Animal Advocate No.7: Rob Pownall of Protect the Wild

Rob is the driving force behind Protect the Wild, which began as Keep the Ban. Still only 24, he's been campaigning against cruel sports since he was 15. Protect the Wild was voted Campaigner of the Year by Great Outdoors magazine and is influential in exposing cruelty and malpractice by hunts and shoots. One example is supporting the Mini's Law campaign after a cat was killed outside her home on a housing estate by a pack of hounds. Last year Protect the Wild issued a striking animation, A Trail of Liesvoiced by Chris Packham and showing the reality of 'trail hunting' - watch it here. Find out much more on the website, including information about wild animals and the law. If you'd like to join the campaign and receive regular newsletters and updates, everything you need is here.

Linda: Could you give a bit of background about how you got started on this? Were you aware of cruel sports as a child? Were you brought up in a rural area where you saw hunting and shooting? Were there other things such as books, documentaries or influential people that sent you in this direction?

Rob: My awareness of cruel pastimes such as fox hunting and bird shooting was fairly limited as a child. It’s only when I look back now that I realise in hindsight that up until the age of 16 I was very much living in a bubble, isolated from not just issues of wildlife persecution but all forms of animal abuse. It wasn’t until I came across an online petition aimed towards preventing David Cameron from repealing the ban on fox hunting that I became aware of the fact people were still hunting foxes with packs of hounds. 


And it’s for this very reason that I always remain strong willed that petitions can make a difference even if they can often feel powerless in achieving change. Because from this petition I opened my eyes to what was happening. I watched videos, read articles, joined online groups, and within a couple of weeks the Keep the Ban page was born out of a desire to end the madness that was unfolding.  

Linda: Your single-mindedness on this campaign is impressive and is already seeing results. With so many other kinds of widespread cruelty to animals around us, for instance in intensive farming, why is it this campaign you've decided to devote yourself to?

Rob: Single-mindedness is vital to stay focused and achieve success both in the short and long term. But it’s certainly challenging at times keeping to this philosophy in the face of so much cruelty inflicted on animals in so many other areas. Especially with a platform to promote and put a spotlight on other forms of cruelty taking place. 


And like many other campaigners we always get the same old retorts of ‘what about x?’ The reality is we can’t cover everything, and if we tried to do so we would only water down our central focus and dilute the message of protecting British wildlife.


There are some brilliant groups and people advocating to end the animal agriculture industry, for example, but it’s not Protect the Wild’s fight. However, as time passes it becomes ever more apparent that wildlife persecution and the animal agriculture industry have considerable overlap.  


You’ve only got to look behind the reasons for the badger cull in protecting cattle that are then exploited and slaughtered for human consumption. On a personal level I’ve been vegan for six years now. And unlike many others in the wildlife protection movement I’m not a speciesist, fighting for one animal to be protected whilst paying for other animals to be killed on my behalf. 


As far as I’m aware, Protect the Wild is the only wildlife protection organisation ran with vegan principles and advocating for all life to be conserved, not just wild life.  


And from where I see it, we'll only see the end of animal agriculture if we can create a shift in societal thinking. If the notion that some people can hunt wild animals for enjoyment still persists, then how on earth will we ever persuade the public they shouldn’t be consuming animals too? 

Linda: I listened to your interview on Off the Leash podcasts with Charlie Moores, and was impressed by your determination and clarity. What are your immediate aims for Protect the Wild - where do you see progress happening most imminently?

Rob: It's my belief that wildlife persecution is one of the major dominoes that needs to be knocked down to further the animal rights movement as a whole. Once it topples and we see the end of pastimes such as fox hunting then naturally people will begin to shift their thinking towards other forms of animal abuse. If we can destroy societal acceptance for bloodsports, we will be well on our way to protecting all animals from abuse and exploitation.


But when it comes to Protect the Wild’s immediate aims, our focus is a lot more short term. To be honest the situation is pretty dire when it comes to wildlife abuse across the UK. We’re under a Government that couldn’t care less about these issues or doing anything to help end them. And the vast majority of laws supposedly protecting wild animals are falling way short of the mark. And that’s why over the next year or so we see educating the public and directly helping activists in the field as the best way forward. While we still have overarching goals for legislative change, our current aims are to do absolutely everything we can to equip activists and shape public opinion until a change of Government during the next 18 months. 

Linda: Protect the Wild, the League Against Cruel Sports and various hunt monitor groups are doing great work in recording and filming hunt trespasses and illegal activity, and have achieved high-profile coverage and prosecutions for cruelty - the sort of things that have always gone on out of sight of the public, such as digging out foxes and throwing them to hounds. Yet hunts can still claim that they're following trails and that kills are 'accidental'. Clearly the 2004 Hunting Act is inadequate - what do you think are the prospects of a complete ban on hunting with packs of hounds?

Rob: This potential Government change could prove pivotal in whether we get a proper ban on hunting or not. As I've already mentioned, there's no hope for any legislative change as things stand - it's not pessimistic or defeatist to admit that when it’s the reality of the situation. But what we should be doing is advocating for a new proper ban on hunting in this year or so before the next election. What we shouldn’t be doing is campaigning for the current flawed ban to be strengthened. It’s no good fiddling around with an Act that is littered with exemptions and loopholes. It only opens up the goal for the pro-hunt lobby to sneak in one modification or amendment that could send us back to square one.


You’d have to ask the groups forming the coalition for strengthening the Hunting Act why they genuinely believe this is a better approach for wildlife than fighting for the ultimate goal, a new proper ban similar to that of Scotland’s that would unequivocally end this madness for good.   


But it’s not just the campaign for legislative change that will end fox hunting. The pastime will die from a thousand cuts coming at it from multiple angles. And I'm a firm believer that a mixture of finances, insurance issues, hunt arrogance and public pressure will be the perfect mixture.

Linda: Around where I live, in Oxfordshire, there are regular reports of hunts trespassing on roads, private property and even on railway lines, endangering the public as well as farm animals and domestic pets. I wonder if eventually it will be episodes like these, rather than cruelty to wild animals, that lead to a ban on hunting with hounds?

Rob: Specifically, hunts have long been running roughshod across the countryside, recklessly crossing roads, and killing hounds and endangering the public in the process.


Now this is where it gets interesting. The vast majority of hunts are businesses and should be subject to the same health and safety regulations as all other businesses. But up until this point the HSE (Health and Safety Executive) has refused to treat hunts like other businesses. 


But if they were to be, then a hunt would be held liable and senior members of the hunt could face huge fines and imprisonment if they caused an accident or injured a member of the public. Protect the Wild is leading the campaign to ensure hunts are treated as businesses by the HSE and this could be a game changer. These arrogant gangs have for too long gotten away with being treated differently to the rest of society. They’re not above the law or regulations and it’s about time they were reminded of this fact. 


Ironically the underlying preference towards human life over animal life may be what leads to the downfall of hunting. As much as moral sentiments are shifting, we need to focus just as much attention on the human impact too. If laws and mainstream thought is so centred around the value of human life and the human experience, we should utilise this to our advantage. We will use every single angle possible to achieve our aims and hunt havoc is a key one - it’s time for these hunts to be bogged down in paperwork and checks just like every other business. 

Linda: Are you attracting personal enmity through your campaigning, and do you see this as a risk? Chris Packham is regularly targeted on social media and even at his home in unpleasant and threatening ways because of his outspokenness on hunting and shooting. Have you experienced anything like this, and if so, how do you deal with it?

Rob: As a result of our determination and desire to say it how it is, I fully expect to encounter more personal issues. There's one incident I haven’t publicly spoken about before. About a year ago, police arrived at my home because someone had called in to say I was dead, an experience I wouldn’t wish on anyone. Whether this was connected to my work I can't be sure, but it's more than probable. 


But when these things happen you know it's because you’re doing something right and this is how I remain firm in my convictions. There will always be personal risks with anything we do in life and I’m just happy that we’re on the right side of history. 

Linda: I'm glad to be interviewing you now, at the start of the 'autumn hunting' season, which as we well know is cub-hunting exactly as it was carried out before the 2004 Hunting Act. How do hunts continue to get away with this? Surely it gives the lie to the whole concept of 'trail-hunting', its purpose being to introduce hounds to the scent of fox. And well done for highlighting it!

Rob: ‘Autumn hunting’ or ‘cubbing’ season, from late July until the start of November, is a vile and barbaric activity. What’s even worse is how few people are aware it even goes on. It involves a hunt surrounding a wooded area or crop field, usually in the early hours of the morning and sending hounds in to seek out and kill fox cubs. This is done to train the hounds to kill prior to the main hunting season. And of course it completely dismantles the ‘trail hunting’ sham. If hunts were indeed following an artificial trail as opposed to a live mammal, this vile practice wouldn’t be happening.


The issue is that, for obvious reasons, it's so hard to film and capture evidence of cubbing, with hounds entering covered terrain. That's why we produced our video The World’s Worst Sport to shine a light on this activity. In the meantime hunts continue to get away with it. It’s hard to police and there's a lack of public knowledge of it happening, so fewer people are reporting suspicious activity. If we had a proper ban on all hunting with hounds, this would end cubbing overnight. 

Linda: Protect the Wild also campaigns against shooting, and here too the contentious issues are becoming more widely-known: the burning of vegetation to benefit grouse-shooting; the poisoning and baiting of birds of prey such as hen-harriers and eagles on shooting estates. The campaign here is up against power, wealth and vested interest and will possibly be a harder one to win. How and where do you see the potential for change?


Rob: When it comes to the shooting industry it’s almost a whole different ball game from that of ending hunting. Until a year ago we'd always been a single issue organisation and as such the vast majority of our supporters are anti-hunting but not necessarily anti-shooting. 


This poses us with a challenge of educating our existing supporters and the wider general public.  And this challenge is harder because the shooting industry is stronger, better funded and even more protected than the hunting industry. And speciesism means more people care about fluffy mammals than they do about birds and we need to acknowledge that. We first need to get people to care about birds and what happens to them before we can tackle the industry itself. 


Indeed we're on a major education drive to actually get across what is happening across the UK. Bird shooting involves millions of different birds being blasted out of the sky for fun, but it also has huge consequences for the environment and other animals. From pollution of water sources and the burning of grouse moors to the snaring of foxes and killing of birds of prey, these are issues that extend beyond the morally repugnant act of killing a bird. If we're to end shooting then we first need to ensure the public are aware of why it should be ended and the arguments we're putting forward. 


Logically our next step will be to slowly push our legislative demands to an audience that has a greater understanding of the issue. We will also ensure our Protectors of the Wild initiative makes it as easy as possible for members of the public to identify and report suspicious activity linked to shooting. Media campaigns will also prove vital in getting the message out there, something we did with considerable success at the beginning of the year. 1.6 million people have now viewed our animation exposing the victims of the shooting industry. And of course we'll continue to expose the realities of what happens on shooting estates - we’ve so far supported several undercover investigations. 

Linda: At just 24 you're at the beginning of your career. How would you like it to develop - what are your ambitions? (other than seeing an end to bloodsports, of course!)

Rob: My personal ambitions, aside from ending hunting, shooting and all forms of wildlife persecution (there are way too many!) are to make a difference and help those who can’t speak out for themselves. I’m a firm believer that anything can be achieved when you dedicate yourself to a particular goal. I’ll always be fighting for animals but I hope to see a day where I don’t have to. It’s hard to look too far ahead because I think I’ve only just started.  

Linda: Thanks so much for this, Rob, and for all you're doing to change attitudes and to eliminate cruel sports from our countryside. All power to you and your campaign!