Matt Cross – A review of the current fieldsports climate

Matt Cross

Matt Cross

A freelance fieldsports journalist and Shooting Times contributor based in a tiny village in the South West of Scotland. His writing focusses on key countryside issues and he runs his own blog 'Countryside Controversial'. In his monthly guest blogs for BASC, Matt comments on Wild Justice and the current climate surrounding fieldsports in the UK.

I am almost a professional Wild Justice watcher. As a journalist and blogger, I have probably written more about them than anyone else. I knew them when they were just an entry on Companies House with their paperwork all in a mess, and I have watched their every move since. Despite all this, I was wrong about them.

When Chris Packham said at the time of their launch: “This is about crime”, I believed him. So far, however, it has been about something a lot less sexy – ‘administrative law’ or ‘lawfare’, as it is otherwise known. This is the use of legal action in an attempt to disrupt, tie up resources and generally cause bother. I doubt they think they can knock out shooting with one legal punch, instead they intend to wear down our willingness and ability to fight.

Their current legal challenge on the environmental impact of releasing gamebirds is an example. If they succeed, it will actually be of little significance, the government and a small number of shooting operators may have to do some additional paperwork. That’s it. Yet by the apoplexy it has caused, you would think shooting was teetering on the brink of catastrophe.

That is what they want. They want panic and confusion, they want anger so that people do stupid things. They want us to deny obvious truths, because admitting them is breaking with the team and they want us to refuse to change because ‘we mustn’t give them an inch’.

Their plan is to lock us all in a cycle of nonsense and backwardness that makes us look ridiculous – with the inevitable consequence that we fracture and fight among ourselves. The key place Wild Justice work is not in court or the press, but in the minds of the shooting community.

There are five things we need to do to defeat their plan; be calm, stick together, develop our own activists, move with the times and behave ourselves.

Calmness is essential. When their next thing comes along, look at the detail of the challenge, not the grandstanding headlines. Both of their challenges have been far more limited than they appeared and far easier to deal with. The first was seen off with a paperwork exercise by DEFRA, the second will probably go the same way. Undoubtedly annoying and disruptive, but hardly a cause for panic.

Shooting has powerful, well-organised lobby groups. The organisations are essential. Small groups can make large organisations look foolish and slow to react, that comes from the way different sizes of organisations work. But they are powerful groups with serious resources. Should any of these challenges ever come to court, those resources will tell. I have no doubt that a significant part of the Wild Justice plan is to sheer off chunks of the membership of those organisations in order to reduce their resources and political clout.

It is like a speedboat and a frigate. The speedboat can dart in and cause chaos, before the frigate is even heading in the right direction. But when it comes to the crunch the frigate will win. Unless half her crew has jumped overboard in terror convinced that their captain is useless and that their ship will be sunk.

Alongside those organisations, we need our own activists. People who can move as fast in their decision making as Wild Justice and who can take the risks that big organisations cannot. Not placard wavers; instead, smart people who understand social media and know how to use the law. I would also love to see pro-shooting activists challenging wildlife criminals in the way anti-shooting activists have, while being clear they are doing it to protect shooting.

It is essential that shooting does not get locked into a mindset of opposing everything Wild Justice says – just because they say it. We must tackle our own problems and continue to change as society changes. The last of the wildlife crimes associated with shooting must be eradicated. We must ‘own’ that problem, deal with it and take it away from our critics. Denying it, trying to hide from it or flat lying about it has got us into a shocking mess.

But this is not just about crime. When our actions harm the environment, we must change. When the environmental effect is unknown, we must study it and act based on the science. If we don’t, we will hand Wild Justice another set of sticks with which to beat us.

It is important to preserve shooting as an opportunity for human fulfilment and environmental benefit, not to pickle it exactly as it is now.

Finally, please behave. When Wild Justice brought their general licence challenge, we had them. In the media they were the people who let crows kill lambs and pigeons decimate crops. Given a few more days of it, I doubt they would have survived as an organisation. Then, somebody decided to hang a couple of Jackdaws on Chris Packham’s gate.

That gave him all the space he needed to switch the narrative; it stopped being a discussion about the harm he had done, instead it became one on primetime national TV about how he was being bullied by the ‘lawless shooting community’. It was a pointless own goal.