There is a fascinating possible explanation for the abruptness of the Government's U-turn last week over plans to fund £350,000 of research into controlling our native buzzards by destroying their nests. Every year, the buzzards eat some of the 35 million pheasants reared and then released into the countryside by shooting estates.
The volte-face on this issue was forced by a public outcry, but it is possible that its sheer suddenness was also related to the revelation the previous day in The Independent – something I previously had missed – of David Cameron's closeness to the shooting community. Mr Cameron has been a regular shooter in the past, and this would obviously make it very embarrassing for him to be questioned about the nest-destruction plan in the Commons, as would surely have happened after the recess. But his links to shooting also prompt some other thoughts.
In January 2009, in the run-in to the general election, Mr Cameron sacked his then Shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, Peter Ainsworth. Ainsworth, a civilised nature-lover who now chairs the wildflower conservation charity Plantlife, was liked by conservationists, and many of us looked forward to working with him if, as we believed, there would soon be a Conservative government. His removal from the team shadowing the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) came as a shock.
He was replaced by Nick Herbert, a spikier character who had been the PR director for the British Field Sports Society, one of the organisations which merged to form The Countryside Alliance. (The Alliance was "bitterly disappointed" last week over the buzzard change of mind.)
In the event, the general election result brought about the Coalition, and, in the concomitant shuffling of positions, Herbert did not go to Defra, but instead to the Home Office as a Minister of State. Yet had this not happened, the government department responsible for the protection of wildlife would have had, under a shooting-friendly Prime Minister, a shooting–friendly Secretary of State, in Mr Herbert, in charge of the current Minister of State, James Paice, (a keen shooter) and the Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Richard Benyon (a pheasant shooter and grouse moor owner).
Might this have been what Cameron intended when he sacked Peter Ainsworth? Defra's buzzard-control plan seemed wrong-headed to many of us. Why should a native species be controlled just because it eats a non-native gamebird before the shooting season opens? But when this plan is advanced by a department with more than its fair share of shooting ministers, then people start wondering whether this is "fair game"or "foul".
Dr Mark Avery, a former Conservation Director of the RSPB, blogs daily on UK conservation matters
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