If you ask the average person in the street about the roles shooting and fishing play in the management of the countryside, in most cases their perception is of tweed-wearers killing animals for fun. They do not know about the practical conservation being carried out daily by our community; they only see the more sensational stories and myths being propagated about our world. What if we were to give Mr and Mrs Reasonable Public the true story of what is actually happening in our countryside today?
Having recently completed a week of judging for the Purdey Game and Conservation Awards, I have come to question why the fieldsports community suffers from such poor public opinion. If the level of conservation work carried out by the various projects I judged this week (as well as the thousands of other shoots across the country) was marketed correctly, I don?t believe we would be in the situation in which we find ourselves today.
For the past 30 years, organisations such as the RSPB and the RSPCA have marketed their agendas to an audience that has no alternative but to believe the stories they are told. Our opponents have gone unchallenged in this arena for years; how else can you explain the fact that the UK?s most successful conservationists ? gamekeepers ? are constantly vilified by these groups? Our countryside managers should not have to put up with these character assassinations.
If fieldsports are to survive, we must step up our effort to educate the public about what is actually happening in our countryside today, and advise them as to who has been carrying out practical conservation work for generations. We must not shy away from explaining predator control, or how all this invaluable work is funded ? through hunting, shooting and fishing. We should also show that, contrary to popular belief, fieldsports are all-encompassing sports and that thousands from a broad cross-section of our population participate in and pay for these activities every day.
So how do we go about turning this state of affairs around? Aesop?s words, ?United we stand, divided we fall?, weren?t written with countryside organisations in mind, but they are as true today as they were when applied to the fable of The Four Oxen and the Lion. Isn?t it about time these various groups recognised this and began to act on it?
In positioning themselves for a long-term strategy, our fieldsports organisations must now ask themselves several questions, including why, and for what reasons, have they failed to work together to promote the work carried out by the very people they represent and rely on for their income? Some would suggest that this obstacle will soon be lifted, and our organisations should seize this opportunity with both hands.
A formidable task
Changing public attitudes after three decades of spin from our opponents will not be easy ? or cheap. When you compare the combined assets of all fieldsports organisations against the £134.5million the RSPB currently has in its reserves, it seems a formidable task.
Theirs may be a lot of money, but it is not backed by the tremendous success story of British fieldsports. No amount of money can change the truth, but it can twist public perception of the truth. I would suggest that this is why opponents of fieldsports are so keen to propagate stories of wrongdoing and cruelty ? if you throw enough mud, eventually some is bound to stick.
The thought of having to give the public the truth seems to scare some people within the fieldsports community, but however unpalatable it may seem, the public are not fools, and it is to our shame that we sometimes treat them as such. We should not be scared to explain that certain species need to be controlled for the benefit of others, as this is a conservation tool that is used across the world.
British fieldsports have an amazing story to tell, and it is one we should not be ashamed or embarrassed to shout about. Look at the facts of what we have achieved in sustainable conservation over the past 100 years ? no other conservation organisation within the UK comes close. And look at the social and economic successes we are achieving in parts of the country that are traditionally economically challenged areas.
Going it alone
Over the past few years, some fieldsports organisations have begun to campaign individually to enlighten people?s views of what shooting, fishing and hunting bring to the countryside. The likes of the National Gamekeepers? Organisation (NGO) Educational Trust, Countryside Learning and the recently formed Countryside Alliance Foundation, to name just a few, are doing extremely valuable work in re-educating the general public about countryside matters. They deserve our full support, but if we do not wake up to the fact that we are being beaten hands down in the publicity stakes, we will surely lose the battle to keep our beloved fieldsports.
The angling community is beginning to do just that ? its recently launched joint campaign on cormorant control is a good example of how shooting could potentially fight its own corner, but we are up against tough opposition. As Britain?s 12th and 15th richest charities respectively (UK Civil Society Almanac), the RSPCA and the RSPB are formidable adversaries. Between them they have an annual income of around £240million (Charity Commission Annual Accounts) and spend an average of £19million per year on media activity.
Our own publicity teams are tiny when compared with the PR juggernaut available to these charities, which employ around 280 people between them who are responsible for getting their message and agenda across in the UK. You can add to this at least another dozen or so that are employed as political lobbyists in the European Parliament. Over the past four years, the RSPB alone has increased its media expenditure by about £1.4million per year, which equates to a 12 per cent increase in spin getting to the general public.
When comparing organisations such as the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT), BASC, the CA, and the NGO with this type of marketing, they come nowhere near. There can only be around 30 full-time staff employed to market and lobby on behalf of the interests of fieldsports. Our own media teams are way behind in the publicity and educational stakes. Why an industry purportedly worth £1.7billion per year spends such a small amount on marketing its activities is beyond me.
Historically, our organisations have been doing our PR piecemeal, and while attempts have been made at forming joint ventures between the various organisations recently, it is time we formulated an holistic and strategic plan to counteract the anti-fieldsports organisations? propaganda.
I believe that all the fieldsports organisations should now meet up, appoint an independent chairman and agree a short- to long-term strategic plan. Currently, too much time is wasted by the various organisations duplicating education projects. If you take the incredible amount of talent we employ within our organisations, each has a set of specific skills, and if organised properly, each could tackle their own areas of expertise.
For example, the GWCT could take on the role of educating those currently in university education, such as the potential new scientists that will be filling job vacancies at the likes of DEFRA and Natural England in the coming years. It is vitally important that this and all sectors get an unbiased education with regard to fieldsports. Universities and colleges have historically been the breeding ground of the anti-fieldsports lobby, and if we could get a balanced message across there, it would go a long way to counteracting the one-sided message that is currently being expounded.
The NGO Educational Trust has some amazing teacher resource packs, and is beginning to be recognised as the place to find these resources by teachers and children alike, while BASC has its excellent Young Shots campaign. The myths that surround our activities can be dispelled ? just look at the tremendous success the CA?s ?Game to Eat? campaign has had in changing attitudes towards eating game.
The principle of each organisation working to its own strengths needn?t just stop at PR, either ? use this same approach in other activities and the model works just as well. For example, GWCT could take on all research; BASC, the membership queries; the CA, the political lobbying; and the NGO could look after keepers? affairs. Each organisation would be secure in the knowledge that those separate tasks are being handled by an expert in each specific field. None of our organisations need lose their own identity or members.
So, where are we going to get the extra money to fund all this extra PR work? In 2011, the RSPB received £27million in grants. Much of this will have been for education and monitoring, and many of these grant tenders will have gone unchallenged by rural organisations. Why don?t we tender for some of this funding? After all, it equates to £2.25million of public money being given each month. I would also suggest we are within our rights to question why this money is being given to an organisation with such a poor track record of conservation.
Increased activity is required
For us to make any headway, we need to stand up and be heard. It is time we got off the back foot and stopped being reactive. We must now start to increase our activity, and pull all the organisations together to get them heading in the same direction, using the unique set of skills each holds for the betterment of British fieldsports? public image. Let me be clear: I am not suggesting they should form a single organisation, but if each concentrated on its own strengths and brought those strengths to an overarching strategy, we would easily beat those who criticise us.
We have nothing to fear. For too long we have preached to the choir ? it is now time to preach to the congregation.