Conversations with Peter Melchett: Farmer, Campaigner, Politician

Peter Melchett in his orchard, May 2018

I interviewed Peter Melchett in May and July 2018, at Courtyard Farm, where he lived in Norfolk (he died in August 2018).  My daughter Amazon Rose transcribed the tapes and I’ve edited them somewhat to try and group the topics. Unfortunately as two old codgers reminiscing about events over past deacdes, our discussions were somewhat rambling.

However some of what follows may be of interest to the many people Peter worked with, and it focuses mainly on his abiding concerns about the environment, organic farming, pesticides, politics and conservation, as well touching on his time in Northern Ireland.  Peter was particularly saddened by the the failure of conservation and environment movement to act effectively against the growing onslaught of farm chemicals on nature.

(I also wrote about my own perspective on his time at Greenpeace here, and his obituary in The Guardian here). : Peter Melchett,  C: Chris Rose

Private Eye

[satirical British magazine – above cover featuring Mandy Rice-Davies, involved in the Profumo scandal]

C: Cass [Peter Melchett’s partner, Cass Wedd] told me that when she first knew you or when you were both very young that you were an avid collector of Private Eye information, did that influence your attitude to..

P: (laughs) Very young at school. Yeah I think it did…

C: … how it actually worked rather than ideological, I mean its not exactly a source of political theory.

P: Well, bear in mind that I’d been brought up you know typical upper class privately educated boarding school, Eton, and it’s at Eton that I came across Private Eye.

I’ve no idea why or how and I subscribed to it, and my house master, you know we lived in houses, 50, 60 ,70 boys of all ages. He was a sort of terribly conflicted liberal conservative, who sort of believed in free speech and letting boys have access to all sorts of opinions and things but couldn’t get it out of his head that Private Eye was somehow terribly subversive if not communist but he let me subscribe to it, quite surprising: Archie Nicholson nice basically decent man. I think looking back on it, prompted by your questions probably it taught me an irreverence … to see that politicians were people capable of not being respected of lying, of bending the truth, and the establishment generally. It’s that undermining of accepted the deference that the established is owed, which upper class people certainly were brought up by which I think I lost.

Partly that, partly the Keeler scandal.  Quite influential and undermining. Cabinet Ministers, lying to House of Commons and things like that. Also being at Eton, and seeing some of that sort of lying to gain or keep power in practice in the boys, because it was quite a pupil-centred sort of system of running the school where you had these houses of about 70 kids, Captain of the House who had a lot of disciplinary power, including to beat people, and then a group around him, I’ve forgotten all these fancy names, I think they were all called the library?  And there was another committee underneath them. So it was all structured to teach boys to run things..

C: Successfully?

P: Yes successfully, and I certainly came across a sort of blatant case of somebody in a vote, claiming somebody had voted one way when they had voted another and they’d gone to London so they couldn’t check, just a flat out lie to win the election.

C: Did Boris go to Eton?

P: I can’t remember, one of those sorts of schools.

C: It’s that sort of, he’s an extreme example. The willingness to think it doesn’t matter if you make things up.

P: A more open example, not necessarily more extreme.

C: No, but extreme in his openness. The fact that he gets away with it because of the other things that people like about him and tolerate. I remember Private Eye being one of the things when I was young that showed you that it wasn’t just, it showed you that there was duplicity in lying and all that sort of thing. But what it also showed you that there was a whole layer of people or a whole network, networks of people in society who knew all about these things, because it was all about hinting at things that lots of other people knew without saying some of it because of libel or whatever. This was where these people were sort of privy to a different version of what was going on in the society from what you could get by just reading newspapers of watching the television. Which I think probably did effect quite a few people who became campaigners.

P: Yeah, no I think it did have that affect on me.

Newspaper photo – from the Ramblers Association

Family Roots

C: What was the first NGO you were involved in?

P: Probably WWF as a trustee on the allocations committee.

C: So you got, your father was a farmer, and you …

P: and an industrialist.

C: Yeah, and you come from a family with roots in industrial business and science. You’d got involved with an NGO and seen the sort of internal political machinery of giving money and getting money.

P: and the Duke of Edinburgh trying to stop them from doing anything to do with people (both laugh).

C: And you’d been involved with the Labour Party which meant that you were interacting with people from across all social economic segments.  From Eton down to DE whatever, and you’d been a Government Minister and seen you know so that’s an extraordinary range of experiences and I just wondered you know how … Looking at the people who go to work in these campaign groups and NGOs, how much they understand or what sorts of things they need to understand and do or don’t – if you had to make …

Academic Qualifications in Campaign Groups

P: good question. I remember at Greenpeace, being really gobsmacked at the increase in the level of academic and other qualifications that people who applied for jobs had in the 15 years I was involved.

C: which was from which year to which?

P: From 85-2001.  Initially being, well for all the time if I’m honest, seeing that as a sign of success. But now as I get older and grumpier, and you see these very highly qualified people, coming to the Soil Association, which also attracts incredibly good people, including some who have been in industry and decided they want a more enlightened and moral job to do. But you do tend to get the feeling they’re very well qualified, they’re very good interviewees, they can write a brilliant synopsis or whatever the job is you’re asking them to do, but their passion and determination … ? I remember Elaine Lawrence [Greenpeace Campaigns Director] always used to drive our HR people crazy, by saying “you can tell if somebody’s going to be a good campaigner and its nothing to do with anything written down or anything measurable, its a gut feeling”.

“very bright indeed and very knowledgable, and incredibly naive about power.  Down to very simple things like assuming things you send to a Government Minister will be read by the Minister”

P: Yeah there are people who you feel will stand up and be counted, and if they get thwarted will find a way round it … And don’t accept things at face value, and we get people you know I can think of one or two who’ve been at the Soil Association when I have, who are very bright indeed and very knowledgable, and incredibly naive about power.  Down to very simple things like assuming things you send to a Government Minister will be read by the Minister. (guffaws)

One of the things you taught me, quite early on I remember, you know Greenpeace was very print heavy, … do you remember … saying what you should do is not ask people if they’ve read the magazine but where they put it when they read it?  The other thing I remember you told us to do and we did I think, was to ask people what story they remembered, and they almost always remembered something from about 8 years previously which probably hadn’t been in a magazine for about 6 years but had been in the press or telly, a whaling thing or something. To try and get that sort of sense of what it’s like in the real world, what ordinary people actually take in and remember, and what affects them, and who affects them.

This idea that you win arguments through argument, rather than because your brother in law tells you  something they heard or your sister or your mum or whatever it is, a friend at work

P: experts but naive experts!

C: Yeah naive experts, but people who’ve come up through local politics, very local politics especially, seem to me … if then they get involved with campaigning at a bigger level, they realise that all politics is basically the same social interactions it doesn’t matter if its at the framework convention on climate change or the..

P: if they can leave the local behind them. Some people get stuck there, come and work for a national NGO, and their only really interested in what Bristol* City Council will or won’t say in a debate next week and thats pretty frustrating. [* the Soil Association is based in Bristol]

He Had This Trick

C: Yeah, but I mean as a sort of crucible of learning experience, and of course the same person can be in the same organisation doing the same job and learn a lot about one can learn a lot about how to get people to do things and the other one learns nothing. So it is about people.

Do you remember John Grey at Media Natura?  He used to run a design company but he was incredibly good, he wasn’t really a designer, he had a load of brilliant designers, he was incredibly good at explaining communications to his clients. I learnt a lot from John.

One thing he did was to teach visual language, like how things work visually, where he’d get the managing director of a new client to come see him and then he’d get all these bottles and he’d pick wine because they tended to like wine, and he’d put the same wine in all the bottles, and then the designers would design different labels on the bottles, and they’d have a wine tasting.  So first of all you ask them, looking at them, how much they thought they cost, and what the wine would be like, and what the person selling it would be like and making it. And he got them to taste them and they’d give long erudite analyses of what they could taste and they were all exactly the same thing.

Of course after that he got permission to do things otherwise about the brand or something. The other thing he said, I remember I was on a panel with him and WWF has asked us to help recruit some campaigners, we’d been interviewing all these people who all had long strings of qualifications of whom most obviously were never going to be very useful as campaigners, and he looked at me and said “the thing about campaigners is to be a campaigner you’ve got to want to act up” I thought “yep you’re right”.

“An Historic Mistake” On Climate Change

P: Looking back at it we were terribly pleased to recruit Jerry Leggett as our first scientist at Greenpeace and he did amazing things.  We got, it did us the climate campaign in Greenpeace a lot of good, particularly the sceptics in Greenpeace about whether the climate change was real or not.  It gave us all sorts of things but, there’s no doubt in my mind looking back at it, that as a movement it was a historic mistake to follow the agenda of the state, the government and successive governments and the establishment scientific and economic, into a scientific framing of what we were trying to achieve.

So although I think recruiting Jerry and Sue Mayer afterwards, was good for Greenpeace, we were so on the fringe of being, so far away from being seen as scientific, it probably was right …


C: What did you most enjoy about working at Greenpeace?

P: Hmm. Awful lot of it really.

C: The other two questions – do you have a favourite campaign and do you have a stand out moment from your time at Greenpeace?

P: Quite a few and one of them was in that Shell boardroom with you. When you said that three people I think we met, their salaries would be more than Greenpeace UKs total income, and they were all total doof balls (laughs) that was weird.

C: Apart from the Dutch guy [actually, Swiss], who sat there saying “I warned them”. (Both chuckle).

P: So undoubtedly, the Brent Spar, was a great moment, there’s things I suppose the collapse of GM food in early 99. Was pretty spectacular, from 70% of processed food to virtually nothing, in a couple of months, a few months.

C: So 70% of processed food…

P: Contained GM because it was made with soya and there was no segregation and soya all came from Latin America or the US and they were both growing GM. Then Malcom Walker of Iceland [supermarket] got a non-GM source of soya and said he was going all non GM. Everyone else had to.

C: They’re doing it again Iceland on plastic.

Nervous Waitrose

P: Yeah, I know interesting, and they are prepared to say so, whereas Waitrose who are going non-GM animal feed, will not make a thing of it. Nervous. You know the French are now passing a law saying all meat and dairy products which come from animals fed on GM have to be labelled. As either GM or non GM. I’ve been drafting tweets this morning, a new world of campaigning Chris.

C: Yeah well it’s succinct.

P: It slightly reminds me of meeting people from advertising agencies and what’s one sentence three words, very good discipline actually. Umm

C: What about the anti-nuclear proliferation campaigns, that was something you felt strongly about.

“nearly every warship US, French, British, Russian … actually had … nuclear depth bombs and they were sailing into the middle of ports like London … we … got them all removed, but it was never a public issue”

P: Yeah, we never really had a sort of gotcha moment. The most significant thing, I was thinking about this the other day, was nuclear depth charges, and how nearly every warship US French, British, Russian was actually had nuclear weapons on board. Nearly all of them had nuclear depth bombs and they were sailing into the middle of ports like London and wherever and we campaigned against that successfully.  Got them all removed, but it was never a public issue, it was techy expert issue.

Greenpeace seals discharge pipe from nuclear weapons facility in Aldermaston. This led to a police raid on Greenpeace offices and a stand off between Melchett and Defence Minister Malcolm Rifkind.

The general cleaning up of rivers and seas if you take it all together from dumping nuclear waste right through to the Brent Spar, was an extraordinary series of victories, of rivers and seas and nuclear, industrial, sewage, and then oil and nuclear waste, all those nuclear submarines were still sitting not-dumped in the Atlantic, as we speak.

I always think, you have the moment of victory or the moment something happens, but of course the really interesting thing is to look back 10 or 20 years later.  Has there been another oil rig dumped, have any of the nuclear submarines been dumped? Have we reopened toxic discharges into rivers and seas, these are all campaigns which have been permanently successful.

“Climate change … No reduction in greenhouse gases for the last 6 years while manufacturing industries halved overall.  Waste is cut by 80%, farming 0%”

I was thinking about the difficulty of climate change and all the things we tried to do, you tried with bits of the Atlantic and Rockall and how difficult that’s been as a campaign, and yet, you see the proportion of wind and solar going into our the grid now.  Again if you look back its been pretty remarkable, except in farming.  No reduction in greenhouse gases for the last 6 years while manufacturing industries halved overall.  Waste is cut by 80%, farming 0%.

C: I saw something the other day which was on twitter, so may or may not be true, saying that a quarter of all meat related meat production related emissions were down to pet food. Not sure if that’s true or not.

P: No sounds on high side to me, but it would be a fair amount of course. So Greenpeace I mean there’s the obvious you worked with, I worked with incredible people, exasperating sometimes. I saw John Castle on the news when [he died], and remembered some of the ups as well as some of the downs and David McTaggart, extraordinary characters, some flawed but generally speaking amazing committed, do you remember that thing we did with Annie Townend testing our personality traits, and out of all the senior management team only Steve Thompson had an inclusive or not single minded or whatever [trait].

C: Oh yeah, Sensing rather than iNtuitive [MBTI]

“it was right for resources, for example on GM, the court case really, to mainly go to India and China, and South East Asia and not to Europe”

P: But they were, it was great fun. I loved the internationalism, it was a huge challenge but once I’d got my head around it, the idea that it was right for resources, for example on GM, the court case really, to mainly go to India and China, and South East Asia and not to Europe and should have gone to North America but the US never worked properly, still doesn’t apparently.

Shortening The Distance Between Saying and Doing

C: … I remember people accusing Greenpeace, and it had happened for ages, depending on who they were, of being communist or in the CIA or things like that, which McTaggart sort of always banged on about as evidence that he was in the middle and therefore right. Then people would often say they were like the mafia because they popped up all over the place and that they were a sort of much more globalized organisation before most organisations became globalised, and I read this thing about the mafia in the Sunday Times and the guy quoting somebody as saying “the mafia is an organisation that knows how to shorten the distance between saying and doing”, and I thought in that respect its true, Greenpeace is like that in my experience, which I found was very different about it, from anywhere else I’d worked. Which despite the exasperating things did actually never the less mean that you did get a lot more things done more quickly.

P: I remember for example an international AGM in the Med’ somewhere, and Jean Moffatt from Canada turned up and said all these people had been arrested in the rainforest west coast and there was a discussion and the campaign was launched, and people went off and got arrested within a few weeks, extraordinary.

C: Was that including Cornelia? [Durant]

P: Including Cornelia yeah …

P: We had that great meeting, John Sauven and I you know the Canadians, we got the BBC Wildlife Magazine or something to say they wouldn’t be printed on Canadian [rainforest] pulp. It was reported in Canada, as “the BBC” and therefore the British government are boycotting Canadian pulp.

There were so many small instances like that. I remember the discussion with Albright and Wilson at a secret breakfast with Greenpeace Business that Steve organised after the swan-necked pipe blocking where we sort of managed by just dropping a couple of names, to convince them they were going to face a global anti-phosphate campaign. Particularly what was that island called ? Nauru or somewhere. And odd references to ships sailing across and we did a deal with them and they closed the plant.

So I suppose it was the, you said what did I most enjoy about Greenpeace, thinking about it, it was that huge range of things we did, often very quickly, sometimes over 20 years, ranging from the secret off the record breakfast or hint being dropped, right through to hundreds of people storming into Sellafield. The whole range of activity, but always just with an eye on ‘will it change things’?

C: Did you ever keep a photograph or object from Greenpeace ?

The Archers

P: Not really, I kept a few things. As somebody who’s listened to The Archers on and off for most of their lives since university, I’ve loved the headline in The Independent about GM you know, that Tommy Archer got arrested before we did. Then they did an unusual thing for The Archer’s: a whole week of episodes just in the jury room, so it was just the discussion of the jury. The headline in The Independent was ‘Tommy Archer got off but will Lord Melchett?’ (both laugh).

C: The answer was no.

P: No the answer was yes in the end, he did get off thank you very much. Innocent.

C: But you did spend a couple of days in Norwich jail or somewhere.

P: One night in Norwich, one night in police cells with everyone else. But Greenpeace … in London we’ve still got the old from before I came, in Bryn Jones’ and [Pete] Wilkinsons’ day, the ‘clean water, pure air, or clean rivers’ whatever it was poster, little roundel.

C: Yeah I like those.

P: I had some good stuff.

C: When did you, why did you become an organic farmer?

P: Well it was partly thanks to Greenpeace. Because we got into this point with the GM campaign in about 97-98 when we had to have a solution. Every campaign had to have a solution. The solution had to be non-GM food, but then the toxic campaign, notorious for their attention to toxic detail, they pointed out that most of the pesticides … used in non organic farming they were campaigning against and wanted banned.  So how can we recommend food produced with that?  On the whole, and its still true today, although slowly becoming less so, lots of Greenpeace offices didn’t want to advocate organic, too controversial, too small, too niche, too almost non existent in their countries. John [Sauven] and I got agreement somehow, probably by using the toxic campaign, that we could say that organic was an alternative.

We did a joint report with the Soil Association which everyone has now forgotten, and I keep a copy of the cover power point just to remind people from time to time that it existed. We published that, so that was the alternative, although of course it was slightly odd that the boss of Greenpeace had a non organic farm.

C: I remember saying that to you.

P: You probably did

C: “We can’t start campaigning for organic [as it had ruled out GM] unless you’re an organic farmer”

P: Thank you very much (laughs). Well it was good bit of advice as it turned out. Simultaneously as far as I remember, we here [Courtyard Farm] had in 95, we’d started planting the wildflower meadows, which Cass and I originally did as set-aside and we thought it was a terrible waste of money which shows we were still profitable in those days,  to take 10, 000 quid from the taxpayer every year for set aside and just do nothing with the land. So we planted it with all these wildflowers, that’s when most of them were planted.

Peer Melchett with a field of (planted and self-seeded) Cowslips in 2015

We hired a guy who’d worked as a volunteer at Holme [Nature Reserve] called Micheal O’Leary who was a nature conservation, one of probably your UCL MSc [CR was at UCL] such or undergraduate degrees.

Mike ran the conservation side of the farm and we contracted out the cereals to a near neighbour, who was a sort of middle of the road farmer but from our point of view quite intensive. We grew our own sugar beet with a guy called Bunny, working here. After two or three years Mike said look you’ve done all the set aside, I’m trying to keep the wildlife but it will carry on going down as the partridge numbers were, while you are not organic.

We tried a bit of organic several years earlier, two fields, but the farm manager’s then wife got very ill so he had to spend quite a bit of his day caring for her, we simplified the whole farm, sold cattle, dropped the organic to make the job do-able for him, he was coming up to retirement. So it wasn’t sort of the very first leap, anyhow then we decided to go organic and the two things came together the Greenpeace and the farming, wildlife evidence. It was only later I discovered we were doing good things for the soil, and for animal welfare, for the quality of the crops and the food, all the other things, I learned as we went along. Still learning.

Waiting For ‘The Signal’ And Business Decisions

C: Do you remember this conversation with Shell or BP or whoever it was, that you had, because you told me about it, about them waiting for the signal, that was around 96/7. They were waiting, my recollection is that you had a meeting a breakfast or a lunch with either the UK CEO of Shell or BP I don’t remember, about climate change and their line was, which I heard as well, was that if the government was serious, they’d know when the government was serious about it because they’d change the tax regime so it favoured investment in renewables.

P: Not sure, I think it was John Brown probably, BP.

C: In their perception, they never got the signal. My perception of it was that they didn’t understand how the industry worked, not at a political level anyway.

P: The government didn’t understand it?

C: Yeah there was internal competition. They [the politicians] had this idea that renewables, prices were going to fall as it got scaled up and that it would naturally by some market mechanism, or left to itself that the energy industry would just start doing different things and therefore they wouldn’t have to do anything much. Where actually there was this constant competition for finance with projects inside the oil industry, for exploration [versus other things], and therefore if that was giving the best rate of return on investment then they weren’t going to put the money into anything else unless there was some strategic signal which said this is where you’ve got to go.

“it’s a fairly ubiquitous mistake to see these companies as very one dimensional and to ignore the fact that there are nearly always fierce debates going on internally”

P: I certainly think it’s a fairly ubiquitous mistake to see these companies as very one dimensional and to ignore the fact that there are nearly always fierce debates going on internally.  I’ve been hearing recently, I know you have, about debates in the pesticide companies and the fact that there are people who can see the writing on the wall, but that doesn’t necessarily alter the … calculation that people running the business make.

I mean, look at the farm here you could say that it’s clear that even organic pigs are going to have to have more space, [and] be kept in enclosures which keep grass all year round so there’ll be smaller numbers and more land used. That’s perfectly possible, but it will up the cost. At the moment, the rules are you can do it [blah blah this way etc], and at the moment we need income at the farm because of the uncertainties of Brexit and we’re buying a new second hand combine.

So we’ll take a pig business which is more intensive, its organic but its more intensive than I’d like and does more destruction to the clover fields they go on than I’d like. But that short term income, quite a lot of money every year for four or five years certainly while we pay off the combine, is the business imperative, we’ve got to have another combine. Got to have it sooner or later, with all the uncertainties of Brexit sooner rather than later makers sense, five years time we might not have the income to buy one for a while.  So even making fine judgements between two systems which are far better than general, you still have that business calculation to make.

Businesses Are Also More Sensitive Than People Imagine

P: So I’m sure that’s right. Businesses on the other hand are much more sensitive [than people imagine]. One of the things Michael did, which always surprised me a bit which I took as confirmation, was, a small thing, an ‘Organic Action Plan’ when he was the Minister at DEFRA.

He was in charge of it [DEFRA] at the time, and we wanted UK supermarkets to buy more British organic. There had been a big expansion in the British market, people like ASDA had filled it by importing in this case onions, organic onions.

ASDA 2020

“So what governments say, if they say clearly, ‘you should do X’, even that could have a significant effect. But as you say just leaving it to market forces, [it] could take years”

So Michael had meetings with some of the supermarkets maybe all of the big ones, and a year later ASDA was sourcing 100% UK onions: no money, no incentive, just ”I think you should do this, why aren’t you doing it ? … we could grow onions”.  The Soil Association did this survey which showed in November or something, October, the peak onion season, ASDA had 100% Spanish onions, organic onions. So what governments say, if they say clearly, ‘you should do X’, even that could have a significant effect. But as you say just leaving it to market forces, [it] could take years.

Assumptions Based on Mythology

C: I get the impression that, when I work with a lot of NGOs on campaigns that it’s quite unusual to find one where they really seem to understand the dynamics of the thing they’re trying to change. Yet when you talk to people in businesses as sometimes when I’m doing stuff with CISL or when I’ve been doing a campaign and got to know the people on the receiving end of it, and they explain their thinking or their assumptions, they tend to assume that whoever is even mildly interested in or criticizing them or anything, does understand what’s going on, whereas of course they don’t.  It’s not at all transparent unless you’re in that business, and they assume everybody knows things.

P: The NGO’s do the same, they assume business knows what they’re doing and why, they make assumptions about business, based largely on mythology, which are often wildly wrong.  No what I meant to say is that businesses make assumptions about NGOs as well, it works both ways.

It was fascinating talking do you remember that woman who worked with the Monsanto boss, the Scottish guy and she was American? she came over and she married [      ]’s friend in Swiss-Re [insurance], and I had quite a couple of long chats with her.

“all the Monsanto people listened to their scientists because that’s what they did as a company … … and your scientists say X will be wonderful for farming, and you don’t say “you’re not a farmer” to them you say “you’re a scientist I believe you”. And of course they know f*** all about farming”

She said first of all the Monsanto people listened to their scientists because that’s what they did as a company, and they thought that was right, morally, intellectually everything else, there were scientists so you listen to your scientists, and your scientists say X will be wonderful for farming, and you don’t say “you’re not a farmer” to them you say “you’re a scientist I believe you”.  And of course they know f*** all about farming.

“the idea that there was any science in the argument against GM was sort of unbelievable to them”

All those bio geneticists, but were too narrow minded to realize that. Then they heard somebody say its all anti-American and ideological they’re all communists, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth and so on, and that fitted with what else they were hearing and their world view and they believed it. And the idea that there was any science in the argument against GM was sort of unbelievable to them.

C: That is still from what I hear, my friends who work with pharmaceuticals and agri- chemicals, the Europeans generally know that isn’t true but a lot of the Americans still absolutely believe it.

P: Yeah I’m on an email list which is a GM one which is from the UK but is now dominated by the US because that’s where the debate is very live.

P: If you look at it there’s some British academics but if you look at places like Rothamsted its become much less a sort of centre of GM propaganda and more wide ranging in what their looking at. They’ve got some amazing assets you know all those soil sampling historic soil samples and things. They could be leading on soil science and soil organic matter and soil garden sequestration? Globally really, given the history, and they’re just beginning to scratch that surface. And John Innes have got lots to do on marker – assisted selection but they are still a bit GM focused.

Individuals Making A Difference

C: Looking back on all the things that you’ve been involved with in environmental issues and social change issues but especially environment, and especially nature conservation – how much do you think it depends on few individuals actually doing something and making something happen to get real change? Dave Goulson’s the person who made me think about it actually.

P: Yeah it’s an interesting question, I remember the campaign to get lead out of petrol was always held out as an early real success, and all driven by one person. What was he called?

C: Des.

P: Des Wilson, yeah. Who became sort of an icon of the successful campaigner. And, I was always sort of  bit suspicious about that being an over simplification, and of course we now know he should have been getting rid of petrol not lead in petrol [laughs].  I mean there’s no doubt to my mind that brave individuals make a huge difference, Rachel Carson (Silent Spring) is always one of mine, if I’m asked who inspires me.  And Marion Shoard’s  Theft of the Countryside made a huge impression on me.

Above: Ian Prestt – advocate of action against DDT

Re pesticides I always think of Ian Prestt [Director of RSPB, 1975-91 ] and particularly Derek Ratcliffe – given that he worked for a government agency, and just how much he individually achieved.  Whenever I hear the story about a National Nature Reserve in Scotland, it’s almost always somewhere that’s there because Derek Ratcliffe leaked the fact that some forestry company was going to cover it in conifers and got a campaign going.

Derek Ratcliffe,  brilliant naturalist and scientist who showed that pesticides like DDT were killing Peregrine Falcons, a discovery that led to a change in the law

But that’s the interesting thing of course what he did was leak the information and Stuart Housden and other people in the RSPB got the campaign going and I maybe asked questions in Parliament and things, so Derek needed all that backup and without it he wouldn’t of had any effect.

I suppose you could argue that Rachel Carson, while eventually we got rid of DDT … I’ve been writing and thinking lately about our failure to do anything significant about pesticides.  Not only that, but the fact is that pesticide use is increasing – and dramatically in the last 15-20 years. So, it takes more than the individual but then brave and inspirational people are very important part of the mix I think.

C: I was thinking that you know there’s a big sort of bystander effect, in that a lot of people knew what was going on about various problems, but not that many of them did something about it in terms of pushing it to the point where they caused some sort of change.

‘Causing an Upset’

P: Or caused some sort of upset you could say. I think we’ve had apart from the DDT killing birds of prey, and we’ve had 70 years of people standing and watching, pesticides obliterating wildlife and insects and birds from our countryside.  In some cases, knowing it was happening and saying it didn’t matter because you were saving the rarities, that was the argument when I was on the RSPB Council.  I was thinking about that the other day, the farmer called Mike Shrubb was on the council I didn’t know much at the time, this was back in the early 80s and Mike had been monitoring the birds on his farm and had seen a huge decline.

I knew that was true because we’d monitored grey partridges here [Courtyard Farm, Norfolk].  Although I couldn’t really tell you about any of the other birds or what they were, so I backed him, but we were faced with a really strong group in the RSPB whose view was we have nature reserves, we’re saving rare birds, that’s what we’re here for, that’s all that matters, and anything else is a distraction.

That ran from not wanting to buy farmland, so they were against really buying certainly something like the Nene Washes, you know “carrot-land” going back to the grazing marsh? Which the RSPB has done more [of] recently, or the reclaimed land on the edge of The Wash, or farmland around reserves.  You know all of that was considered common-or-garden – “don’t bother”.

“also it was a problem of confronting real power, and upsetting everybody including themselves, because they were all eating stuff which was killing birds. They didn’t want to think about that”

As were birds like skylarks, corn buntings and tree sparrows and it took nature conservation a long time to start to get that right. Of course it involved a change in focus from “we’re here to protect the rare and the beautiful and the amazing” which we [RSPB] did brilliantly, but also it was a problem of confronting real power, and upsetting everybody including themselves, because they were all eating stuff which was killing birds. They didn’t want to think about that.

C: I think in the case of Derek Ratcliffe, when I worked for Friends of the Earth and was doing that stuff with BANC, Derek was regularly giving me information about things. I remember asking him one day, why it was that the NCC as it then was, why they had failed to stop the afforestation of Llanbrynmair Moors in Wales, and it was a grade 1 SSSI, and how that happened, and he looked at me and said “oh, it was the intervention of human weakness” (both laugh).  Meaning actually someone on his staff.  But the point is that what struck me about him, and Dave Goulson is that they’re prepared in different circumstances but prepared to be unpopular. Intransigent you know.

P: With Dave, it’s lead to him certainly and so far as I know so far truthfully,  not getting another grant from DEFRA and probably not from the BBSRC either, in his career, and it happened to Carlo Leifert a professor in Newcastle, who is another one who was prepared to stick up for us. Do you remember when we were at Greenpeace we asked him to write something for us.

“real trouble getting funding”

P: He said he would, and Aberdeen where he worked said he couldn’t, so he upped after you know, quite a while and no doubt there were other factors as well, and he left Aberdeen and went to Newcastle with a lot of money, he was working with TESCO’s money then as well. And he wrote it for Greenpeace.  And more recently of course he did the nutritional meta-analyses which showed the difference in nutritional content in Organic crops and milk, dairy and meat.  Funded partly by the EU and partly by the Sheepdrove Trust the Kindersleys.

And Newcastle University, I mean it got huge coverage, wide and very successful, in academic terms, it was in the British Journal and Nutritional three meta-analyses, a very prestigious journal.  The university basically tried to squeeze him out because they thought this would end Newcastle University’s chances of getting BBSRC and industry money.  He’s now a visiting professor in Australia and Norway, and not in Newcastle any more I imagine.

So these things come at a real personal cost, and Dave will have real trouble getting funding. Soil Association did a bit of his work, but you can’t replace big DEFRA and BBSRC grants. Carlo moved as well partly because, leaving the EU his main source of funding was EU, running big EU projects, and we can no longer do that from the UK. There are huge costs, in Derek Ratcliffe’s case it led to the break up of the NCC, from which they never really recovered.

[Note: I contacted Carlo Leifert, now a Plant Sciences Professor at Southern Cross University, NSW Australia, Director of the Stockbridge Technology Centre (STC) at Cawood, Selby, UK and a Visiting Professor in the Medical School at the University of Oslo.  Carlo confirmed what Peter said.  Leifert’s recent work includes papers on pesticide residues in organic and conventional wheat flour and nutrientcontent, in UK and Germany. 

I also contacted Dave Goulson who is still at Sussex University.  He said: “I haven’t got a NERC grant in more than 10 years, or any money from BBSRC for the last 7 years, but to my surprise I did get funding in 2018 from the Veterinary Medicine Directorate (part of DEFRA) to study neonics in flea treatments on pets”. ]

[The Nature Conservancy Council was broken up into several agencies including English Nature, which later became Natural England.  In my view it progressively lost independence, resources and influence.]

Government and Research

C: How much do you think government in this country uses research and the absence or presence of it, and funding, to try and stimulate or stifle policy change, well not policy change but the direction of policy?  [For example] I worked in a laboratory in Chelsea College where there was team with NATO funding called MARC Monitoring Assessment Research Centre, who looked at hard-to-study environmental problems like heavy metals, and early climate change. They were doing a lot of analysis of soil samples from London and these were used to make a map of all the contaminated land in intricate detail and then when [Michael] Heseltine wanted to develop it, this contamination was obstacle because you couldn’t use the land for housing. So they solved the problem by abolishing the map (P laughs).  So that was a very obvious ‘change the numbers’ thing but a lot of it’s more subtle than that I think.

“the basic rule was you didn’t commission people to do work for you unless you knew what the answer was going to be and it was what you wanted”

P: Yeah when I was a Government Minister the basic rule was you didn’t commission people to do work for you unless you knew what the answer was going to be and it was what you wanted.  Then it was done very subtly and carefully and worded by things like balance and so on.


[For example] There was a terrible part of the British sort of army military complex of propaganda against the IRA [which claimed the IRA were] corrupting youth, when actually Northern Ireland was very law abiding.

Communities were very tight and prior to the IRA starting fighting again you had much less youth crime.  Then when there was youth crime defined by the troubles it was of course young people doing what older people were also doing, and approved of, rioting against the RUC or attacking Catholics depending on which side.  So I inherited when I got there, some sort of major thing about this, but I got Laurie Taylor appointed, who was a left wing criminologist, to head up some committee to look at it all.  Of course Laurie came to the conclusion I expected which was that they were very law abiding well behaved and it was a myth that they were being turned into criminals.

GM and Government

P: [So] there are obvious things, but [on the other side] I always think its quite life enhancing – the fact that we’ve spent millions and millions of pounds on GM research in this country with institutes like John Innes and Rothamsted becoming pretty-much GM research establishments for parts of their recent history; Rothamsted tried to get away from it a bit now, but not one GM crop has ever been grown commercially in this country.  So governments can try and spend huge amounts of money, in that case with the support of industry, the food industry, the farming industry, the research establishment and still get little in return. But yes they do try, and its often in science that ‘what the accepted truth is’, is terribly powerful.  In areas where change is happening, particularly areas where change is happening [that] is not friendly to the established power and economic interests.

So organic farming would be an example, the fight against showing that there’s so many nutritional differences in how you grow food.  Even though in non-organic farming, they’ve long known that different levels of nitrogen produce different levels of defence compounds and therefore different levels of nutrients, in non organic crops.  So it’s obvious that organic crops have lower levels of nitrogen still have more defence compounds, and produce more nutrients.  But people fought against it tooth and nail, still are to some extent.  So it’s self -interest, coupled with government money.

“Don’t forget government ministers are very temporary”

But don’t forget government ministers are very temporary on the whole, so their chance of influencing things is quite slim really. The longest I was ever a minister was two and a half years and it was only in the last twelve months I started to get a grip of things and actually do things that might have made a difference. Then of course as soon as you go, you realise almost everything you can do can be undone.  As Obama is finding out with Trump.  The longest lasting thing I ever did was in Northern Ireland – and I was interested in reading an autobiography by a guy who was a senior civil servant, who said the same thing of his career – was that we set up the charitable trust and charitable trusts can’t be …

C: easily gotten rid of, in fact very difficult.

P: Almost impossible. Unless they do something criminal or don’t do anything at all for 50 years or something.  Which is why we’ve got the farmland [Courtyard Farm] run by a charitable trust.  So the Northern Ireland voluntary trust which was only 2 or 3 million quid or something public money, a couple of million [was long lasting].

C: I often wonder what would have happened if instead of setting up the lottery for sport, John Major would have been much more interested in nature?  We have the Heritage Lottery Fund but it’s outcomes and objectives aren’t actually about promoting or conserving nature, so everything needs to be done now through the filter of how many people … [it benefits] … .

P: Yeah, trying to get some money.

C: The measures they use for that are extremely crude.

P: Yeah they tend towards, some, the Norfolk Coast Partnership are trying to get money to do some work on the River Hun. A very short stretch of largely canalised chalk stream which they want to put some meanders in and things, and will be dressed up as community involvement. Not dressed up but they’re having to add all that in to try and get some lottery money. Don’t think they will.

It’s interesting isn’t it, because a lot of the money, all the money when I was first involved in WWF, back in the 70s,  soon after I became a Lord, they wanted somebody from the Labour side, one person, [on the] WWF trustees, and I learnt a lot from that, that was when Gren Lucas [was Chairman], did you ever know him?

C: yeah yeah

P: wonderful man, I thought. But we gave quite a lot of money, most of the money for land purchase. Quite a bit to RSPB and County Wildlife Trusts but we got the Woodland Trust going, against in the teeth of opposition from John Parslow at the RSPB who was on the trustees. Didn’t like these new upstarts. Huge complaints about their lack of any ability to manage anything.  I think their management has been better than many Wildlife Trusts over many years, very impressive right now.

Lord Dulverton and Tax Breaks

P: But then, you know, it was quite a stretch to give money to any policy things.  We gave money to the Ramblers, towards the end of our time. I was on the allocations committee, for a report on forestry, and all the forestry  tax break conifers you mentioned were happening and the Ramblers got a mole from either Economic Forestry Group or was it Fountain Forestry?  One of the big ones.

“Eventually they came to some deal where he gave the money but it didn’t go to the committee which allocated it …”

They wrote a report explaining all the tax breaks and Lord Dulverton refused to give any money to WWF UK ever again (both chuckle).  Eventually they came to some deal where he gave the money but it didn’t go to the committee which allocated it (laughs).  We did give some money to some anti-nuclear thing but you know most of it went for land purchase.

So I am just worried that Lottery money, which has gone to land purchase  would it have gone to policy stuff?   You need to change things fundamentally.  But then buying land and having nature reserves is important I’m not saying it’s not.

The Effect of Fund Raising

C: How do you think they compare with companies, NGO’s?  In respect of being competitive brands, and resisting market entrants and innovation … ?   If I’m having to talk to people who’ve never got involved with NGOs, I say “these things are more like churches, they’re more like belief organisations and they are like businesses because businesses, if you fail to make money you actually go bust and there isn’t really a mechanism for that in NGOs”. They can linger on forever on the one side, but on the other hand they do behave sometimes like very conservative businesses … If you look at where they spend most of their money, a lot of it is by necessity spent on fundraising one way or another, especially if you’ve got a large membership base and that’s what you’re getting your main funds from. Then that affects a huge amount of their communication, most of it and it affects sometimes, quite often their programme work, what they do and their attitude to the public.  So my perception was in the 90s and 00s … the RSPB and the National Trust and the Woodland Trust … and to an extent the Wildlife Trust but in a less organised way, went in for a lot of sort of ‘satisficing’ of their members. So you’d get all these RSPB members driving from London to Titchwell to go and look at birds and not looking at the countryside in between, and having a sort of birdfarm experience.

P: I remember you telling me about that. Going from gardens where they were feeding the birds to where they were saving them – yes a bubble.

P: well I think there’s a lot in that. Although, a couple of positive things.

First of all its been interesting to see that to some extent there’s some reinvention going on or returning to roots. I think Fiona Reynolds did that to some extent at the National Trust, incredibly difficult because you’ve got such a huge entrenched mass of people and interests an expertise and resources all tied up in the things which I agree with completely that you were talking about. So to shift some into … I mean first of all showing kitchens as well as stately dining rooms, but that cooking by what they ate, where they produced the food and the kitchen garden looked like, and maybe talking about the oppression and the poverty that went with it.  All of that was a huge struggle.

RSPB I think is still work in progress.  Barbara Young made it more populist, but it had the problems you described of becoming tremendously supporter driven, with a 1 million member target.  Which I used to think that involved recruiting at least a hundred thousand people a year, new supporters. Because you get at least a ten percent dropout, and probably the rate they were recruiting, higher. So they were on an incredible treadmill and I’ve noticed now they’ve dropped the 1 million members, clearly unsupportable financially and practically.

I always remember you tried to persuade me at Greenpeace that we ought to go for free membership, do you remember that?  Which I think you were probably right about but as usual ahead of your time.

C: That was because that was what the online model looked like that it was going to be built on. The other thing I tried to persuade GPI to do was to give away all the photographs. Because they were trying to make money for no logical reason because they weren’t at the time short of money and it was an incredibly small amount of money. But if you looked at what people searched for, this was before social media, then they were looking for pictures. Mainly either porn or cats, they were the two top things, pets, and then wildlife so Greenpeace, all the wildlife pictures, and they were not putting many of them online. They didn’t do anything with all this amazing photography because they couldn’t. But the people running the photo library, ran it as if they were running a little commercial old fashioned photo library.

Morality and NGOs

P: Yeah, we’re still bad at that in the Soil Association, pictures. Getting slightly better.

The [second] big difference that always surprises me that people are surprised by, is that generally speaking I think the standards of morality in NGOs, are completely different to business.

“bits were clearly trying to do the right thing – but there was behaviour in business and the media which would have been unthinkable in an NGO”

I mean you get pockets of business – my son in law worked for Glaxo Smith Kline and you know there were bits there which were clearly trying to do the right thing – but you know they were driven by business models and all sorts of other things. There was behaviour in business and the media which would have been unthinkable in an NGO.

Jeremy Paxman

I remember, did I tell you that story when the Brent Spar mistake happened, and I had to go on Newsnight that night? [a mistaken estimate of the amount of oil in the Brent Spar storage buoy which Greenpeace revealed and apologized for]

C: yeah I remember watching it, you were very good.

“he said to me, ‘I bet you regret telling the truth now don’t you?’, and I was so gobsmacked”

P: Jeremy Paxman putting me through the ringer. And after we were off air – I wish this had been recorded – he said to me, “I bet you regret telling the truth now don’t you?”. And I was so gobsmacked, I couldn’t think of a snappy [rejoinder] … I mean he just assumed that everyone would normally lie about something like that, and to me it was just unthinkable that an NGO would lie. I mean they might try and keep quiet, at the most.

C: I remember after that the – it was either Sky or ITN – some of the journalists who liked Greenpeace, I remember them saying to us, I think Cindy Baxter was there, they said “why didn’t you just lie? nobody would believe Shell if it was a choice between you and Shell’ (P Chuckles) and we said, we were actually just about to do an interview or something and we said “mmm well we don’t do that sort of thing” and they sort of shook their heads, ‘what a shame you didn’t’ sort of way, ‘because now you’ve spoilt it you know, the people are all confused’.

P: And of course it leaves, I often think of that when I think of Save the Children and their current problems, it means that people in NGOs think it can’t happen here and it can’t happen to us.  But of course occasionally it does, and Greenpeace was a bit more worldly wise.  Partly because when it happened to us we assumed it was the French Secret Service. (Both chuckle). Which it was in a couple of occasions in France, deliberately bankrupting the organisation. So we were more cynical and suspicious but not in the sense that we thought decent NGO people were bad like that.

NGO Competition

But um  … competitive?  There’s certainly an element of competition, I mean I find myself getting cross when I see Friends of the Earth claiming credit for something that I know Buglife have actually done all the work on. Like the neonicotinoids and bees and I suppose it’s motivated by the fact the Soil Association helped Buglife right at the beginning.

We got Matt [Shardlow] who runs Buglife to take a report they’d done to Downing Street where Gordon Brown’s wife had a meeting about bees, because she’d seen something on social media. It led, what was that guy … who was Brown’s environmental…?

C: Mike Grubb?  [It was probably Michael Jacobs]

P: He helped chair a sort of policy meeting.  After Sarah Brown had had a sort of general get together, and Matt presented … the report, and that I think was what got the government to do the research which eventually including Dave Goulson going back to him, he got some money from it … showed the neonicotinoids were having an impact. So I think we had an influence but it was Buglife’s work.  Then Friends of the Earth weighed in when that research started to come out.

So there is actually a competitive [thing], and they did very well, and they did a public campaign and got more attention to it than the Soil Association or Buglife ever would have done. But you still feel… so there’s that competitiveness, but I don’t think it [does much harm].

C: I suppose what I’m trying to get at is that, is it do you think its in terms of getting effective change, is it better to start something new or to spend something new or to spend your time redirect or change an existing organisation?

P: I think it depends.

C: yeah it does all depend. But it is very hard to re-steer, I mean the National Trust, we were a bit involved when Fiona had her um ‘we ought to do something that should all be about striding around outside instead of just, all this stuff about houses’, I mean its not quite what she was saying but … going back to the roots of Octavia Hill and all that.  We got involved in that project that she was starting and unfortunately she left after about a year. Then it all sort of fell to bits really but it was…

P: It may get picked up again do you think? [It re-emerged in 2020, see also]

National Trust website in 2020

Organic Tea Rooms

C: well it has sort of gone on in various ways but it was, the National Trust felt that anything that needed to be decided and led from the centre [was problematic] you know she was a sort of very much like operating osmotically by talking a lot about stuff in public and sort of usually very hand wavy terms. 

It took quite a while for us to get them to, in workshops and things, with all these people, from all over with different layers and segments of the Trust, and all the senior people, to recognise there was a difference between just getting people outdoors and getting them engaged with doing something about nature.  Having then established that there was such a difference, they went away for about a year to argue about it. (P laughs). 

In the meantime she had committed to do something they felt so they had to say something and, we talked to the press people and that was why they produced their list of ‘things to do before you’re 9 and 3/4s’ or whatever it was, and then that was almost all they did and a few surveys [and a report Natural Childhood by Stephen Moss].

[Also] people in the middle of the National Trust like Tony Burton in his policy [group] … there were all these different silos, were starting to do innovative things but usually in the guise of doing the sort of things they always did. For example they’d been proselytising about local food, and all that stuff for years. They were saying nobody was noticing what they were doing, I said “that’s because you’re not really actually doing anything about it. When people go to your property they see tea rooms, and they notice that, because they actually go in the tearoom. Why don’t you turn some of your gardens from your houses into allotments?” and they did, they were quite radical locally.

P: And organic and certified with the Soil Association, and supplied food into the tearooms, and they got all the tearooms accredited to Food for Life, a Soil Association scheme, as have the RSPB.  And that’s been driven by pressure from the farming group in the RSPB who are a progressive force for good. So you can get bits of organisations [changing].

The RSPB and Neonicotinoids 

And I still use another thing you introduced [in Greenpeace] which was investigations. The Soil Association you may notice from time to time does investigations, so if you look at the movement as a whole… and right now the RSPB its sort of in the grip of an appalling scientific mafia they’ve created [laughs], science directorate or science […] they’ve called it something incredibly fancy.  Do you know they haven’t said a single f****** word about neonicotinoids?  From their introduction to their banning, from their science people.  And they’ve been doing research on them for three years.

P: I send letters to David Gibbons [who was head of the science unit] … emails about the neonics. They’ve done some research on neonics, and I know for two reasons, one is I went to a science unit annual meeting when they had Dave Goulson speak.  Which they must of thought in retrospect was a mistake.

And Dave talked about neonics and he’s got his slide showing how many seeds a partridge would have to eat to kill it, 4, 5 or 6 or something, from the dressing, seed dressing, very low number, of course its quite concentrated. So I went up to Dave Gibbons at the end of the talk and said you know, “in the light of what Dave’s said about partridges, are you going to do any research about this ?”   And he said “Oh yes we are – we’re doing some”.

P: Good.

P: Then I met [                ] who worked as a volunteer as the RSPB – nameless – … been a volunteer on this research project, been watching grey partridge to see if they’d eat neonicotinoid treated seeds because one theory is if they are blue or pink or something they won’t eat them and [     ] said they found that they did eat them.

That was 2 or 3 years ago, they haven’t published a single thing: none of this has been made public.  Neonics are now being banned, and the RSPB said nothing did nothing and had vital conservation information.   It’s terrible really. To get Dave Gibbons to answer an email in under 6 months is something of a miracle, now we’ve got a meeting coming up with him which I’m not sure I’m going to be well enough to do later this week. That was one of the issues, anyhow.

P: It’s like the RSPB science team haven’t got a single person who knows about pesticides*, they’ve got 30 or 40 or 50 staff or something, can’t see a single toxicologist that may have changed since I last looked. It was certainly not well represented and you’d think they were the leading organisation that stopped DDT. Extraordinary turn around … The people who lead the battle against DDT with Ratcliffe, have been nowhere on Roundup, nowhere on Neonics. I think in the last 15 years we’ve seen this collapse in insects, totally unremarked, a collapse in insects is a collapse in huge numbers of bird species. Totally unremarked. Its really sad.

[Note: I looked into this story in 2020 and wrote a blog about what I found in a post on neonics – hereRSPB scientist Will Peach is an author of two of the papers on neonics, published in 2020, discussed in that post.  *At the time of writing (August 2020) the RSPB profiles 50 members of its’ Centre for Conservation Science.  Only two of the profiles – for Will Peach and David Gibbons – mention pesticides.  It’s not clear if any of the staff are toxicologists. A further recent paper in Nature attributes large scale reductions in farmland birds in the US to neonicotinoid pesticides.]

Land Sparing

[Peter was trained as a lawyer and had a remarkable ability to remember a brief and an abiding interest in drilling down into details and primary sources.  This aside about ‘land sparing’, which he was a critic of, illustrates his appetite to spend time reading even quite obscure papers]. 

P:  the science thing was set up as sort of semi-independent, scientific.  It’s where Rhys Green [works] who I know well who’s a great land sparing [advocate], in a group in Cambridge under the ******  who believes in land sparing and keeps writing papers about it.  Did I tell you about this?

They wrote a paper [that] defended land sparing paper showing you could produce all the food from intensive smaller areas and spare land for wildlife and they got criticised because it wasn’t reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  So then they did a paper where all the spared land went into forestry to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which of course didn’t do much for farmland birds to put it mildly but then they said you had to sacrifice them …

But I looked at what they were doing to get the increases in yield because we’ve had a yield plateau on wheat and all main commodity crops globally for several years now, haven’t been increasing in yield.

They assumed the 1% per annum successive yield increase, and of course a significant increase in the [greenhouse gas] output from livestock from intensive systems.

They had in one of these scientific annexes that nobody reads, supporting papers, they’d got this one percent per annum increase in yield, and I said to Rhys “how did you work that out ?”, he said “oh we talked to some scientists who know about it”.  They’d talked to the GM people at John Innes and at Rothamsted (laughs), and then on the livestock side, they’d assumed the GM animals were going to be engineered to produce more and there’s absolutely no scientific evidence to back it up. But these were just assumptions hidden in annexes, anyway that’s a rant …

C: We were talking about..


“that applies to NGO’s with knobs on”

P: I was very struck by a lot of (Oliver) Letwin’s (environmental) speech when they (the Conservative Party) were still in opposition, saying that politicians should talk about emotion and beauty, ‘beauty’ was the word he used. I’ve quoted that a lot and I’ve thought that applies to NGO’S with knobs on.

C: When I give standard talks about you know, how to do public communication … with scientists, they’re sort of now interested … and NGOs who ought to know better … they supposedly do it all the time …  I talk about heuristics, values and framing.  They all think they know what framing is but they don’t by and large, and values is a bit challenging but heuristics – you could not have a simpler thing, because all it means is on average 51% more right than wrong. Because that’s how its defined and there’s lots of research gone into it with all these cognitive psychologists doing testing in labs, like Kahneman and Cialdini and all these people. The first one I usually show them is ‘liking’: if you get someone to like you they’re more likely to do what you ask or try and persuade them to do. You can see quite a lot of people are sort of affronted intellectually by this idea, and then slightly alarmed by it, and then tend to want to challenge any examples you give them. Like the cosmetics industry for example, the hospitality industry, and why you get free gifts, and why you have after dinner speeches after dinner and not before, you know and almost everywhere you go.

P: So how do you deal with some obstinate bastard like me who thinks that I agree with that, and I’m told it regularly by my colleagues at the Soil Association trying to calm me down a bit – and Tom Macmillan’s very good at this – he’s an interesting person to work with because and I’ve seen him to do it to some quite key people who started off very hostile, and who I was very hostile with – Tim Benton for example – who said foods are, don’t know if he still is but he was for the government and was a land sparing advocate, and his group at York I think it was University, big land sparing people.

I got quite angry with him and you know and exchanged things publicly and privately, and Tom appealed to his intellect, to intellectual argument, or discourse with him even not even argument and Tim’s now a significant advocate of the need for dietary change and extensification and so on; he’s not hostile to organic at all, and has worked quite closely with us in recent years.

So you’d think I’d have learnt a lesson from that but I haven’t really, because I do think that in the process of change, at some point in most of that, there will need to be confrontation with powerful interests, and so yes at some point. The difficulty is knowing when to switch which I’m probably not very good at.

The Switch From Confrontantion

P:  We used to have this argument in Greenpeace all the time – when to switch from the confrontation and the direct action and the challenge, to lets do a deal, and we get together over breakfast –  which we did do you remember with the Albright and Wilson pipeline, having breakfast in some hotel by Harrods? Which Steve Warshall organised through Greenpeace Business which [they] thought was a separate operation.  We did the deal that they closed the discharge and the people arrested they withdrew the evidence of millions of pounds worth of criminal damage, that was a good resolution. But knowing when to make that switch and how to is difficult.

Strategy and Mindset

C: Yeah, and that’s partly down to strategy as well and it’s a sort of different question, it’s a different level of question but the application of things like heuristics is more like getting its a sort of mindset that people who have come from anything that tends to be called a discipline. Like medicine, law, science and economics, where you’ve been trained by and large, in my experience, to think in a particular way and think this is the way to get things done, and as a professional, it is.  But there’s the constant pulling between the two. There’s this resistance which you don’t get in a lot of business and marketing and PR about doing those things.

P: wanting people to like you [getting people to like you]

C: Yeah, or things like social proof, showing lots of people are doing it, consistency, you’ve done a thing a bit like this and people like you tend to also do this other thing, all those ways of getting people to do things and if you look at how many campaigns are structured there’s very little, amazingly little use, especially in the on the nature conservation side of things.

P: Isn’t there a moving in your [values] groups from Pioneers to Settlers.

C: No, everyone is susceptible to them, but in some of those are much more…

P: Don’t the Pioneers quite like the common version?

C: Yes [taking] social proof as an example, the Pioneers have a much higher sense of self agency than the Settlers, [so] … the Settlers are automatically more effected by seeing everybody else doing it. As long as it is so ‘everybody else’ that it looks normal [Settlers change to stay in line with ‘normal’]

P: making things normal is a phrase I use when we were trying to make Organic normal

C: Prospectors want to be seen to be doing it if its seen to be ‘the right thing to be doing’, which means it could be the relatively recent but it’s the thing to be seen doing now.  Then they need assurance it’s going to work, and they’re not going to look or feel stupid and their friends won’t think that. The Pioneers will say that they are not affected by these things at all, and … a subset of them will question it on ethical grounds: “is it the most ethical ?” – the Concerned Ethicals – and go round and round forever trying to split that finer and finer and think of new ethical things to add in to the mixture.  

The Flexible Individualists, the most sort of Pioneer-y Pioneers in the sense of being self-reflective will want to do their own thing, and argue and adopt contrarian positions in order to discuss it. 

But at the end of the day, they are all still influenced by the fact that they do see other people doing it.  So although they will talk about it a lot … in consultations they all get all these people coming and asking loads of awkward questions and wanting to debate and debate and debate – a bit like having a change conversation in Greenpeace – it’s a very Pioneer organisation, … they’re typically attracting a whole load of Pioneers who want to talk, and that often feels like they’re resisting it, and at the end of day they don’t actually do anything to resist it. They’re just like: “it was good to discuss it”, they want to discuss it a lot.

“we can’t have it normalised”

P: The group that annoy me, are the group that, we’ve had a couple of them in the Soil Association council a few years back. Who are basically, are only there because it’s a tiny minority of, or they think it’s a tiny minority supporting it. You know we get all the, “we can’t have multi-nationals involved”, “we can’t have it normalised”, “we can’t, because it’s going to involve scale”, or “big farmers doing it or mass production, which will sully it and make it unacceptable”.

It seems to be stronger in America, particularly in the organic movement:  there’s a real split in America which is not doing them any good at all. Although it doesn’t seem to be affecting the market much, which is interesting, its a very inside the organic movement split.  This is [a] tax on big Organic companies, some of which we’d say were justified in terms of standards, but the level of venom, you know its always [higher internally].

C: Those tend to be the Concerned Ethicals, and it’s about sort of ethical one up-manship which becomes ethical authoritarianism as well.

P: Mmm and [as] a campaigner who’s trying to achieve change, I find it particularly aggravating, but when [corporates] do start to choose change they immediately reject it, and we had plenty of those in Greenpeace campaigns: the toxics campaign I seem to remember, being particularly well populated.

[external bird calling]  There is definitely an oystercatcher around, they must be nesting here somewhere mustn’t they.

C: Yeah I’m sure there will be.

P: One’s come to drink in the paddock, very good.


P: When you were saying do you need to start new organisations or reform existing ones I think BANC  would be a very good example for me, of where starting something new and communicating what for me anyhow and I guess for a lot of other people were new radical ideas, was very significant

Yes I remember distinctly, I don’t remember how I came across it (Ecos, BANC’s journal), but it played a significant part in making me see that there were two sides to nature conservation, two different approaches, that ideology played a significant part.  It was always good to see things about or by Derek Ratcliffe and the criticisms of the sort of non Derek Ratcliffe group, the individuals. But I remember it having a significant mind opening impact [that] wouldn’t have been possible through other means then. Now of course you’ve got Mark Averys blog and things like that.

C: blogs have sort of taken on that role or function, because the reason we started it was that being sort of arrogant young MSc students, me and Bill Adams and Charlie Pye-Smith mainly. But mainly me and Bill, wanted to say some things and we tried to get Biological Conservation which was the journal the one and only at the time really. It was run by a guy called Eric Duffy who was a bit curmudgeonly, and was a senior old ecologist, and was very establishment – he was nice enough in a way – but he wouldn’t publish our stuff because he said it was just our opinions. We said we thought a lot of the stuff he published was just peoples opinions.

P: the right opinon

C: yeah exactly, so eventually he got so annoyed with us he said “well if you think you’re so bloody clever why don’t you go and start your own journal” (P laughs) and we did think we were so bloody clever so we did. Keith Clayton at UEA, a geo-morphologist, was a lot more  … [open minded].  Keith was … always saying, ‘Norfolks got to prepare for all the houses falling into the sea and sea level rise’, way before his time, which got him lot of attention but didn’t win him massive amounts of friends in Norfolk I dont think.  Anyway Keith published journals and so he basically told us how to set up a magazine, he helped us, and there was a guy on the course I was on called Nick Pinder who he knew him well from Norfolk. So that’s why, and BANC has now become a much more stuffy entity which still exists. It does suffer from being in the blogosphere and I think now they’ve stopped actually printing their journals. It was a ginger group. Max Nicholson was very supportive of it, extremely. Max was you know an anti-establishment ‘Establishment Person’ if ever there was one.

“enormous shock I got in discovering Peter Scott was a real animal welfare enthusiast and radical”

P: I remember [with] WWF in the early days, the enormous shock I got in discovering Peter Scott was a real animal welfare enthusiast and radical, and how WWF liked to try and keep all that hidden. Interesting.

Peter Scott’s original design of the WWF logo

Organic Farming

C: What do you think is happening and actually will happen to Organic Farming?

P: well, if you take a world wide view, while it’s still pretty irrelevant in quite a lot of countries, Russia, still very small in China, it’s growing everywhere, the recession in 2008, only knocked the market back in one little tiny offshore island, namely the UK.  Everywhere [else] it carried right on growing through the recession which showed it to be remarkably proof against economic shocks in western Europe and North America. So the immediate future looks pretty positive.

from in 2020

The interesting thing to me is how will we produce food with 80% cuts from current levels in western agriculture of greenhouse gases by 2050, to meet the Paris 1.5 degree centigrades zero carbon emissions net, thereafter. Pretty much all the science now points to the impossibility of doing that by intensifying production.

We talked earlier about, my little rant about land sparing, intensifying production and setting aside some land for wildlife or climate change or something, while ignoring the horrors you’re perpetuating on the rest of it. If you’re not minding wildlife or releasing huge amounts of greenhouse gasses one or the other you’re going to be creating huge diffused pollution, nitrogen enrichment, phosphate problems and so on.

So you have to go for a low input system and nitrogen is got into the system through solar power equivalent which is clover and alfalfa legumes, and from that follows you don’t need pesticides hardly at all: you want to rely on natural and vitatitive crops and livestock and natural controlled systems diversity.

All of those sort of things which apply to organic, really follow from what you decide to do about nitrogen. If you have a lot of nitrogen biologically fixed, you have to have a break crop whether its one in three annual crops within a year in India or two out of six years in Norfolk.  You’re growing a legume to put nitrogen back in the soil and changing the farming, the rest of the farming system.

So I suppose I think its inevitable, it’s not a choice people can make, so the question is how quick, whether we can do it with some of the things that aren’t compulsory like the greater social justice, more public involvement and public access, you know those don’t follow from what you do about nitrogen.

Why Not More Conversion ?

C: Is it likely to happen on a larger scale, is it not happening in a big scale here because of the land control issues to do with lack of turn over of people in agriculture or what they’re taught in agricultural college or the land is so valuable for non agricultural purposes? 

P: No

C: Why isn’t more conversion happening in this country?

P: Definitely there are two factors, one due to successive governments. Going back to our ‘normal’ discussion I think its because it’s seen as ab-normal, exclusive, for a minority, a tiny minority and therefore something that’s not safe to back as a Labour or Conservative government.

“it’s seen as ab-normal, exclusive, for a minority, a tiny minority and therefore something that’s not safe to back as a Labour or Conservative government”

Michael Gove and George Eustace, both of whom agree with all the things it does and the outcomes it produces, are still nervous about mentioning the word ‘organic’ in this country, That’s a function partly of the small size so it’s self perpetuating, partly it’s the mid way mid Atlantic position the UK always has on a lot of environmental stuff.

“alright for the Danes, and Austria can have over a fifth of its farmland organic but never in England”

I’m sure you and I were told, well I was told when I was a minister of the Department of Industry that “they can recycle in Denmark but we’ll never do it in Britain”, and then we were told that windfarms which was something that happened in Sweden and Germany but would never happen in England and so on and so forth.  Now maybe it’s Organic- alright for the Danes, and Austria can have over a fifth of its farmland organic but never in England, and of course its inevitable it will be.

“the value of the drop in sales in TESCO’s accounted more or less for whole of the the drop in UK Organic sales”

But it’s also, the recession showed me very clearly that the power of supermarkets in choice editing what people eat is significant here and at that point TESCO’s were undisputed leaders, they saw the recession coming, looked over their shoulders at Aldi and Lidl and said ‘right we need to take high value high cost items off the shelf anf replace them with cheap items to survive the recession’. The autumn of 2008 they reduced their Organic offer very significantly, and a colleague worked out that the value of the drop in sales in TESCO’s accounted more or less for whole of the the drop in UK Organic sales.

There was some drop in ASDA and Sainsbury’s and Waitrose increased their sales, ‘box schemes’ increased their sales, specialist stores like Planet Organic and Wholefoods increased their sales. One box scheme, what’s it called … Abel and Cole, did the same sort of thing as TESCO’s and thought we’re going to have to sell non-organic to survive and they dropped their sales till they brought back Keith Able who sold it to private equity at a huge salary I have no doubt, to turn it around.  And he did a Ratner and said ‘we’re selling a lot of non-organic rubbish I’m going to get rid of it all’ and they did and they’ve done very well since.

C: Aldi and Lidl, they’re Organic in Germany is that right? But not in the UK?

P: No they sell some Organic stuff here, not much, like with everything else very limited lines. One of them started with sort of potatoes, carrots and onions. But good quality, certifiable with the Soil Association.

C: I haven’t seen it in Aldi in Fakenham, but maybe Fakenham is right at the end of the change curve?

P: I suspect, yeah. I doubt we’ll see, there’s a new Lidl going up outside Hunstanton, I doubt we’ll see it there. There isn’t as much Organic as you’d expect at the Waitrose in Swaffham.

C: There used to be a lot more Organic, we used to get our food from Tesco’s because they had a lot of organic and then they stopped.

“we actually had a great conversation with some young new buyer in Tesco’s who said “… I can’t understand it, why we can’t get the Organic supplies we need, it’s an outrage what are you doing about it?””

P: Hunstanton has more Organic back again now, we actually had a great conversation with some young new buyer in Tesco’s who said “I don’t understand, I can’t understand it, why we can’t get the Organic supplies we need, it’s an outrage what are you doing about it?” to the Soil Association!   Tesco’s single handedly having destroyed the market and driven people out of Organic.


C: Did Elaine tell you her story about the Organic tomatoes?

P: No

C: She’s been conducting a one woman campaign against I can’t remember which supermarket, I think more than one of them, by writing to them asking why the Organic tomatoes are in plastic. They’ve given one excuse after another, she’s gradually getting down to the truth which was it was in order to give them a marketing platform on the packaging and to make it look different and better and more expensive than the other stuff. “Of course she’s going do you seriously think people who buy Organic tomatoes want it to be wrapped in plastic” and I don’t know what’s happened…

P: It is a real problem for Organic in supermarkets but the real reason is they don’t want you to buy something loose, put it in a bag yourself that’s Organic, take it to the checkout and say it’s non Organic, and they lose the premium. So if you bought the tomatoes put them in a brown paper bag and told the checkout they’re ordinary tomatoes not organic she gets them much cheaper. Because there’s far less Organic than non-Organic it makes sense and you use less plastic actually if you package the organic and not the non organic.

C: But they could package it in paper or something.

P: They could package it in paper and we’re doing a huge amount of work… it’s interesting that packaging plastic debate, we’ve been dealing with for the last few years has been all about health risks and migration of chemicals into food.

C: Do you know Tamara Galloway at Exeter? She’s the sort of leading micro-plastic health researcher yeah she’s really good.

P: No, we’ve got an advisory group looking at what you can and can’t use.

C: Are you looking at the cellulosic and micro-fibrillated cellulosic plastic feed stock stuff from Finland?

P: No, we’ve looked for a long time at the company which Greenpeace business had at a Greenpeace Business conference which was the plant based plastics from America, which was part owned by Monsanto or Dow and I think they sold it. Their problem was that they built a factory in the middle of the corn belt and using GM corn.

C: These people are using wood.

P: Oh really.

C: Yep, and they’ve built huge bio refineries. I heard Tom Heap on BBC’s Costing the Earth … its called Superwood is the name of the programme. He went to Finland, it’s completely Scandinavian, Nordic, you know those sort of like ‘well this is er will save the world’ and the guy is going do you really think so and they’re saying ‘oh yes, oil is a disaster’ they’re so matter of fact. Their claim anyway is that they can, anything that you can make with petrochemical plastic, you can make with this stuff.  They can make polymers. They can even make crystal, so they can make screens, stuff like glass out of it.  Any fibres, so already viscose, rayon and stuff, are cellulose but the way they make those is often very polluting and this thing is 100% renewable, zero emission, factory now its in Finland.  In terms of the plastic business from what I’m working on, looks like the largest single possible solution. [see this]

P: I mean it would presumably be similar to making plastic from plant based, from a crop like maize or something.

C: Yes although these are a combination of cellulose or lignin [so you can use any plant material not just food crops] …  There seems to be quite a big shortage of people in NGO’s and sort of on the anti plastic side of things who are eco-toxicologists or toxicologists and ecologists who the NGOs don’t seem to have very much expertise available to do anything about this stuff.  I think partly because there was the climate change effect, and everyone’s starting to work on that…

Agrochemicals Industry

C:  When I saw you the other day we were talking about agro-chemical companies like Syngenta and Bayer,  the arguments inside those companies, about [new] business models. Can it be a high value sector, wrapping things up with advice and something or services and reduction of toxics that are just liberated into the environment.  Most of those debates don’t seem to have lead to any yet, to any significant change?

P: I don’t think there will because there’s a real limit. I mean agriculture’s interesting in this country very highly subsidised, when I was a kid, because it was so subsidised and profitable, we had machinery people calling round every week, you’d have sales people turning up and they were selling agro-chemicals, fertilisers, and machinery, and it was clearly a huge market … there’s been consolidation as in all industries but the margins have got tighter, consolidation has meant, fewer people are buying fewer machines, buying bigger machines …

The scope for advice, in chemical farming is still there, because it’s got more and more complicated and more active substances being used on each crop, and you almost need a degree in chemistry to know what the hell you’re putting on things.

[Note: Peter also told me that because farmers now relied on consultants for advice rather than the old state advisers, there was mokre encouragement of ‘insurance spraying’, ie apply chemicals just in case there is a pest problem rather than when it occurs, as the advisers are concerned about being sued].

“one of the big farming companies … have a spray advisor and … 12000 hectares or something really big estate … he advises them on fungicides and using about a dozen active ingredients on a wheat crop, of one spray – fungicide – that’s apart from the insecticides, herbicides, growth regulators, and nearly all, all of them are mixtures of two or three fungicides … and he’s keeping his costs he was proud to say, at below £100 a hectare. So that’s 12000 hectares x £100 for one type of spray: a significant amount of money and that’s without all the other sprays, and the nitrogen and phosphorous and things”

P: I was reading the other day one of the big farming companies, Century, have a spray advisor and they’ve got, 12000 hectares or something really big estate of farms they farm for, and he advises them on fungicides and using about a dozen active ingredients on a wheat crop, of one spray – fungicide – that’s apart from the insecticides, herbicides, growth regulators, and nearly all, all of them are mixtures of two or three fungicides put on at once.  I would guess he’s getting his information from the chemical companies but you know there’s money there, and he’s keeping his costs he was proud to say, at below £100 a hectare. So that’s 12000 hectares x £100 for one type of spray: a significant amount of money and that’s without all the other sprays, and the nitrogen and phosphorous and things.

C: People basically don’t realise this do they, how many chemicals are put on?

Soil Association blog

The Dose-Succession Effect

P: No, we’ve been trying to move away from – that’s we the Soil Association – from individual campaigns against things like neo-neonicoitinoids or Round Up, individual chemicals, to highlight the huge increase in the use of chemicals, and we’ve got data for potatoes, onions and wheat.  6-18 times increase from the 70s to now.

Coupled with that, all the new science which shows there’s no safe lower dose and its not true that the dose makes it poison because tiny doses have been shown through a knowledge of genes, a positive use of it, to effect the gene expression: very sensitive to minuscule doses of Round Up for example.

“the huge increase in the use of chemicals, and we’ve got data for potatoes, onions and wheat.  6-18 times increase from the 70s to now … new science which shows there’s no safe lower dose …

you feed an animal one realistic dose of pesticide, well below the maximum residue level, the allowed level, and then feed it a different pesticide, also well below the MRL, and the second pesticides impact is much greater than you’d expect.  So it’s the succession that makes the dose …”

There’s been a very elegant bit of research, which makes sense I think as soon as you hear it, which says, looked at succession. So you feed an animal one realistic dose of pesticide, well below the maximum residue level, the allowed level, and then feed it a different pesticide, also well below the MRL, and the second pesticides impact is much greater than you’d expect.  So it’s the succession that makes the dose not the dose. Given that we eat food in succession, well food has different pesticides in it, it’s not very comforting information.

C: There was a woman who worked at the when I worked at Friends of The Earth as a pesticides campaigner at the (BUPA) Nigtingale Hospital in London.  Who was one of the few medical experts active in talking, speaking out about pesticides.  I think she was originally an expert on allergy, allergic reactions to organo-chlorines, and that’s who most of her patients were. But I think she was also working on OPs and things, and she talked about that sort of affect when people are ‘challenged’ they called it, by exposure then becoming much more … sensitive afterwards.

P: That’s another factor in this, I mean there’s been a huge battle even to get organo-phosphates recognised as dangerous, making people very sick, killing them. Cancer Research UK – really really difficult to get them to accept there might be environmental factors in cancer. There’s been you know I suppose its sort of ‘this is the research we do, this is the hundreds of researchers and lots of money, genetics and other stuff’.

C: And it’s internal medical fiefdoms.

P: It is. The thought they might have to campaign against agriculture obviously fills them with horror. Or the fact they might have to tell people to eat organic. Same as Micheal Gove and George Eustace, you know, “oh it’s thoroughly elitist we can’t do that”.

Change The Name ‘Organic’ ?

“’who’s interested in soil?’ … but now of course it’s rather sexy”

C: Do you think we’ll be able to overcome that? Should organic just change what things are called?

P: No I don’t really believe in changing names … we had a big debate when I was there in the early 2000s about Soil Association, which shouldn’t be, you know soil:  “who’s interested in soil?” but now of course it’s rather sexy.

So, no I think we’ve been doing some good things actually, partly luck as well as judgement and hindsight but getting organic into school meals.

Trying to get it into hospital food and workplace food so to take your point to make it normal. I’m beginning to think we haven’t been fierce enough, in making the point that I made a lot in Northern Ireland [about] leisure centres believe it or not.  That just because somebody’s poor, you know Northern Ireland and Belfast this was, it doesn’t mean they can’t have a decent swimming pool to go swimming in. Or a decent gym, and because there was a big argument, one of the things I managed to do in Northern Ireland was to get leisure centres, which were funded by the Department of Education and Sport, built in working class areas. We were told if you built one in Andersonstown it would be blown up the next morning.

I went back after I’d left to open it, it’s still there perfectly happy and supported by the Provisionals while we were building it I think, very popular.

“just because somebody’s very poor why are they not allowed Organic food?  It’s just an absurd elitest, horrible argumentit’s a British cultural thing”

Why should just because somebody’s very poor and lives in Newham or Tower Hamlets, are they not allowed Organic food? You know it’s just an absurd elitest, horrible argument.

C: Do you get that in other countries or is that a British cultural thing?

P: It’s a British cultural thing. It’s true it is largely I think, so maybe I should add to our why doesn’t organic do well here, government attitudes, Tesco’s and class. Class divisions, you wouldn’t hear people say that in Denmark would you.

C: I wouldn’t of thought so.

Labour, Conservative, and Environment

C: Do you think that do the Labour Party and the Conservative Party do you think they culturally get environmental stuff in the way that the public does?

P: No, I don’t. There are examples of people who do for one reason or another.  I mentioned Oliver Letwin, [and] Michael Meacher was good from the Labour side, certainly on public access, public rights.

“farming has managed to be one of those areas which either sends one of its own into politics and government …  or make itself into something … mysterious enough for non-farmers to feel they can’t venture there”

It’s interesting; farming has managed to be one of those areas which either sends one of its own into politics and government, so it’s an NFU representative in government, or, make itself into something which is, mysterious enough for non-farmers to feel they can’t venture there.

So, there’s a real hesitancy and one of the things we find in the Soil Association first of all, the huge advantage of being a farmer and doing Organic and working with quite a few other people like Helen Browning who’s my boss, who’s a very good organic farmer, and now runs an organic pub as well. The authority, some of it slightly spurious that you get from that, and so yeah they’ve managed to keep it sort of closed off.

C: If you look at somebody like say Jeremy Corbyn [then Labour leader], who you must know slightly?

P: No I don’t actually, may have met him once.

C: Do you think the latter reason about the mysteriousness and the sort of distance culturally of farming, is … an element of political competitiveness with the environmental movement. It became like a popular thing in the 60s or 70s, and it wasn’t the class war … ?

“maybe … there wasn’t a clear ideological issue they could get their hands on”

P: No I think it was just de-relevant, you know not relevant, partly maybe because there wasn’t a clear ideological issue they [Labour] could get their hands on. But its surprising that the obvious elements of conservative ideology of land ownership, of continuing privilege, coupled with in pre-Thatcher days, which she threw out the window pretty sharpish, and people like Lord Carrington and the old guard, felt quite strongly, and there are a few people around who still do. Michael Gove appeals to it, quite often, but they got away with that.

Labour never had an alternative vision to challenge them with, from I suppose a decline in Marxism and state ownership of land.  I mean there’s still a debate back in the 60s and 70s but it never really got very far [see recent attempts by @guyshrubsole]. More so in Scotland and it remained an issue to which the SNP, it seems to me much more sensitive to.

C: Yeah, they acted on it to an extent.

P: Yeah on the land ownership thing, but they’re also at least in theory more sympathetic to good quality food for everybody and even Organic, in Scotland, than they have been in England. In practice they haven’t done that much but there is some, Aberdeen Council were always leaders in school meal provision for example in school meal quality.

I was going to say I think maybe we haven’t done enough to advance the argument that high quality food should be a right for everybody, and I’ve just been writing something for, which you might give to somebody who’s writing policy in this area of the Labour Party and thats an argument I started to make and I think I need to strengthen.


P: We also face the difficulty, and I found it in writing this piece, but all the politicians including Labour, work to defined silos, so food and health is different from environment and farming, different minister, different responsibility, and to write a policy paper which says you can’t think about one without the other is inviting trouble.

Turf wars, all that sort of bullshit, so I think that’s still going to be a difficulty. That should be the argument [poor people dersrve quality food too].

“it’s an overwhelmingly white middle class pre occupation that you shouldn’t promote organic because people can’t afford it”

It’s interesting, it tends to be white middle class people who say its unfair to try and persuade working class people to eat organic food.  When you look at the work we’ve done in school meals I’ve always been struck by the more of the resistance comes from white working class than black and asian communities. Who are closer culturally to food and food production I guess, even though they may be even more disconnected from the countryside than white people are in this country and their culture is closer; cooking from scratch isn’t a shock to them in the same way that it can be for poorer white people. But it’s an overwhelmingly white middle class pre occupation that you shouldn’t promote organic because people can’t afford it.

The EU

C: How important do you think its been on food and farming and other things that you’ve worked on environmentally that we’ve been in Europe. In terms of ideas spreading or not from…

P: Very important.

C: It works in Denmark but it couldn’t work here stuff.

P: Yeah, and of course I’ve said the one bright spark of about this Brexit is that the EU will now be rid of the hugely conservative anti environmental influence that the UK, the malign influence we’ve exerted on everything from renewable energy to pollution, organic and everything else.

We’ve not been bad on climate change and not too bad on wildlife most of the time, not good on welfare which we always claim to care about, very negative on everything else including pesticides. Neonicotinoid ban is the first time we’ve ever voted for a ban on pesticides that I can ever remember, in the EU and that’s Michael Gove, and also the science had become so overwhelming.

I think the DEFRA Chief Scientist had started to switch sides and made it tricky for them.

So I think it’s been extremely important and it’ll be a great loss – the ideal would be we remain in the Single Market and have to follow the EU rules without having any say in them because the rules will get tighter and we’ll still have to follow them. Maybe it’s slightly malevolent but I think it’s true.

“a monumental tragedy and a cock-up”

No it’s [Brexit] a monumental tragedy and a cock up. Absolutely extraordinary, you know do you ever talk to anybody who’s an expert on any little tiny bit of it, and what you think is a tiny bit balloons into a huge complex miasma of unresolved questions. There’s a whole lot of stuff these are meant to be people on the right of the Tory party against red tape and bureaucracy and you know they’re hiring hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of new civil servants to write new, well not even new rules, but EU rules into British law.

The interesting thing, I mean there are unintended consequences and you’ve got a lot of people in DEFRA who are completely new to it who come in without the old MAFF legacy which was still knocking around because they lost so many of the old guard and Andrea Leadsom was sacking 20 or 30 percent of them, and they’ve now got that number plus 50% more or something back again and of course they’re all fairly new.

“organic’s always had the scientific evidence to back it up, it’s just not had the politics and the cultural commitment which you get in Germany, Austria, Denmark, Sweden, France …”

So they’ve come to it with a much cleaner sheet. Which is a good thing for things like Organic Farming because organic’s always had the scientific evidence to back it up, it’s just not had the politics and the cultural commitment which you get in Germany and Austria and Denmark and Sweden and so on. And now in France; France is seeing an extraordinary turn around from thinking ‘if it’s French food, it’s French food and it’s perfect’, and organic being a tiny part of production on the market, to being a very significant market and it’s on course to overtake the UK. That was NGO pressure partly the deal that what’s his name. Who was the president? Little guy?

C: Not Macron?

P: No, before Macron [Nicholas Sarkozy or Francoise Hollande].

P: They did it with Greenpeace and WWF in France. That’s what we were told by Carrefour.  Because Carrefour were told by the government to make organic food available to everybody and they did their best to do it and sell it at the same price as non organic whenever they could. The market’s grown dramatically and production is now growing too in France.

C: The French are doing a lot of good things on chemicals.

P: and on pesticides.

C: Extended Producer Responsibility on plastics.

P: They’re good on RoundUp, they’ve been anti-neonics all the time, they are good. Mind you I met somebody I met somebody from the French Agriculture Department I had sent an email to who when I launched into an paeon of praise for the French at a DEFRA meeting a week or two ago, looked rather sceptical.  As if you know there’d been a lot of talk which I picked up and not so much action so I thought I ought to try and have lunch with her in London some time.

Brexit Lessons ?

[note these conversations took place in 2018]

C: What lessons do you think campaigners and NGOs more generally should draw from the story of the referendum and Brexit?

P: Well, its a lesson, one lesson is that people can be in favour of things or do things not for what seems like the reason you’re asking them, the question.  Or, I think that it sort of parallel is the protection of the North East Atlantic.  You remember during the Brent Spar campaign, we had colleagues in Greenpeace international like Remi [Parmentier] at a conference or going to a conference to protect the oceans, to which dumping of oil installations was not directly relevant, and they all said that.  I remember some people saying you shouldn’t do this now because its not relevant to OSPAR, I’m sure you told me, and I certainly saw from the experience that people don’t make these very direct mechanical sort of linkages: ‘this is happening its bad, we can do something’, doesn’t need to be a connection particularly but “its the some general area so lets do it”.  I think the Referendum was partly, partly, less often explained partially explained by the fact that people were just fed up with Cameron, and the establishment and particularly the recession and cuts and things, and this was a way of expressing that.

I think one big thing was economics and you shouldn’t assume because the EU is a good thing, and rationally people should be in favour of it, that they will be.  Because you may find their upset about falling living standards which is actually probably being not so bad because we’re in the EU but they’re upset about it so they’ll vote against the EU.

The thing I’m more conflicted about and find more difficult is immigration.  You know I feel a personal twist every time I see one of those stories, things that other people have done to people …  But I think there was an attitude in New Labour and probably one at the time I shared I suppose, which said prejudice against the number of immigrants,  as well as where they come from, is racist and right wing and horrible.  But of course, the fact is you cant have unlimited ‘people can go where they want’, its completely impossible and would lead quite quickly to violence.  And this is despite all the you know, as I say the feelings of horror when you hear or read about the terrible things that are happening to people, and the sense that we can certainly take in a lot of immigrants without doing any harm, and in fact doing a lot of good; the fact that my family come from immigrants from east Germany originally, the fact that the anti-immigrant feeling is strongest in places like South Wales where there aren’t any immigrants, weirdly, you know, all of those contradictions and nonsenses.

But I think the sense that New Labour particularly, probably but [it] started with Thatcher and carried on with Cameron, that it was ‘out of control’ that there was, nobody had a grip of it was probably very damaging. And of course the irony is as soon as we decide to leave the EU they’re going to clamp down and have a system that probably nearly everyone in this country we’d find perfectly acceptable. So of all the many ironies of Brexit, that’s certainly one of them.

Northern Ireland

[Peter Melchett was a government Minister in Northern Ireland]

C: The Northern Ireland border question may yet scupper Brexit and amend it in ways not intended by the Brexiteers. Peter Haine said on the night of the referendum that nobody had thought about that. Do you think this says anything systematic about the UK political class or process or culture relationship with Ireland?

P: Yes. I think Northern Ireland is something on the whole, UK politicians will prefer to forget. And they did all, our life times up to, the outbreak of violence again. In the seventies. But as soon as the peace deal had been signed, which was quite an achievement I think, then it went off the radar again, I reckon.

It doesn’t fit with any sort of established ideological mainstream political discourse, it’s not rich vs poor, its on the whole the poor killing the poor, usually poor Catholics and poor Protestants but occasionally poor English soldiers get sent in and are killed in their turn. A left or a Marxist analysis would see the middle class upper class protestants and Catholics or republicans and unionists united in a unholy holy effort to suppress and make use of working class fears.

So it’s easily forgotten, and it was in the EU Referendum.

The idea that it could be big enough to forestall anything, would be seen as absurd in the context of that referendum debate, but of course Ireland is a Member State, and Ireland has a say in all this. Given that the EU want to make it as difficult as possible for anyone to leave, they’re more than happy for the Irish to cause difficulty, but the border was never that sealed anyhow. There’s hundreds of tracks and farm tracks and roadways and so on. Smuggling, moving stuff both ways across the border was a way of life. It’s all a bit academic.

C: When you were in Ireland did you get that, did that affect what you were doing? I know the government spent loads of money on it, but was it seen as something that was other from the rest of it – didn’t really have anything to do with politics as [British] people thought about it.

P: Yes. Except of course the bombing campaign on the English, Scottish mainland did make it a UK political issue. I don’t think the killings in Northern Ireland itself really did, and the sort of understanding of the dynamic of who was being killed and why, what kept it going and so on, was pretty minimal.

C: I was in Ireland a week ago and we went to a museum in Galway. Which is a great museum.

P: EU funded.

C: Yeah of course, I expect.  There was one whole area, it was very much laid out for the education of local school children, I think that was the purpose. There was a big thing on the oceans, there was a lot of archaeological and historical stuff, there was stuff about the families that used to run Galway, the waves of French, Normans, British and English families, all that and how it panned out the history of the place.

But there was one whole room on the struggle for independence. Which of course most people in this country only have an extremely dim idea that anything happened before the 1970’s but there was a time wasn’t there when it was with Lloyd George, when it was very much a political question but that seemed to have sort of got lost from … I guess with the establishment from the Republic they just sort of forgot about all that stuff?  When looked at from an Irish perspective it was all one long thing, but they also had the watershed of the Republic as established, and then there’s a problem in Northern Ireland that isn’t really their problem.

“come the border, from the Republics’ perspective they, gradually they  lost touch with the North, the North was a foreign country, filled with foreign people, all the Unionists that they didn’t understand, didn’t relate to or have any cultural or political affinity with”

P: Exactly it isn’t really their problem. It was very interesting, by the way my great grandfather was sort of, he had a couple of things which were mentioned in political biographies, which defined his political position: he was in favour of votes for women and the Irish Republic. It was one of the major political issues at the time. He was in politics. You’re right that come the border, from the Republics perspective they, gradually they  lost touch with the North, the North was a foreign country, filled with foreign people, all the Unionists that they didn’t understand, didn’t relate to or have any cultural or political affinity with.

“It was amazing to me, how difficult it was for example to get the Irish Republics’ education minister to visit the north. In theory they wanted to try and control the whole thing: in practice they wouldn’t even get on a train to Belfast to visit a couple of schools, it was that alien. They’d rather go to Lithuania probably”

It was amazing to me, how difficult it was for example to get the Irish Republics education minister to visit the north. In theory they wanted to try and control the whole thing: in practice they wouldn’t even get on a train to Belfast to visit a couple of schools, it was that alien. They’d rather go to Lithuania probably.

“decades of discrimination which needed to be not just ended but reversed”

So they put it aside, the British put it aside until the army went in, you’d have to say, once they’d seized the problem, there were people in the British establishment and successive governments and civil servants who grasped the complexity of what they were dealing with.  And accepted that there’d been decades of discrimination which needed to be not just ended but reversed, which was part of what I was doing when I was there, even handed administration really. People who understood that,

A violent campaign of the sort the IRA were waging depended on popular support so you weren’t going to defeat it militarily but you could defeat by removing the water in which fish swim and all that sort of stuff.

It was true, towards the end, you saw more and more Provisionals being arrested, and that was information that wasn’t sudden change and security, more informers probably. But that reflected a change in public attitude.

“the Provisionals had a real impact … their campaign did change Northern Ireland, it’s now a much fairer country”

It’s interesting how the various groups that have been called terrorists in our lifetime and how Bade Meinhof occasionally gets mentioned in the news, but its nothing, and the time it seems some huge great violent [thing] and they killed lots of people and kidnapped and god knows what but the groups with widespread popular support like the ANC and the Provisionals had a real impact. The Provisionals did, their campaign did change Northern Ireland, it’s now a much fairer country.

You know, when I went there, there were still people who thought that you got a hospital bed by knowing the minister for health and you went to see him.  Somebody actually came to see me, and (chuckle) and the civil servants were all really embarrassed about it, as a sort of shady past they wanted nothing to do with they were very decent people, on the whole.  They were all terribly decent people on the whole, and literally a woman in a mink coat turned up in the DHSS.

C: In the south there are still scandals about exactly that sort of thing, only it’s not individuals going to hospital, it’s building hospitals in my constituency, which I think was just what’s happened but its hospitals or special schools or something very recently.

P: And of course it happens in the north all the time, under the Unionists rule but you know its a small country, one and a half million people it doesn’t take much to change it actually.

What Should NGOs Be Doing ?

C: what do you think NGOs ought to be doing that they’re not doing?  My big thing is that  none of them have done anything effective to make the public literate in nature, being able to recognise things like natural history and that sort stuff of completely fell out of the cultural and educational system with lots of consequences, blindness to nature really.

P: That’s interesting because I would have said one of the things we’ve focused on in our school meals work is trying to make children literate in food, I mean what does a chicken look like, is it something white with no feathers and size of a chicken leg and wrapped in plastic, or is it a bird with feathers and beak that lays eggs.

We find that literacy in food is a big reinforcer or a necessary pre condition you can almost say to a healthy diet, so behavioural change follows a necessary understanding.

So I’m sure you’re right that knowledge about nature would then make people more aware of the threats.

“I’ve definitely noticed a distinct drop in insects … used to be a real nuisance at times … wasp invasions every summer … huge quantities of flies in the house in the autumn … flying ants in the garden … the frequency and quantity has gone down dramatically”

But I’ve been interested, in the last 10-15 years, last five years maybe, I’ve definitely noticed a distinct drop in insects. The sort of you know they used to be a real nuisance at times, we used to get wasp invasions every summer, or a wasps nest nearby, we’d get huge quantities of flies in the house in the autumn, we’d get flying ants in the garden and things. I mean there are still examples for all those things but the frequency and quantity has gone down dramatically, I was thinking this walk Cass and I had the other day and we saw four different butterflies, the yellow brimstone, there was a gatekeeper, gatekeepers used to be really to a penny on the farm, all over the bloody place, now its really rare to see them.

C: So anyway you were saying there’s been this massive drop in insects.

P: Yes, yes but have people noticed?

C: Yep.

P: I mentioned it to Cass or Jay, my son and things and it sort of passes people by a bit.  I suppose I only really became acutely aware of it when I read scientific reports,  about the 75% drop in insects on German nature reserves. I read another paper the other day about dramatic drop in hoverfly’s I think it was, but this was recent.

C: Yeah it is recent.

P: so it’s not the 70s or 80s

C: so what is going on ?

P: The neo-nicotinoids are persistent and get off the fields and into the margin so that’s obviously one. And neonicontinoids are not just used on farms but you know pets, and garden insects,’ and so on, so that must have had an impact. But I think fungicides … the next big scares I’ve been saying this for a while, will be people will be recognise the impact fungicides are having…

C: I said that to a guy at the Woodland Trust I’ve been corresponding with about ash die back, there’s sudden oak death, theres a whole load of ‘new’ diseases, and I was saying it doesn’t make [sense], why are all of these things happening. It may just be a coincidence but it seems a strange one..

P: I have a theory that the trees on this farm are more resilient. Let me just point out the window, there are…. hedgerow, you see the ash coming in to leaf-

C: It’s a healthy looking ash tree.

P: The one next to it is not quite so healthy but the next one is. All three of them looked as if they were getting die back when it first happened the first summer it happened, the ash and the wood the older ones are alright, the younger ones, we may have had one or two die. Those are Oak mainly I think not in leaf yet, but we’ve had no…

C: I was looking at them when I arrived I was thinking they look unusually healthy.

P: We’ve got too old, middle aged Ash on the road, the road from Ringstead to Docking. They both looked as if they had ash die back, and they got the forester when he came to do our tree work in the winter to lop some branches off in the road, in case it fell down, thinking we were going to have to knock trees down the next year and they’re both perfectly alright.

C: That’s good if they are. If you actually do have healthy trees then the Woodland Trust and the forestry research people would be up here like a shot.

P: Yeah well don’t want to tempt fate I’ll wait.

C: I said to him a while ago, that I remember when I worked on acid rain air pollution and the Forestry Commission in this country saying “oh nothings happening”.  You know, they sent pathologists, who find disease organisms in things that are dying. They said it was due to this rot and the other sub-top-die-back, so I asked “what exactly is sub top die back?” and they said “itis when the top bit just below the top dies back”, and I said “but why?”, and they said “we don’t know why” – but they had a name for it. Then they just moved on. He was saying “yeah that’s exactly what’s happening like there’s another disease that’s killing all the juniper trees”, native junipers which nobody talks about. He said the forestry research people just wash their hands of it, they’ve given it a name and they’re just ignoring it they’re not giving any research. I said with ‘Waldsterben’, acid rain related air pollution decline they discovered its the combination of this dissociation of the mycorrhizae affecting the nutrition of the tree and making it vulnerable to these other things and that was connected with ozone damage and changing the stomata which was upsetting the balance between the respiration and transpiration, and of nutrients and the acidity removing cations and so on. There was all these things tied together, but in Britain there was hardly anybody knew anything about mycorrhizae, whereas the first thing that you learnt was in forestry school in Germany, they get down and that’s immediately what German foresters do, they get down on their knees and expose the roots and look at the mycorrhizae – they don’t ever do that in this country. So you could see that with fungicides you know … and how about micro-plastics because they’re carrying all these other chemicals so because they’re completely ubiquitous it’s an heroic assumption that these things have no effect. Especially for fungicides because they’re supposed to have an effect.

P: Yeah as I say earlier if you look at the quantity and variety of the fungicides now being used, a dozen spray times, eight different active ingredients, it’s extraordinary. In the old days you might spray once or twice and even that was having a really significant effect on insects when they were first introduced which Dick Potts discovered through his modelling of the grey partridge populations.

C: I remember reading about it some time ago.

P: Now you’ve had this sort of hidden, you know in secret huge increase in the number and variety of fungicides being applied.  There was an Ash disease thing in the 70s which they never found out what it was. I certainly found that depth of ploughing was having an effect and disturbing the roots and we’ve got Ash that died in that thing where they sent up a whole lot of suckers and some of my personal work on the trees on the farm, cut them all back except left one to go up, there’s two on the way down on the road there on the left. Now with wider margins and shallower ploughing, they’re thriving, and of course no fungicides being used on the farm either.

C: I suggested to Adam Cormack [now at the Woodland Trust] in the Wildlife Trusts and to Friends of the Earth, to Craig Bennett [now at the Wildlife Trusts] who tends to agree but then nothing happens, that they ought to monitor chemicals in nature reserves to show that whether or not – I mean I’d be astonished if there aren’t lots of agrochemicals in nature reserves – seeing as they’re surrounded by them.  In order to give them a line in the sand you know argument, that these things should now be surrounded by buffer land which is either organic farming or its taken out of farming because otherwise they’re no use you know.

P: Just to jump back to the discussion about the sort of people who work for NGO’s I think one of the problems is that if you are a real expert and trained scientifically or academically you’re much more conscious of your level of ignorance, and it worries you much more, so farming is really pretty simple, not that complicated. That’s another reason why those people are sort of nervous about moving into a new area, taking a sideways step, going forward, going down a different track towards their goal.   They think they’ve got to stay where their expertise lies.  See that with Friends of the Earth people sometimes.  Even really good people they obviously feel a bit nervous about straying outside their area of expertise and they shouldn’t I mean nobody’s that expert, and when they are they’re usually talking bullshit .…

C: They can commission and advise, work with them to work out what it is you’re going to say you want to happen. Then they don’t have to have done it all. But I do think they [many NGOs] need to have more capacity to actually do stuff and that’s partly a lack of investment so for example they’re quite, their culture is very much we’ll comment on something and not “we’ll go and find out for ourselves”

P; Yeah we [Soil Associaton] have that problem sometimes, and to actually get someone to identify something we can do and do it, and they’re so bloody busy commentating on what the governments about to do or not going to do.

C: and social media has probably made it worse, because it gives a guaranteed, you control the publication opportunities, but then the only people reading it are the ones who probably already agree with you.

P: Yeah or the professional people who disagree with you, being paid to argue with you, keep you busy yeah.

Downsides of Political Consenus ?

C: There was a lot of British cross-party consensus over Northern Ireland partly because nobody actually wanted to have articulate views about it because it seemed insensical. The same thing happened in climate change, that helped get an Act but did it actually kill it as an issue that people wanted to compete for politically, because it was just sort of seen as a government thing, not politics?

P: I think it [environment] was in that box by and large, ever since the end of the first post war Labour government. I would have said, and it may be partly ‘rose-tinted’, but the post war Labour government as part of the new settlement after the war, saw things like access to the countryside, National Parks, having a beautiful countryside, protecting it and so on as part of that general ‘we’re moving to a new world’, with the NHS and social security and so on.

“There was never any ideology was there in it, was there ?”

I suppose, I haven’t thought about this but following that through, maybe it quickly became a bit like the NHS that you know that nobody could be against it. But then, I’m pushing this too far, but … it was deemed seen as settled politics, there wasn’t a big ideological argument we had once you’d got the NHS and it was in place, once you’d got the national parks and SSSIs, and even then they became or agricultural policy, a bit more of a political, not party political but political media issue through the 70s and 80’s. There was never any ideology was there in it, was there ?

I mean straw-burning wasn’t seen as a terrible thing that capitalist land owners were doing while working class motorway drivers piled up on the M1. We never framed like that by anybody including all the environmentalists, and attempts to make it to do with land ownership never got anywhere. So politics moved to the right since the … [microphone muffled] I think I’ve still got still got this poster Scottish Labour post-war election which is just a poster saying ‘take land into public ownership’. A major political poster.  You never saw that through the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, no.

Countryside – “It should be a gift to Labour”

P: So yes, it got put in that box or I’ve argued for years and years if you look at the Labour Party’s record, particularly in the post government, a few things since, and you link things like, public rights to wildlife to enjoying wildlife and access for countryside, and countryside being managed in public realm and private interests and so on. It should be a gift to Labour. But their politicians are mainly urban.

Peter Mandelson

C: I remember talking in the 80s or 90s, being asked to go and see Mandelson, before Blair got elected, by Stuart Boyle I think if you remember him. Because I’d been saying I didn’t think Labour would ever do much on environment because they didn’t have any visceral connection [with it], unlike people like Richard Body in the Conservatives, you can see the Conservatives who did.  He got me to see Mandelson and I went and talked to him, he was pretty hostile, he said “well why not” you know, and I said you don’t have any baby-kissing or anyone who could lean credibly on a gate and talk and look comfortable doing it.  He didn’t like this because he could see it was true in his sort of terms …

P: certainly yes (laughs) I can’t remember what the rest of the conversation was but it very didn’t last long. I mean he was a sort of apotheosis of [‘urban Labour’] .. he’d be comfortable sitting around Cameron’s …

P: or on a yacht

C: on his yacht in Corfu, yes but not only that. Also along with being comfortable about people getting [‘filthy’] rich, they also seemed comfortable about things like seven or eight Earls and Lords owning most of Norfolk.

P: I had a similar conversation, my mum invited Mandelson to dinner, through Adam Bolton who my sister was married to, it was awful.

C: I’m a great admirer of his political skills, but not the way necessarily he’s used them.

P: But it’s been to the great I think disadvantage of the environmental movement that there hasn’t been that political ideological debate because it just takes it off the agenda, takes it off manifestos, takes it off lists of Bills to passed.

C: And it doesn’t signal that there’s a career of being successful at this. Michael Gove’s recent antics being slight exception.

first time … since the ‘47 Agriculture Act, an actual discussion about direction of agricultural policy. Extraordinary, and interesting.

P: Well its a major post war exception really, first time we’ve had since the ‘47 Agriculture Act, an actual discussion about direction of agricultural policy. Extraordinary, and interesting.

C: Because he looks as if he might actually do something, exposes the fact like you were saying like before its a bit like a ‘house of cards’, you only have to change one or two major things and the whole thing changes. It’ll be interesting to see what happens.

P: Yep.

The Effect of the Wildlife and Countryside Bill

[In UK nature conservation circles Peter Melchett became famous for being the main mover in setting up and then chairing Wildlife Link, a coalition set up to coordinate lobbying over what became the 1981 Wildlife and Countrtyside Act].

“it was interesting that bill you know it did something [I] didn’t realise you could do which was they changed the mood or the context for SSSI’s”

P: … it was interesting that bill you know it did something [I] didn’t realise you could do which was they changed the mood or the context for SSSI’s. I mean up to 1981 even through the bills passage, SSSI’s were being destroyed.   Do you remember there was a wood in Sussex I think where the farmer went in with the bulldozer and bulldozed the trees at chest height and then the Nature Conservancy Council kept it as a SSSI because the ground flora was still [intact] … so it didn’t work but that’s the sort of damage and destruction.

C: There was a guy in Kent a farmer who said to me after they bought in compensation payments for farmers, he said “now”, and that’s when he’d ended up running an RSPB reserve [on a marsh he had tried to drain], he said to me, “now we’ve got the teeth to enforce a compromise”. A mixed metaphor, meaning…

P: Phillip Merricks?

C: Yeah Phillip Merricks, meaning they’d make a whole load of money [conservation payments]. But this other guy [also] in Kent and on the edge of Romney Marsh, was in a tv film called Butterflies or Barley.  A friend of mine was the local ARO for the NCC and he had to deal with him, and I think it was probably him who got him on the TV, and he was a big NFU enthusiast who was the county person or something: Hughie Batchelor.   I remember he was proud of what he was doing, they filmed like a sort of row of combines coming down this massive field he owned, on this big hill with all the dust going up as if they were like tanks in the battle of Stalingrad.  They’d got him [on] because he’d been blowing up hedgerows, they’d got him to blow up the hedgerows in the background as it happened, and so it looked like a battle right? They had this on the TV and my then father in law saw it who was a Conservative supporting small business man in Surrey, who ran an engineering company, and he saw this and it sort of made sense [of] what I was complaining about. But what he was really incensed about, was that this chap stood there with this brand new Land Rover with his hand on it and his leg up on the side, saying “they look after us the Ministry of Agriculture, even the tool box in this Land Rover is a tax deteductable expenditure” … something like that, and this is entirely right and proper.  He was beside himself with apoplectic rage at the fact that they were getting all these subsidies, that he wasn’t getting any of.  That was when quite a lot of business people turned against the farming system but it wasn’t really sustained because they didn’t have much to do with it. Once the focus of that legislation stuff disappeared.

P: Yep. But what it did was change the mood from it being alright to destroy SSSIs unless you were stopped or got compensation or something, to a general feeling that they should be safeguarded and not destroyed, definitely a mood change.

Farmers Cheating On Taxes

P: So its interesting, I was reading some comments from the recent DEFRA consultation and the Agriculture Bill they’ve been consulting [on] … one farmers’ response to the question ‘why don’t you make more profit’, one answer was “we put all the profit through the books as expenses so we don’t pay tax”. And another answer was “I put all my living expenses on the business”, you think these people are replying to the government trying to get continued money from the [!] …

C: You were saying that you were they were replying to the government …

“we don’t make any money because we’re cheating on our taxes.  So the attitude that ‘it’s our money and we should be given it’, is still surprisingly prevalent”

P: Replying to the government yeah for continuation of money after we leave the policy [EU Common Agricultural Policy], we don’t make any money because we’re cheating on our taxes. So the attitude that ‘it’s our money and we should be given it’, is still surprisingly prevalent.

Ravens and Hen Harriers

Campaigning on Hen Harriers (being shot on grouse moors) in 2020

C: What about all this stuff about Ravens and Hen Harriers and the current things that Mark Avery and people have been talking about do you see that as a resurgence of the shooting lobby asserting itself or as its last gasp in public debate?

“weakness by the RSPB … they know where they’ve been killed they know who owns the land, every time a Harrier’s killed there should be a press release …”

P: I see both of them as weakness by the RSPB, frankly.

I think Mark’s right. ‘Mean the RSPB should have been naming land owners where Hen Harriers are killed for 20 years at least, they’ve known there’s a pattern of the estates, nearly all managed by one or two managed by one or two management companies. So there are management companies.  So there are management companies that manage grouse moors, and they mapped all the Harrier deaths I heard this from them, I don’t know what the percentage is, 70 or 80 or more percent just fall in, under two management companies, apparently.

C: Really ? I’ve never heard that

P: Hmm. But anyhow I mean they know where they’ve been killed they know who owns the land, every time a Harrier’s killed there should be a press release saying Lord X or whatever it is Stuttgart or whaterver it is German, or the land owner has had a bird of prey killed on their land. Don’t need to say they did it, or they ordered it or turned a blind eye to it …  they should name who manages the land and they should be running a really strong campaign, to say that before farmers get any public money they should stop the killing.

Which the judge said in Norfolk do you remember the case for all those buzzards and things were found: ‘this is not good agricultural and environmental land management, lose 10% of your basic payment, for a big estate, you are talking about hundreds of thousands of pounds, second offence 25%’. It would stop it, you could stop it within months, the whole thing.

“they should be running a really strong campaign, to say that before farmers get any public money they should stop the killing … which the judge said in Norfolk do you remember the case for all those buzzards and things were found … lose 10% of your basic payment, for a big estate, you are talking about hundreds of thousands of pounds, second offence 25%’. It would stop it, you could stop it within months, the whole thing”

C: Why do you think the RSPB is like that? Is it because they become a sort of satisficing organisation they just want to keep their members happy visiting nature reserves and don’t want to rock the boat or …

P: There’s obviously an element of that, I mean there was, I was on the RSPB Council back in the early 80s and there was then. The Reserves Department was staffed by people who spend their lives desperately trying to get on with neighbours to stop them killing the rare birds when they strayed a few yards from the reserves: happened here at Titchwell. Norman Sills who was the warden back in when the 1990s, spent a huge amount of time trying to get on with gamekeepers on Steven Batts and other estates near Titchwell, where at that stage there were only two or three Marsh Harrier nests in North Norfolk, trying to stop them being killed when they came hunting over the fields. And the pheasant release pens…

C: That has all changed, you travel all over Norfolk now there’s an awful lot of marsh harriers you see them all over the place

P: And now Kites, Buzzards, and on the fens.

C: People just aren’t shooting them.

P: No  … The RSPB … it is a bit of a mystery, I think they’ve had since Ian Prestt they’ve had bosses who’ve had other priorities.  I thought Mike might be a bit harder but not.


Were you involved in the Crow Act [Countryside And Rights of Way Act], and generally do you think British attitudes to private land mean attempts to democratize access to the countryside are doomed?   It seemed to me the Crow Act was sort of temporarily raised this idea of more public access but then seemed to have not had much momentum behind it.

P: I think that’s probably true. I’m a bit distant from it all, I had a sort of part to play when I was President of the Ramblers, so this was 1981-4.   I think one of my – you had to make a presidential address at each AGM –  and for one of them, I wasn’t sure what I should say, and I remember talking to Marion Shoard and she said “why don’t you propose a general right to roam like they have in Sweden?”, and she sent me some stuff about Sweden.

So I made a speech at the AGM, and the Ramblers were and generally are in a sort of holding the fort defensive mode of trying to stop rights of way being extinguished, and to register rights of way which are there but not on the definitive map, I mean its a fairly defensive posture.  There’s been … it’s fair to say campaigns for new long distance paths, like Peddar’s way NN coast, the Thames way was one of the most significant and so on. But the idea of a huge increase in access has basically wasn’t on their agenda and I think it started that discussion a bit.

Then I left and was at Greenpeace and wasn’t involved particularly.  I think the Crow Act was it was Micheal Meacher wasn’t it, I think it was, it gave access to land which in the end my impression was, was land which not only did farmers not want to farm but it was actually land that people didn’t really want to walk on much. Bit like saltmarsh, and so I never saw it as say looking from outside, as being especially significant, although I’m sure there were local instances where it was where it gave access to commons and things.

I think the Coastal Path is probably more significant.  I had a training session for Natural England staff a few years ago and I said of all the things you’re preoccupied with of all the things you’re doing, the one thing which I think is certain to be remembered is the Coastal Path. What I’ve seen and its only tiny bits, the changes they’re making to the coastal path, because they’re improving the coastal path not because of CROW, look to some of them be good.  The bit where it comes inland from Thornham they’re going to change that to keep it on the coast. I wouldn’t say its landmark legislation to put it mildly.

Protecting The Curlew

As perceived by the shooting lobby.  

C: On a different subject about the curlew, Cass was telling me about your story of protecting the curlew.  Meaning getting it off the shooting list I think? What happened there?

P: Yep. Well when the Wildlife Countryside Bill was published, in 1979 I guess,  there were a lot of species added to protected lists including extra special protection for bat roosting and badger sets.

But on the European whatever it is, Birds Directive,  there were several species added to the fully protected list including the curlew. I think various duck and things, anyhow, the House of Lords, the curlew wasn’t on the original list but the House of Lords agreed and an amendment which Lord Chelwood [Tufton Beamsish] known in Private Eye as ‘Sir Bufton Tufton’ and I promoted.  So I was the Labour front bench and he was the Tory backbencher, and he was very right wing, but like you said earlier one of those Conservatives with a natural feeling for the countryside.

I remember my dad telling me that he tried to eat a curlew and it tasted like wellington boots boiled in saltwater for three weeks 

A feeling and understanding which went beyond “we want to shoot as many things as we can” sort of ignorance, it was informed connection.  So anyhow that passed in the House of Lords and I had history with curlews.  They were shot, when I was a kid of course and up until then. I actually shot at one once at the top end of the farm, I was out pigeon shooting with a gamekeeper and he said “oy take the shot”, anyhow I missed. I remember my dad telling me that he tried to eat a curlew and it tasted like wellington boots boiled in saltwater for three weeks.

So anyhow the Bill goes back past the ‘Commons after we debated 1,200 amendments more than any other Bill up to that point,  the Commons rejected most of the amendments, including all the ones taking things putting things on the protected list. The MPs had obviously been given a briefing by the shooting lobby, just to not accept any as a principle.

Lord Masereen and Ferrard took a silk handkerchief out of his breast pocket and said “there’s absolutely no problem my Lords, with bulls all you have to do is drop a handkerchief in front of them”

So it came back to the Lords with all these birds taken off, we had some group debates and Lord Masereen and Ferrard … there was a debate about whether you could keep bulls on fields with public footpaths through them or whether it was just dairy bulls and beef bulls were safer and blah blah. Lord Masereen and Ferrard took a silk handkerchief out of his breast pocket and said “there’s absolutely no problem my Lords, with bulls all you have to do is drop a handkerchief in front of them”. (both chuckle) The idea of this little silk hanky dropping in front of several tonnes of charging Charolais …

There was a Scottish peer … we were debating whether you should ban shooting on Sundays because the law varied …  He got up and made an impassioned speech “as a Scottish land owner … shooting on Sundays – tradition part of Scottish heritage” and sat down. And I got up and said “but Scotland doesn’t allow shooting on Sunday’s it’s illegal” … it was bad taste to have pointed it out

There was a Scottish peer, can’t remember his name, and we were debating whether you should ban shooting on Sundays because the law varied, it’s banned in Norfolk but some counties allow it.  He got up and made an impassioned speech “as a Scottish land owner you know I own this Loch and this moorland and shooting on Sundays – tradition part of Scottish heritage” and sat down. And I got up and said “but Scotland doesn’t allow shooting on Sunday’s it’s illegal”. (Both chuckle). Oh god.

C: What did he say?

P: I don’t remember, it was bad taste to have pointed it out though. (Chuckles)

Anyhow, Tufton Bufton Lord Chelwood, true to that old sort of Tory, I’ll always remember Lord Carrington reminded me of it, who resigned over Falklands sort of [Conservative] upright, very moral, probably crooked but honourable yeah.

He moved the amendment again and I supported.  It was the only amendment which went back from the Lords to the Commons which the Common’s subsequently accepted. There were others that were more controversial I mean bat roosting areas and things and anyhow. It was an interesting Bill.  … I do think of it and we have more curlew now than ever before and over organic, and we have big numbers in the Autumn well big, 20 or 30 40 50 sometimes. And spring and sometimes a few stay all winter now.

C: Well look, that was really interesting talking to you, not sure what we’re going to do with it.

P: Yes nice to reminisce, dangerous activity.

Campaigning from beyond the grave – the EDP reports on a posthumous Soil Association briefing by Peter Melchett



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