying in 2017 thatI have changed my mind because I haven’t seen any convincing evidence that the ban on hunting has caused the job losses and economic damage some feared that it would“: at the 2019 Conservative Party Conference, Villiers also set out plans to end live exports of farm animals, ban primates from being kept as pets and for cats to be microchipped (policies that made into the current Animal Welfare Bill).

At the moment we have George Eustice. The rumour mill suggests for not much longer though, as Carrie Johnson apparently thinks that Eustice is too close to the farming lobby (ironically he has received criticism for being too close and (from the NFU) for not being close enough), and is not taking sufficient action on animal welfare. Downing Street hasn’t commented yet, but surely, now, with even world leaders beginning to glimpse how the world might look with runaway climate change and public opinion more strongly against slaughtering protected animals than ever before, if Eustice were to be demoted he would be replaced with someone with genuine environmental credentials?

You’d think, but the most likely candidate appears to be Chief Whip Mark Spencer, MP for Sherwood, who has generally voted against measures to prevent climate change and like many of those named above recently voted not to require ministers to have due regard to the target of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 when taking actions including setting up agricultural subsidy schemes. A farmer, he has almost always voted for slaughtering badgers on behalf of the dairy industry, and has consistently voted for selling England’s state-owned forests.

Continuing an inglorious tradition of Defra’s support for bloodsports, Spencer received a donation ‘in kind’ of one day’s shooting and one night’s accommodation at Hoar Cross Hall Hotel Staffordshire (worth £772), and in 2018 told a rural conference that “shooting should be proud of its contribution to the countryside and the environment. It is a positive story that deserves to be told” – this despite the widely reported wildlife crime underpinning shooting and its environmental impact (from lead shot to burning, flooding, and the release of over 50 million non-native birds every year).

That’s all worth remembering when considering that Defra is the Department that is in charge of the Environment Agency and Natural England and is responsible for British Government policy in the following areas:

(Some policies apply to England alone due to devolution, while others are not devolved and therefore apply to the United Kingdom as a whole.)

If the rumours are true then, in the midst of a biodiversity crisis and the United Nations describing 2021 as “a crucial year in the fight against climate change”, the government department responsible for biodiversity and the environment will be run by a man who generally votes against climate change measures and thinks shooting should be proud of its contribution to the environment.

The same Defra of course which was pilloried by environmentalists just yesterday who said that it had failed to “to set target to halt decline of nature” because recent amendments introduced to the Environment Bill had “fallen far short of the action needed for nature, and has weakened the UK’s position to negotiate a strong global deal for nature and climate action at international talks at G7 and beyond“.

And so the merry-go-round keeps turning…