The tables are turning

credit Doug Waldron_duoFor once it’s not shooters but their detractors, the conservation and welfare organisations, that are getting a kicking in the media, says James Marchington

We shooters tend to assume the media has got it in for us. Of course, that’s not entirely wrong. There’s a predominance of lefty-liberal thinking among newspaper journalists, radio, and TV programme-makers, and such folk tend to start with the presumption that there’s something a bit worrying about people who enjoy owning and using guns at all, never mind using them to kill wildlife.

As a result, you can usually guarantee a minor rash of anti-shooting stories in the ‘silly season’ – the latter part of the summer when hard news stories are thin on the ground and the game season is looming. It’s a time when organisations with an anti-shooting agenda traditionally trot out a few press releases suggesting that giving young people guns turns them into animal abusers and sociopaths, or that tweeded toffs are spreading hen harrier liver pate on their toast.

There’s a distinct change in the climate this year, and I’m not talking global warming. The mood is now one of bashing the conservation and welfare groups. If anything, shooters are coming across as the good guys.

Take the RSPB, for example. In previous years, the bird botherers have made a point of torpedoing the CLA Game Fair with a new claim that gamekeepers are systematically wiping out birds of prey, and the media have lapped it up. Not so this year. Perhaps it’s because that scourge of driven shooters, Mark Avery, has now left the RSPB and at the crucial moment was swanning round the United States researching his new book on the passenger pigeon. Or maybe the bird charity was too busy reinventing itself, complete with a new logo and a TV ad that reputedly cost £2 million.

That change is much more than a rebranding exercise. For some years the RSPB has extended its gaze beyond mere robins and chiffchaffs, and wanted a say in everything to do with the environment. Now it has nailed its colours to the mast, with a whole new look centred around the phrase ‘Nature’s Home’. The move has left traditional RSPB supporters feeling bewildered and sidelined. What does Nature’s Home mean, even? Is the RSPB claiming to be the home of nature? All of it? Are they trying to tell us that nature is at home? Or that nature, like charity, begins at home? That’s the explanation that best fits the new TV ad, a sickly-sweet confection that shows kids making little houses in the garden for bugs and hedgehogs.

A cynic might think that the RSPB’s marketing department has won some internal battle, that the rebranding was driven by recession and falling public support on the one hand, and the popular success of infantile wildlife shows like Springwatch on the other. And the cynic may well be right. Time will tell whether the loss of serious birders is compensated by a flood of new members who confuse wildlife with free-range pets.

That’s nothing compared with the image problems currently faced by another of fieldsports’ old enemies, the RSPCA. That organisation has pursued an increasingly militant animal rights agenda in recent months, together with an aggressive and apparently politically motivated policy of prosecutions. Now they are discovering that, much as the British love animals, they dislike sanctimonious nagging and they hate bullies.

The RSPCA would dearly love to be the official Animal Police. They aren’t, but they act like they are anyway, using police-style ranks and uniforms, cautioning pet owners and seizing animals. The public are thoroughly confused about the RSPCA’s powers, a situation that the charity exploits to its advantage – even though in law it has no powers of arrest, entry or search.

NFor years the media happily let the situation continue, dutifully printing press releases about the latest RSPCA raid on a cruel owner who’d allowed pets or livestock to suffer. But there’s a growing feeling recently that they’ve been getting too big for their boots, and a corresponding rise in media stories questioning both the heavy-handed approach and the political motivation of their high-profi le prosecutions.

At the beginning of August another strongly anti-RSPCA theme burst onto the media scene, after a Freedom of Information request revealed that the charity has privileged access to the Police National Computer.

Carefully targeted FoI requests uncovered that the RSPCA had an 18-page Service Level Agreement with the police – and established that no one was checking or auditing the charity’s use of the highly sensitive data.

Civilians working for the RSPCA could call up information from the police database, obtaining criminal records of people involved in their prosecutions. And they were adding their own information to the database about people they intended to prosecute. It’s a level of access normally reserved for official state bodies such as the Food Standards Agency – and worrying when it involves an organisation that is clearly heading down the route of politically motivated prosecutions.

Playing devil’s advocate for a moment, suppose the RSPCA fancied digging up dirt on some high-profile public figure who supported, let’s say, fox hunting. Could they find themselves tempted to start a spurious prosecution in which that person might be called as a witness, thus justifying a request for everything held about them on the police computer?

ACPO felt it necessary to rush out a statement to reassure us plebs that everything was fine: “The RSPCA has no direct access to records held on the Police National Computer (PNC). In common with other prosecuting bodies, it may make a request for disclosure of records at the stage that a prosecution is brought. This indirect access does not include firearms licensing, vehicle registrations (which are held on other systems to the PNC) or any information the RSPCA does not need in order to prosecute a case at court. This process ensures that the PNC is kept up to date with records of prosecutions conducted by the RSPCA.” Move along, nothing to see here.

Tory MP Simon Hart, former head of the Countryside Alliance, was certainly alarmed by the revelations. He said: “If any other political organisation had access to the PNC there would be widespread public concern. This is an increasingly politically driven animal rights group that is a shadow of its welfare origins. I will be writing to the Home Secretary and Attorney General to seek clarity as to whether any pressure group can have similar access.”

What’s remarkable about all this is not so much what the RSPCA has done, or even that a former head of the Countryside Alliance finds it worrying. We could have guessed all that. It’s the widespread tone of suspicion and even condemnation across the media. If the silly season is going to be marked by attacks on the likes of RSPB and RSPCA instead of gamekeepers and gun owners, then I for one welcome the change.

 

SHOOTING IN THE MEDIA

“It sometimes feels as if the wildlife brigade would prefer that all cattle perished of TB rather than farmers harm one hair on the head of a badger.”

Melissa Kite writing on how bats, untouchable under EU legislation, are causing extensive damage to a Grade I listed medieval church (The Spectator)

“It’d be really good for town and country folk, when they’re at school, to learn more about each other. There’d be a low-level exam. If you fail twice, you’re not allowed to vote.”

Cricketing legend David Gower takes a swipe at townies who are ignorant of countryside issues. (Daily Mail)

“We had 10 double-barrelled guns out, so we fired them all twice and then the first one shot again at the end.”

Bratton village crier Ray Davis explains how he got around the logistical problems of firing a 21-gun salute to mark the birth of Prince George. (This is Wiltshire)

“Blood and feathers were everywhere… What made matters worse was that the incident was witnessed by a coachload of schoolchildren.”

Ben Goldsmith, brother of Tory MP Zac Goldsmith, used his shoe to dispatch a feral pigeon that he ran into on his bicycle in central London (The Telegraph)

“For many people it will be quite astonishing because they are always reading headlines about how grouse, hen harriers and gamekeepers don’t go together. But we have shown that on this occasion they can.”

Dr David Baines, a scientist with the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, talks about the latest research at Langholm Moor (The Scotsman)

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