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Owls, fouls and fools – how ‘set ups’ have become the activist’s weapon of choice

Staged ‘set ups’ have become an increasingly popular tool of activists and campaigners across the country, particularly if they have celebrity support.

What started as a favourite trick of animal rights extremists has now spread to anti-lockdown protestors and other conspiracy theorists, who use these tactics for a quick headline-grabbing image, with little consideration to the consequences.

Yesterday across the UK media a story ran about police tactics after a woman in Bournemouth was arrested for ‘sitting on a bench’, having left her house on more than one occasion.

In now transpires that it was a ‘planned, staged-managed and recorded’ set up by an extreme anti-lockdown group, according to Dorset Police.

Now that these tactics are being used in our cities and town, the public are becoming increasingly aware. However up and down rural England, these ‘set ups’ have been happening for years on farms and estates.

Most famously a few years ago when a bird of prey carcass was 'found' on a popular walking trail on a grouse moor by a man from a wildlife charity. He reported it to the police, and it was taken to a vet for a post-mortem.

Rather than the bird of prey being ‘persecuted’, it was found to ‘have freezer burn on the legs’, ‘feathers too young for the time of the year it was discovered’ and ‘shot poked into its body with a pencil’. It was a stitch-up against the local grouse-keeping community.

In December another well-publicised story arose after an unidentified 'member of the public' decided that the best place to take their permitted exercise during the first lockdown in May was on private farmland. As part of their exercise they got on their hands and knees and dismantled a series of legally set tunnel traps in order to examine what might have been caught in them.

At some point it is claimed that they discovered a Little Owl dead in one of the traps. By a happy chance they had a camera with them and photographed the dead bird.

[Animal rights extremist, Luke Steele, is key proponent of 'stitch up' activism]

There is of course no evidence that the bird was actually caught in the trap. In a world so bizarre that it includes unbiased and disinterested members of the public going onto private land, crawling about on all fours and dismantling tunnel traps whilst undertaking their permitted exercise in a covid-friendly way, anything is possible.

In a world that is mad, it is entirely possible that another person thought they would enliven their covid exercise schedule by putting a dead Little Owl, garnered perhaps from road kill or a neighbour’s cat, into the trap for the purpose of creating a photo opportunity. Who knows?

But let's assume that the owl did go voluntarily into the trap. What did the person who went to the trouble of trespassing, dismantling private property and taking photographs do? They did nothing. That's right: nothing. We are asked to believe that after taking all this trouble in the midst of lockdown, when you are just supposed to walk, they trespassed, crawled about, risked cross contamination from a daily handled trap, and took photographs, for no reason and did nothing.

Time passed and Christmas approached, the season of Boxing Day shoots and quiet news days. At this point, having apparently done nothing for months – possibly seven months –they contacted an animal rights organisation called the National Anti-Snaring Campaign.

This definitely biased group went to the estate in December and, happily trespassing and dismantling, they found 'dozens of similar traps'. Evidently they didn't find any Little Owls or no doubt we would have heard.

The police were contacted and said that no law had been broken, and that there was therefore no crime to investigate. They could also have said that being told about something 6 or 7 months after the event is not helpful, but they probably didn't understand that publicity is based on timing.

At least it was partly based on timing. It also relies on the engagement of a celebrity, someone who could be relied upon to give them the meaty quotes they needed to give the non-story significance.

Remember, that if ever there was a non-story, this was it. A non-native introduced species, the Little Owl had been caught by accident seven months before the story was published and no crime had been committed. It would be difficult to think of anything less worthy of a half page with photographs in a major national newspaper. Over the page a brutal and savage murder of a 16 year-old-girl in Winchester called Louise Smith got two column inches. But what that lacked was a celebrity and of course the Little Owl had friends in high places.

[BBC Celebrity, Chris Packham]

The person that made it all work was Chris Packham CBE, Vice President and frequent spokesman of the RSPB and the rich and famous BBC presenter. Chris is a ready source of edgy quotes. He would be, as he is always keen to remind swooning admirers of his time as an anti-establishment punk rocker. There are too many classics in his back catalogue to deal with them all here, but a couple will do.

When he called farmers, who were worried that badgers might infect their cattle with bovine TB, 'thugs and liars', or when Scottish National Heritage staff, who issued a licence to cull Ravens, got death threats, after he told his followers that these unfortunates had 'blood on their hands', we must assume that the two organisations he represents were happy with what he said and the consequences. If they were not they would have said so, and severed their links with him. But they have done neither.

That said, there must be times when both the BBC and RSPB feel a sense of toe-curling embarrassment when their semi-tame punk decides he needs to indulge in yet another bout of virtue signalling. For the RSPB this was almost certainly one of them.

[Some members of RSPB are said to be exasperated by the political posturing of others]

The fact that private farmland boasts such a broader array of wildlife and bio-diversity than the RSPB's reserves appears to have enraged Chris Packham CBE. Speaking about using traps to control wildlife and the consequent remote risk that a properly set trap might kill a non-target species, such as a Little Owl, he said he wanted owners of land used for farming to declare: 'We are not going to do trapping', and posed the question, 'It's legal but is it ecologically ethical?'.

Why might this cause the people who manage his organisation, the RSPB, any disquiet? Well, they knew that their excitable Vice-President was standing in a large and fragile glasshouse when he started throwing his stones.

As he constructed his edgy, exciting quotes his own organisation's partners had just made public the list of mammals and birds that had been trapped in the RSPB's (that's the one he represents) Orkney stoat eradication programme. He can hardly have been unaware that his RSPB had received £6 million from the EU to exterminate stoats on the Orkney Isles. Even someone as rich as Chris would raise an eyebrow at £6 million of taxpayers money.

Chris and his RSPB are forever proselytising about conservation and the environment. Chris says it is unthinkable to do so, if the traps you set to catch rats accidentally catch something else or indeed if you set traps at all.

Many well-informed readers of this website may be wondering how he has got the bare faced cheek to make such a statement when his own organisation, the RSPB, is using traps on a vast scale themselves. Is that he thinks the RSPB are just much better at trapping than gamekeepers?

Well, we have the list of what his organisation said they caught and killed.

The plan was to kill stoats and they indeed managed to kill quite a lot. Seven hundred and fifty to be exact. It is also fair to point out that they caught not a single Little Owl. That seems likely to be a result of there being no Little Owls on Orkney, because they seemed very good at catching other things.

The thousands of traps used by the organisation Chris is proud to represent caught:

· 2068 Rats;

· 242 Rabbits;

· 111 Starlings;

· 48 mice;

· 18 Hedgehogs;

· 12 unidentified birds;

· 10 Orkney Voles;

· 9 Frogs and Toads;

· 4 Cats;

· 2 Blackbirds

· 2 Water Rails.

That’s a total of 3,276 birds, mammals and amphibians caught in RSPB traps.

It is possible that, when he made his palpably hypocritical remarks, he was so ill-informed about his own organisation, that he did not know about the £6 million grant and the mayhem on Orkney.

It's possible, but hardly probable. Chris specialises in knowing everything, it's his thing. It is tempting to say that his behaviour is shameless. It is not. It is shameful. The only good to come out of this entire non-event is that it provides another example of the cant and hypocrisy that lies at the heart of some of the big names in the conservation industry.

Of course, engaging in legal predator control does not put someone beyond the pale as a conservationist. Chris Packham CBE knows that perfectly well. His organisation does it, not very well, but a lot.

[An illegally set RSPB trap in Orkney

He may not like to admit it in front of his adoring fans but the legal use of traps to catch small mammalian predators is an essential tool in the protection of many rare, ground nesting birds. He must know this, or he would have long ago broken his ties with RSPB, because they use traps, in the case of Orkney on a scale which is entirely unprecedented. Yet he is happy to casually blacken the entire process for a few column inches intended to promote his image to his acolytes.

Yes. Shameful probably was the right word.


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