Dominic Dyer and the Bristol Nats

Chatting with Mark Avery about Wild Justice and Dominic Dyer about – well, loads of things, in the same week? My podcasting cup truly runneth over.

I have a huge amount of regard for both Mark and Dominic. They’re very different individuals of course, but both are intelligent, focussed conservationists. Dominic (we concluded as the sun sunk over the yard arm) has ‘street smarts’. He’s also honed his speaking style so it flows and loops back on itself with nary a hesitation or deviation (if he was on ‘Just a Minute‘ he’d win the round with ease every single time), but still has a great knack of being the ‘everyman’ despite a CV that include high-profile roles in industry, leading marches through London, taking tea with politicians, and steering the Badger Trust through the mass slaughter of what is supposed to be a highly-protected mammal.

Anyway, Dominic and I met up in Bristol, prior to his talk at the AGM of the venerable Bristol Naturalist’s Society (which was founded in 1862 and ‘exists to stimulate a greater awareness of natural history and geology in the Bristol area’). We meet up fairly regularly, and it’s always inspiring and interesting. We set the world to rights, firm up schedules, roll our eyes about the mess politicians have made of Brexit, and bemoan the current lack of opportunities for journalists to write about the environmental issues that we’re both most concerned about.

One ‘schedule’ we are looking at, incidentally, is a series of new conservation/environmental discussion-based podcasts that would look very much like a ‘town hall debate’ with me in the chair.

I have the location, the equipment, and the skills to record and produce the debates and a broad range of contacts who might take part, whilst Dominic has the knowledge to be an expert ‘semi-permanent’ contributor and an even broader range of contacts who would take part solely based on his say-so (at least that’s what we think!). We’re now going to go away and work out the first three or four ‘debates’, contact potential guests, and organise the dates. If that interests you, I’ll post updates right here.

To end this short post I’d like to just reflect on Dominic’s talk, which was on the politics of wildlife protection (and forgive the above photo: Bristol Nats use a church hall in Westbury-on-Trym and I couldn’t help myself).

As I said, Dominic has a remarkably polished speaking style. Using ‘A People’s Manifesto for Wildlife‘ as a prop (and see the photo below), he wound a tale that took in the moon landings, Greta Thunberg, stats on policing costs for the badger cull that were released just thirty minutes before he started talking, the history of pesticides, and the Bristol Nats themselves, without a single ‘er’, ‘like’, ‘you know’, or ‘what I’m trying to say’ in 35 minutes.

Apologies for perhaps seeming to eulogise, but as someone who can’t approach a five-minute introduction without notes, in an abstract ‘observing how things work‘ kind of a way I find it fascinating to watch a skilled proponent like Dominic at work. All the more so because I know for a fact that an hour before he started he really wasn’t sure what he was going to say.

I’ve seen Mark Avery do the same thing. Chris Packham is a remarkably organised speaker too. It’s as if their thoughts and their speech centres are linked so closely they almost function in synchronicity. There are obvious parallels with stand up comedians who hold ninety minutes of well-rehearsed material in their heads but can still make it sound fresh (while having to adapt to interruptions and current events). I’m not sure it’s a skill you can learn. It can be refined but while you and I can get better at ‘delivering speeches’ if we practice, I do believe we’d never get as good at it.

Does that matter? I think so, because I know that many of us question what we can contribute to conservation, what we can do to help the dire situation the planet and its wildlife finds itself in. I’ve beaten myself up (metaphorically of course) many times because I just can’t speak like Dominic, Mark, or Chris. But maybe that’s not my ‘role’ (or yours).

My podcasts are my contribution. If you listen to them I barely feature in them. And that’s deliberate. They’re not supposed to be about me. They’re a platform for the ‘guest’. I want to hear what they think, what they dream of, what they work towards – and when they can’t do it without hesitation or deviation (and very, very few people can) I’ll edit it to make it sound like they can. Of course I’d like to be a charismatic orator – many of us would I guess and I’ll always give my best imitation if I’m asked to try – but that’s not my role. That doesn’t mean though that conservation doesn’t need what I can contribute.

And if you’re also beating yourself up about not being a Dominic, a Mark, or a Chris, please don’t. Discover what you can do, no matter how small or large, how trivial you might think it is, because conservation (desperately) needs whatever you can contribute too…

spreading the message Dominc Dyer style…

Lunch with Mark Avery

I headed across the country from my base in Wiltshire yesterday morning to interview Dr Mark Avery, one of the Directors of the recently-launched Wild Justice.

A visibly non-stressed Mark Avery ponders another tricky question? Possibly, though probably not…

If you’ve not heard of Wild Justice (how about we just call it WJ for the next few paragraphs), it’s a not-for-profit company launched by Mark, Chris Packham, and Ruth Tingay in February this year, with the aim of ‘taking legal cases on behalf of wildlife against public bodies where they are failing to protect species and/or habitats’. Legal action will be funded by public donations and crowdfunding appeals.

On Friday last week (15th March) the WJ team launched their first appeal to raise funds to challenge the casual killing of birds under the abysmal piece of (to quote Ian Thomson, Head of Investigations RSPB Scotland in this podcast from last month) ‘light touch’ legislation known as the General Licence.

And it’s all going rather well!

When I left home at 08:30 the appeal (which needs to collect the rather chunky sum of £36,000!) had raised around £20,000 – in little more than a weekend! By the time I got to Mark at about midday that figure had jumped to more than £26,000 – thanks to an anonymous donation of £5000! (And no, Mark doesn’t know who the mystery benefactor is but to whoever he/she is he says thanks…and actually so do I because along with 900 or so other folk who’ve chipped in everything from a fiver upwards I really want this challenge to go ahead, and a donation like that makes it even more likely to happen).

Incidentally, by that evening it had jumped again….

Anyhow, the upshot of all this generosity is that I found Mark in a more relaxed mood than might have been the case had WJ launched to a subdued mumbling rather than an undeniably positive whooping. Which is fair enough when you put your conservation cred on the line like he, Ruth, and Chris had just done.

I always enjoy having a good chat with Mark by the way, especially when the pressures of Hen Harrier Day, a book launch, a legal challenge to brood meddling etc are essentially off his shoulders. We both know that he is a lot smarter than me (which he’s kind enough not to point out) but that’s never stopped the conversation from flowing.

As a pre-amble to the ‘serious’ interview stuff, we headed out into his back garden. Mark (and you’ll know this if you’ve spent any time with him) has a mischievous sense of humour (put him in a room with Ruth Tingay and it all turns a bit sixth-form rather quickly) and a few mild indiscretions were shared over a rather nice bottle of red (is there anyone Mark doesn’t know from decades spent in conservation? I’ve not found his limits yet.). Even the weather had perked up enough to tempt out a couple of Brimstones, while Red Kites circled slowly overhead. It was a very good morning.

We covered a fair bit of ground (including potential book ideas, Tengmalm’s Owls [have I told you my Spurn Obs/Barry Spence story? Grrr], local ornithology, pragmatism vs dogmatism vs life experiences [the wine may have influenced that a little]) before heading in for a vegan lunch with homemade bread. Very tasty, thanks for making the effort Mark.

Then, on to a pot of coffee and the interview.

Now while I don’t kid myself that my style of interviewing is all that much different to anyone else’s (though the RSPB’s Jeff Knott did say on Twitter that I was ‘unique in air quotes’ recently which may or may not be a good thing), I am always interested in learning the backstory, asking for the information that’s not on the individual’s/organisation’s website (rather than just repeating what a quick Google search would tell us all anyway).

So, I started by asking Mark whether I was correct in thinking that the idea for WJ had developed during the collation of the superb (you’ve not downloaded it yet? Seriously, you must) A People’s Manifesto for Wildlife which Mark, Ruth, and Chris had all been heavily involved in writing.

Was I right*? Well, I’ll be editing the recording today and if you’re interested you can find out soon. I’ll post the link here and in the column to the right.

In the meantime if you’d like to help Wild Justice challenge the casual killing of birds head on over to CrowdJustice.

*Okay, let’s be upfront – the answer is sort of…

‘Badgered To Death’ out loud?

Sometime last year Dominic Dyer, CEO of Badger Trust, and I had a chat about me possibly producing an audio version of his important 2016 book ‘Badgered to Death: The People and Politics of the Badger Cull‘ or BTD (which sounds close enough to ‘battered’ to summarise the way our badgers are treated).

I love the book, Dominic has always supported my podcasting (and we’ve recorded a number of podcasts about the badger cull together), so I figured I’d give it a go. I took a week’s holiday and tried several many times to get a handful of chapters recorded to a standard that I was happy with.

It’s not something I’ve tried before (and it takes way longer than I’d anticipated) but after many stumbles I ended up with recordings of ten chapters. I edited them down and sent three mp3 files to Dominic. He said he liked them, he talked about writing an extra chapter as an ‘update’ – and we both promptly forgot all about them as we realised we had nowhere to put them.

Now of course I have a new blog, with a new mp3 player plug in, and three audio files sat on a computer doing nothing.

Which is kind of a waste really…

So here is an embed of me reading ‘A Disease of Cattle‘, Chapter Three of Dominic Dyer’s ‘Badgered To Death’.

What do you think? Would you listen to more of the book if I recorded more of it? Saying yes doesn’t imply an obligation to actually listen to another word, and conversely saying ‘stick to the day job mate’ won’t upset me so go ahead, be honest…

Dr Mark Avery and Wild Justice

On Monday 18th I’ll be heading to a meeting with Dr Mark Avery to record a podcast about Wild Justice.

Now if you normally thinkred grouse, inglorious, sodden 570, blog, avuncular with razor sharp mind etc‘ when you hear Mark’s name, but not Wild Justice that’s possibly because you haven’t heard about it yet (though if you’re reading this chances are high that you have, besides which the UK’s shooters seem to be doing their best to give WJ as much free publicity as they could possibly need for which I’m sure WJ are very grateful).

Just in case the cheers/wailing of the nation’s wildlife enthusiasts/wildlife criminals hasn’t reached you yet, Wild Justice is a not-for-profit company launched by Mark, Chris Packham, and Ruth Tingay on the 13th of February this year, with the aim of ‘taking legal cases on behalf of wildlife against public bodies where they are failing to protect species and/or habitats’. Legal action will be funded by public donations and crowdfunding appeals.

This powerhouse trio have been conservationists for decades but have become ever-more vocal on issues around wildlife crime and the law, and all three have come out swinging .

To quote from the Wild Justice website:

“It’s a shame that we have to do this but we have little confidence that statutory bodies are fulfilling their functions properly. We aim to hold their feet to the fire in court”. – Mark Avery

Wild Justice provides an opportunity for ordinary citizens to fight back on behalf of wildlife, collectively helping us to challenge poor decisions or flawed policies that threaten to harm our wildlife.” – Ruth Tingay

The message is clear…if you are breaking the law, if the law is weak, if the law is flawed – we are coming for you.” – Chris Packham

Wild Justice have just this week launched their first legal challenge, and it’s a magnificent first case to bring – they are challenging the casual killing of birds under the abysmal piece of (to quote Ian Thomson, Head of Investigations RSPB Scotland in this podcast from last month) ‘light touch’ legislation known as the General Licence.

The General Licence is one of the most ridiculous excuses for getting around proper legislation that actually protects wildlife (think the Wildlife and Countryside Act for example) currently on the statute books. While I’m loathe to even hint at contradicting Ian Thomson, I think he was being slightly politic to describe the General Licence as ‘light touch’ – it’s more of a ‘hands off, do what you like, here’s your excuse, they’re just crows and pigeons nobody cares about them’ wink and a nod piece of virtual paper that is metaphorically wielded by far too many people who simply call everything they don’t like ‘vermin’ and can’t be bothered to try and live alongside the wildlife we’ve inevitably moved in on top of. Other opinions are available etc, but that’s mine…

And while Wild Justice uses far more temperate language (as befits two remarkable scientists and an equally remarkable conservationist who are planning to challenge a government agency), they (again) come out swinging.

To quote WJ’s crowdfunding page:

“The statutory agency Natural England allows the unlimited killing of a wide variety of bird species under a series of ‘General Licences’ which are published at the start of each year. Birds such as Carrion Crows, Rooks, Magpies, Woodpigeons, Jackdaws, Jays and Ring-necked Parakeets can be killed without applying for a licence, without having to justify why the action is necessary, without having to explain why alternative non-lethal measures such as scaring or proofing are ineffective or impracticable, and without having to report on how many birds are killed. All a person needs to do to ‘qualify’ to kill unlimited numbers of these birds is to claim to have read and understood the relevant General Licence.

Wild Justice believes this system is unlawful despite the fact that it has been in existence for decades and has ‘authorised’ the casual killing of millions of birds. We contend that it is the licensing authority’s (Natural England’s) legal responsibility to satisfy itself that killing these birds is an appropriate last resort. However, in the General Licences issued on 1 January 2019 Natural England ducks its responsibility and instead places the decision-making completely in the hands of the General Licence user. “

I always enjoy talking with/interviewing Mark, though I do find the experience somewhat daunting if I’m honest. He’s just so darn smart…bring your ‘A game’ or stay at home!

And he’s remarkably good at getting me to buy his books too (that’s my tenner in the image above) – which, to be honest, isn’t that much of a hardship as he’s not written a bad one yet…

So, as things stand I’ll record the interview Monday and have it online by Wednesday at the latest. In the meantime if you’d like to support the crowdfunding (which just a day after it opened has reached a remarkable £11,754 as of 10:20am Saturday 16th) here’s that link again

And if you’d like to read something really erudite about this challenge, have a look at the wonderful Patrick Barkham‘s piece in The Guardian from yesterday.