Richard Benyon: An aristocrat whose enthusiasms have clouded his judgement
Michael McCarthy, formerly the Independent’s longstanding Environment Editor, now its Environment Columnist, is one of Britain’s leading writers on the environment and the natural world. He has won a string of awards for his work, including Environment Journalist of the Year (three times) and Specialist Writer of the Year in the British Press Awards in 2001. In 2007 he was awarded the Medal of the RSPB for “Outstanding Services to Conservation,” in 2010 he was awarded the Silver Medal of the Zoological Society of London, and in 2011 the Dilys Breeze Medal of the British Trust for Ornithology. In 2009 McCarthy published Say Goodbye To The Cuckoo (John Murray), a study of Britain’s declining migrant birds.
Tuesday 29 May 2012
In his Who's Who entry, Richard Benyon, the minister responsible for wildlife, lists two of his interests side by side: conservation and shooting. If ever there were to be a conflict of interest between them, it has just surfaced.
The MP for Newbury since 2005, Mr Benyon, 52, is a scion of a well-known Berkshire landowning and political family: he is the great-great grandson of Lord Salisbury, that most aristocratic of Tory Prime Ministers at the end of the 19th century.
Thus, he is not only a toff: he is as grand a toff as they come, and his CV displays the archetype of the Tory landed gentleman: educated at Bradfield, the well-known Berkshire public school, army service in the Royal Green Jackets, until its amalgamation perhaps the smartest of the infantry regiments, and an estate management degree at the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester, the Oxford for young gentleman farmers. His is the type of Old Tory background David Cameron is none too keen on highlighting. Today, Mr Benyon presides over the Englefield Estate, 20,000 acres of beautiful Berkshire countryside, and you might well expect that with his background, he would enjoy game shooting. The problem is, he has taken his enthusiasm with him into Government, and it is now clashing with his conservation responsibilities. Mr Benyon has not been a bad Wildlife minister: he has made all the right noises on international issues such as the ivory trade, and rhino poaching, and commercial whaling, and fish stocks. But his shooting enthusiasm has clouded his judgement when dealing with wildlife back in Britain.
Keen observers have started to notice that under his tenure, the wildlife part of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has been favouring shooting interests over conservation. For example, in the spring, when Natural England, the Government's wildlife watchdog, was attempting to prosecute the owners of a grouse moor in the Pennines, Walshaw Moor, for damaging protected bogland, Defra – read Mr Benyon – forced it to drop the prosecution. That went largely unnoticed; perhaps it emboldened him. But his extraordinary decision to allow buzzards' nests to be destroyed with shotguns will be noticed, and resented, and challenged, all over Britain. It is a classic case of a minister so blinded by his personal enthusiasms that his political judgement deserts him completely.
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