Alice Barnard?s recent appointment as chief executive of the Countryside Alliance (CA) has attracted a lot of attention from the media. Not only is she the first woman to land the role, she is also the youngest, at 33 years old. ?After the news was announced, I received more than 150 emails in the first three days and I have been overwhelmed by press interest,? Alice revealed, as she welcomed me into the boardroom at the CA?s London headquarters a fortnight ago.
Alice has taken over from Simon Hart, who held the role for seven years until he was elected as Conservative MP for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire in May. The recruitment process was far from easy ? she had to pass five rounds of interviews and beat 100 other contenders. ?I was running for a train at King?s Cross station when the president of the CA, Baroness Mallalieu, telephoned me with the good news,? she said. ?Needless to say, I let the train go.?
For the past three years, Alice has worked as the CA?s regional director for the Eastern area and before that, she had her own company managing corporate sales for blue-chip firms. ?The decision to give up a lucrative career in London for a full-time post at the CA was one of the heart rather than the head,? she commented. ?At one point, I was also on the Conservative candidates list, but I have placed my desire to become an MP to one side to concentrate on running the CA.?
Keeping it rural
Alice lives in an 18th-century farm cottage in rural Leicestershire with her sporting-photographer husband Matt and their nine-year-old daughter, Isobel. Despite her daily commute to Kennington being more than two hours each way, Alice would never contemplate living in London. ?It is extremely important
that I practise what I preach and don?t lose touch with the countryside,? she explained. Alice also keeps a brood of hens, five horses and two working yellow Labradors, Finnley and Herbert. ?I regularly pick-up and beat on my local shoot,? said Alice. ?Shooting and eating game meat are things that I grew up with. As a child, I regularly accompanied my father roughshooting. In fact, over the past 10 years I have always lived on or near to a pheasant shoot.? So, does she shoot? ?I would describe myself as a keen amateur,? she answered, adding that she is looking to buy a Beretta Silver Pigeon in the near future. ?Though I mainly pick-up, I have been fortunate enough to shoot on a couple of occasions and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Shooting may have to be put on the back-burner, however, as my new role will be my priority. Hopefully, next season I will be able to get behind the gun on a regular basis.?
Alice?s other passion in life is foxhunting. She started hunting at the age of nine with the High Peak hunt, in Derbyshire. She is a former master of the Cambridge University Draghounds and now hunts with the Belvoir in Leicestershire. ?The CA has a wide agenda, but fieldsports will always remain its backbone, and repeal of the 2004 Hunting Act is a key objective,? she said.
So, does Alice think the Coalition Government is a good thing for foxhunting and shooting? ?Absolutely,? she told me. ?When the Coalition was formed, we detected a change of feeling towards rural Britain, a more open attitude. The new Government includes more people that understand about fieldsports and the countryside. For the fi rst time in decades, we have a dedicated hunting and shooting minister ? Jim Paice.? However, she stressed that the CA works across party lines with all members of the house to protect and promote fieldsports.
Alice is clear about the current threats to shooting and sits on the Shoot Summit ? a biannual conference that brings together key shooting organisations under one roof. ?Shooting is under continuous attack from people who do not fully understand the benefits of the sport,? she said, ?which is why we recently recruited a keen deerstalker and wildfowler, David Taylor, as our new shooting campaign manager. It is important to me that everyone at the CA is passionate about fieldsports. That way, we have the knowledge and expertise to keep politicians well informed and to stop prohibitive legislation dead in its tracks.?
Alice feels that there are currently two main issues that affect shooters ? the review into Cumbria Constabulary?s firearms licensing processes and the ongoing debate over lead shot. ?It is completely unnecessary to tighten existing firearms legislation in the wake of the Derrick Bird killings,? she said. ?As the Prime Minister noted in the immediate aftermath of this incident, it is impossible to legislate for a switch flicking in someone?s head.?
Alice has similarly strong opinions when it comes to the prospect of further bans on the use of lead shot. ?Where is the UK evidence? So far, I have not seen any data that means the status quo should change. I am firm on this point, because I understand how an outright ban of lead shot would negatively affect shooters,? she explained. ?If irrefutable peer-reviewed evidence showing the health and environmental side effects in the UK emerged, we would examine that evidence.? Alice added that the CA sits on DEFRA?s Lead Ammunition Group. ?The CA robustly represents the shooting community, and it is up to it to put forward shooters? views and defend their rights against anti-shooting organisations at the highest Parliamentary level.?
Educating the masses about fieldsports and rural life is at the heart of Alice?s objectives. ?Rural Britain has a lot to teach its urban counterparts. One project that has been particularly well received is the Countryside Investigators ? a Countryside Alliance Foundation activity ? which is a free-to-use online resource about rural professions such as gamekeeping. It is now being used by 10 per cent of primary schools. These are results that I want to build on ? it is imperative that we educate the next generation.?
So, will she be embracing social networking media to get the CA?s message across? ?As an organisation, the CA is already on Facebook and Twitter. There is definitely a need for a CA presence on these websites, especially for keeping up with its younger members, but I am wary of Internet overload. I do not want status updates or ?Tweets? to be a replacement for proper press releases and conversations with the media. We are much more than simply sound bites. A lot of the issues affecting our members are complicated and cannot be summed up in a dozen words,? she said, adding that she does write a blog each week via the Grass e-routes newsletter that is emailed to all CA members.
Alice added that the CA promotes shooting to the general public through campaigns such as Game-to-Eat and National Shooting Week, as well as dealing the with the media?s knee-jerk response to fabricated news stories. ?Just look at the recent hysteria surrounding the alleged shooting of the Exmoor Emperor. For me, this story highlighted a worrying gap in knowledge that we need to fill.?
Despite this, Alice has ruled out another mass march through the streets of London. ?There are other ways of connecting with the media, the public and with MPs. I think we tried marching, and we did it really well, but we need to be looking at other ways of putting our point across,? she said. ?All those thousands of people who marched are still out there and they are still supporting the CA. Times change and we are moving on.?
The CA?s membership is now at its highest level since 2006, but Alice has plans to increase support. ?I want to recruit an extra 6,000 members by the end of 2011, which will take the total to 110,000.? Alice stressed that more members will give the CA increased power in future battles. ?I am realistic about the amount of work that I have ahead of me. When I found out that I had been appointed chief executive, I immediately wanted to roll my sleeves up and get cracking ? fi eldsports are an integral part of rural life and I intend to protect and promote their existence. The CA?s task is massive, but I am proud to be at the helm of an organisation that takes these issues so seriously.?