Gallery: Chris Packham canvasses support to get wildlife crime on the wane

Hen harrier chicks at a nest - the species has become a symbol of UK bird of prey protection efforts

Hen harrier chicks at a nest - the species has become a symbol of UK bird of prey protection efforts. - Credit: PA

A top naturalist and TV presenter really got to the art of the matter in his fight against illegal bird and animal persecution - and used a Constable masterpiece to make his point

Naturalist and TV presenter Chris Packham peers through a hole in the copy of Constables The Hay Wa

Naturalist and TV presenter Chris Packham peers through a hole in the copy of Constables The Hay Wain he destroyed to make a point about lost national treasures at the recent Birders Against Wildlife Crime conference at Buxton, Derbyshire. - Credit: Archant

Chris Packham’s anger had been simmering throughout his keynote address to a conference on illegal wildlife persecution in the UK – and it exploded in a frenzied finale as he destroyed a copy of perhaps the most famous painting ever to depict a Suffolk scene.

A mysterious, shrouded easel had been placed in front of conference delegates and the gathered campaigners were at first baffled, then bemused and finally inspired.

Naturalist and TV presenter Packham deftly removed the shroud to reveal a copy of John Constable’s 1821 masterpiece The Hay Wain.

Ominously, out came the cans of spray paint. The scene near Flatford was “too cluttered”, said Packham, as he obliterated the famous cart and much of the rest of the work in a blur of orange, black and blue.

The peregrine that was found to be suffering gunshot wounds when it was discovered near Long Melford

The peregrine that was found to be suffering gunshot wounds when it was discovered near Long Melford and which helped prompt the establishment an East Anglian raptor campaign. - Credit: Archant

Then, menacingly, out came the knife. The canvass was slashed time and again before a final flourish –what was left of the work was smashed with all Packham’s might onto the floor.

It was a dramatic way to get a point across, but it left delegates at the Eyes in the Field conference organised by the burgeoning Birders Against Wildlife Crime movement in no doubt about Packham’s passion, even if some were clearly stunned by the performance. Representatives of the Suffolk-based Campaign Against Raptor Persecution were at the meeting in Buxton, Derbyshire, along with nature conservationists from many organisations from across Britain.

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Packham explained to them: “The Hay Wain is seen as one of our greatest national treasures – if I had done that (destroy it) to the real thing I would have hung myself and I would not even have waited to be tried. And yet that is happening every single day with one of our national treasures around the UK. We are being robbed of them.”

He was referring to Britain’s wildlife “national treasures” – especially birds of prey which are particularly close to his heart – that he said are being illegally shot, poisoned, trapped and clubbed to death in the countryside.

“We are here because we love wildlife,” he told the delegates. “We love wildlife but we do not like injustice. People ‘getting away with it’ really gets under our skin and people have been getting away with it (wildlife crime) for a long time and they continue to get away it.

“All manner of things have drawn us here today but the single most important thing is that we are angry. If you are clever you can use anger as a fuel – you can use it as a great force for creative change,” he said.

“Wildlife crime’s biggest problem is that it is often not seen as a crime. In the eyes of other people it is still not seen as a truly criminal act.”

He called for all wildlife offences to be made “notifiable crimes” – with police forces being required to notify the Home Office of the annual numbers of such incidents in their areas.

When prosecutions were made, said Packham, magistrates meted out punishment that “never fits the crime” – the law did not always offer them such a punishment – and wildlife crime was often underplayed in the media.

“Very occasionally British wildlife crime comes to the fore,” he said. “We have the power to bring it to the fore and we have the power to change the way the public sees it.

“The media is our interface and the public is our ambition. We must increase the public’s affinity and make them see what we can see and then they will value wildlife and then they will fight for it. We have got to empower people to make a difference. People feel as if they can do nothing about it and disempowerment is dangerous and demoralising.”

The species that appeared to raise Packham’s anger the most, and which featured in the immediate build-up to his Hay Wain destruction, was the hen harrier.

The plight of the species in Britain is the most contentious specific issue in UK bird of prey conservation and was one of the prime factors in the conference being organised. The species has virtually disappeared from the upland moors of England, with persecution by the grouse shooting industry being blamed by many naturalists.

The conference was organised in response to wildlife crime in general and featured speeches that covered subjects as diverse as badger-baiting and bat disturbance.

It followed recent high-profile wildlife crime incidents, some of which have led to prosecutions, including those of gamekeepers and, in Scotland – under its law of vicarious liability – a landowner. And it came at a time when a conservationists’ campaign is being mounted in a bid to ban the practice of driven grouse shooting – in which the birds are flushed towards guns.

Derbyshire’s Police and Crime Commissioner Alan Charles told the conference it was not only hen harriers that were suffering from illegal persecution.

In the area for which he had responsibility, peregrines and goshawks were also “all but extinct” around the Peak District grouse moors. “I think that is shameful,” he said.

His county’s police force was taking wildlife crime “very seriously indeed” and it involved 18 wildlife crime officers across three police divisions, two forensic wildlife crime scene investigators, a superintendent with overall responsibility, a full-time wildlife crime co-ordinator and police service volunteers.

Derbyshire North MP Chris Williamson told delegates: “Birders Against Wildlife Crime have got those who want to abuse our wildlife really on the ropes.”

Conservationist Mark Avery, perhaps the most prominent voice in the movement to ban driven grouse shooting, said the practice offered “benefits for the few at the expense of the many.” It had only “trivial economic value” to the areas in which it took place and was environmentally damaging in many ways.

Charlie Moores, one of the conference organisers, said there were two main messages delegates should take away – the need for ever-increased vigilance in the countryside and the importance of reporting to police and at least one other wildlife agency any suspected wildlife crime that was witnessed.

“We should not be vigilantes but we should be vigilant,” he said.

Dialogue the key as group seeks working relationship with estates

An East Anglian campaign that aims to beat illegal bird of prey persecution by enlisting the help of the region’s game-shooting estates is entering a “crucial stage”, one of the movement’s founders has said.

The Campaign Against Raptor Persecution (CARP) is offering to work with the estates in “unity rather than opposition,” Suffolk naturalist Steve Piotrowski said.

“We want the estates to know that we are definitely not against shooting – it is perfectly legal – but we want to see an end to the illegal persecution of raptors,” said Mr Piotrowski, who represented CARP at Birders Against Wildlife Crime’s recent Eyes in the Field conference in Derbyshire.

“There was one high-profile court case involving an East Anglian gamekeeper only recently and there have been other prosecutions in other parts of Britain, but we realise that such crimes do not take place on every estate and we want the law-abiding ones to stand up with us to show that raptor persecution is illegal and cannot be tolerated,” he said.

“Our campaign is about to enter a crucial stage and it is important that we keep the dialogue open. We will be sending invitations to shooting estates to sign up to our Raptor- Friendly Estate code of practice but, before we do this, we are speaking to some prominent figures to get a feeling as to how such an initiative will be received. We would like landowners to sign up to the code but there is room for manoeuvre, so this will be the topic of our discussions.”

A logo designed by East Bergholt ornithologist and artist Ed Keeble was CARP’s “proud emblem” and would be made available to participating landowners as car stickers.

“If the stickers appear on the windscreens of gamekeepers’ vehicles throughout East Anglia we can say that we are half way to achieving our aims,” added Mr Piotrowski.

CARP, which has Norfolk-based nature writer Simon Barnes as its patron, was established after recent wildlife crimes in East Anglia, including the shooting of a peregrine falcon found wounded near Long Melford.

Its aims include the encouragement of landowners to make it clear to staff and shooters that law-breaking will not be tolerated and for landowners not to pay fines on behalf of those convicted of any wildlife crime on their land. It seeks to encourage landowners to be members of responsible organisations such as the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) and the National Gamekeepers’ Association.

It also urges landowners to ensure that chemicals and poisons are managed in accordance with regulations and to provide good-quality training and guidance to staff on what is acceptable on a Raptor-Friendly Estate.

BASC has told the EADT it condemns any wildlife crime and wants law enforcement agencies to do everything in their power to help it “stamp this practice out” as it had “no place in the modern world of shooting.”

The CLA, which represents landowners, farmers and rural businesses, also said it condemns all wildlife crime. Suffolk Police said it took all reports of wildlife crime seriously. It added: “We work closely with other agencies when incidents of wildlife crime are reported to us and will always ensure they are investigated.”