Ian Gregory Is the lobbyist behind You Forgot The Birds, and a self-confessed townie who adores the RSPB because they give him the excuse to do what he loves best – argue.
On the day that the media is full of stories about the RSPB using Larsen traps for predator control, and one of its wardens calling the charity’s supporters ‘knuckleheads’ for disagreeing with the practice, Ian, the man behind that press release and many others, discusses how he got involved and what is it like being at the heart of the traditional 12 August media bunfight.
“I got a tap on the shoulder from some grouse moors,” Ian explains, “they were concerned that the RSPB’s constant media assaults on gamekeepers were going unanswered. I was asked to start to bat the ball across the other side of the net. I started by examining the unreported failings of the RSPB. That led to the creation of the You Forgot the Birds website – a name that was a bit too close to the truth for the RSPB. It was quickly followed by an article which I worked on with Sir Ian Botham: a double page spread in the Mail on Sunday in 2014 called seven scandals at the RSPB. Their reaction was priceless. Unaccustomed to being on the receiving end of reasoned criticism, the charity went into complete panic.”
Mike Clarke, the Ceo of the RSPB, responded by giving over the whole front page of his website to an opus denouncing the article – ensuring that anyone who hadn’t read the Mail on Sunday was fully aware that there was a critical viewpoint of the RSPB developing.
Ian continues: “I want to make sure the grouse moors get a say in this debate, a say that they didn’t have four years ago. Then, the RSPB with its massive income and 2,000 staff had an effective veto over government policy. Ministers did not want to upset an organisation that constantly reminded them that it had one million members. over the past four years the relentless exposées of the RSPB’s underbelly in the media means that the government is much more confident in ignoring the RSPB. For example policy on brood management for hen harriers, has been made with the RSPB sulking in the corner.”
“I’m a very unlikely pugilist for the uplands. I had heard there was something called the countryside, but living in the centre of Belgravia I don’t see any hills and the skies above are populated by pigeons and planes. Sensing my ignorance the owners took me under their wing, up to their moors for some grouse shooting.
“Afterwards I expressed my thanks to the owner who had shared his guns for that drive, and said my gratitude to him was only exceeded by that of the grouse! so I can’t shoot birds. but I can take down a dodgy argument at 1000 yards. I delight in keeping a cool head in the middle of passionate disagreements.” one of the most contentious points of Ian’s position is gearing up to face the backlash from the Glorious Twelfth. He explains: “It’s more a question of creating a larder of stories in the knowledge that the media will have a greater appetite in the run up to the 12th.
“There are gamekeepers who can look at the sky and tell you what the weather will be in 12 hours’ time, they can see something that a townie like myself will never be able to see. I’ve got a highly developed nose for what would work as a story and will regularly work silly hours when a good story comes my way.
“More recently, when my colleagues were having a glass of wine after work one of them mentioned a tweet from a RSPB warden. He had accused some bird activists of being “knuckleheads” for criticising the RSPB’s increasing use of Larsen traps for controlling crows. “Knucklehead” is a glorious word and I was intrigued. but the story was even better because the warden had clearly been leant on by the RSPB press office as the following day he had tweeted an apology. It started with the immortal words “I am the true knucklehead”.
“It meant another late but worthwhile shift, as I become the midwife to a screaming row between the RSPB and these activists. It was heard on some of the BBC’s biggest programmes as well as in the major newspapers.”
As a former journalist, Ian has a knack for spotting individual stories, with an eye on the meta-narrative. “There is a psycho drama in which charities see themselves as the “rescuers” of “victims”. The charities seek to co-opt activists and donors into being co-rescuers. And to do that they need to have cast someone as the “villain”. In the upland version of this drama triangle grouse moors have historically been cast as the villain – nature’s persecutor up against “nature’s voice”.
This helps explain the strategy of personalisation with hen harriers to help grow activist engagement in the drama. While we are not shy of accepting that grouse moors do make mistakes, we will readily recast the RSPB in the role of the persecutor. “That happens every time we demonstrate that the RSPB’s reserves are underperforming at breeding birds.”
The RSPB is belatedly playing catch-up with its use of Larsen traps and Ian argues that it deserves be taking criticism from activists having long castigated grouse moors for predator control. “Today the RSPB is being re-categorised by activists as being a “persecutor. The RSPB hates that attack,” he adds. “No more can it escape the complexities of managing nature by pretending that it doesn’t do predator control. That’s because we are repeatedly exposing the underperformance of its reserves which appear to be ecological ‘sinks’.”
While the media is generally receptive to the stories Ian sends them he has found some publications more difficult to work with. “I’ve had some interesting struggles with the Guardian, the Observer, and the Independent in keeping things out,” he explains.
“Part of my work is serving up on a plate a ready-cooked story with a lot of sourcing behind it – meticulous sourcing – and a narrative that I’ve made as simple as I can. The rest of my work is putting sand in the machine and slowing it down. Having worked in a lot of newsrooms as a journalist, I know there are a lot of stories floating around that could go into a paper, into a broadcast programme. So in my defensive work my job is to figure out how we can make the story which my clients don’t want in the press fit into the ‘too difficult to deal with’ category. It’s great fun. Keeping things out is at least as difficult as getting things in – and neither are easy!”
Ian attended Brasenose College, Oxford, in the 1980’s alongside one of the Guardian’s firebrands, George Monbiot, the self-appointed high priest of rewilding and cheerleader for eco-activists.
“Since 1985 the trajectories of our lives have sent us in different directions. Two years ago the Guardian published a couple of hit jobs. George described my agency Abzed as being ‘how the rich purchase results.’ I use that quote in my marketing material. thank you, George!
“After his article I took the opportunity of reminding the Guardian about its codes of practice. Since I had two hit articles against me, didn’t this mean I had a right to reply? A lot of phone calls later and the Guardian stopped making excuses and gave me an online column. The result was Guardian readers enjoying an unexpected insight into the eco-case for grouse moors. and my very first death threat.”
However Ian argues that we are moving towards the industry being more considerate, the RSPB being more thoughtful, and activists rapidly being shunted into a corner. “My advice to those working on grouse moors is to converse with those who are genuinely concerned and who are open to real conversation. Yet the pathologically angry should be ignored. don’t fuel their self-righteousness by engaging them on twitter,” he argues.
2018 has not been a good year for grouse, but it has been an encouraging one for those yearning for a more considerate countryside. The grouse moor industry is becoming wiser – witness the 21 hen harriers fledging on english grouse moors; 21 more than last year. the RSPB is also becoming wiser, as Ian explains: “It knows that it has to do more predator control if it is not to be annually embarrassed on wader conservation results by grouse moors.
“This direction of travel could leave the perpetually angry activists increasingly isolated. Those who have been driving the RSPB’s policy through social media will become fringe elements. Within the RSPB, as well as DEFRA, pragmatists will start to dominate.
“You Forgot the Birds has taken on the ideologues through the media. since we arrived there have been no free hits against grouse moors. More recently we have also adopted the mantra that ‘our enemy’s enemy needs our help’. As the resulting activist- on-activist fight continues we’ll see a much more relaxing time for the grouse moors.”
Ian concludes: “The optimist in me sees that we are closing in on sensible discussion on how nature should be managed. that could be firmly established by 2020, unless we have Prime Minister Corbyn. Building a strong media consensus on the ecological and economic advantages of grouse moors is the best way to future proof the sport against that scenario.”