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 Lies, voiced 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!
I'd like to think that all my books have green awareness in their DNA, but for The Great Big Green Week, which runs from 10th - 18th June this year, here are four that I'd like to focus on.
Lob brings the timeless figure of the Green Man into the modern world - as Lob, the unseen garden helper of Lucy's Grandpa Will. Lucy longs and longs to be one of the special people who can see Lob - but when Grandpa's cottage is put up for sale, and Lob must take to the roads in search of his next place to stay, Lucy thinks she's lost him for ever ...
'A deep sense of the passage of the seasons .. a love song to imagining, understanding, breathing and living in harmony with the natural world.' Kevin Crossley-Holland
For age 7+. Copies can be ordered here from
The Treasure House was inspired by my experiences as volunteer in a charity shop and my realisation that the shop served as a kind of sanctuary for some of its customers and volunteers.
When Nina's Mum suddenly and inexplicably disappears, Nina finds clues, solace and new friendships at the charity shop run by her great-aunts. There's much about community support, kindness and empathy - and the fun of upcycling!
"Linda Newbery vividly creates the atmosphere of a delightfully shabby second hand shop full of intriguing treasures and idiosyncratic customers, in this charming story." Booktrust
For age about 10+. Copies can be ordered here from Bookshop.org.
There's much more upcycling in Rubbish? - a look at things we might throw away (but there is no away!) and what we could turn them into, with a bit of imagination, sharing and adult help. Join the children of Kingfisher Class as they turn pine cones into owls, old tyres into strawberry planters, socks into puppets and more. Charmingly illustrated by Katie Rewse.
For age about 3+. Copies can be ordered here from Bookshop.org.
Whether or not we think of ourselves as animal lovers, the choices we make every day - what we eat, buy, wear, use, waste and throw away - affect animals and the environment. Here are ways to make animal awareness part of our lives, and to reduce our impact on the planet's resources. Live kindly, tread lightly!
'This is the book we all need right now.' Children's Books Ireland
For teenagers and adults. Copies can be ordered here from Bookshop.org
The Great Big Green Week is the UK's biggest ever celebration of community action to tackle climate change and protect nature.
From festivals to football matches, litter picks to letter-writing - there's something for everyone at the Great Big Green Week. What's going on near you? Find out more here!
Dave Goulson is Professor of Biology at University of Sussex, specialising in bee ecology. He has published more than 300 scientific articles on the ecology and conservation of bumblebees and other insects. He is the author of Bumblebees: Their Behaviour, Ecology and Conservation; A Sting in the Tale, a popular science book about bumble bees; and other titles including The Garden Jungle and Gardening for Bumblebees.
He founded the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and is a trustee of Pesticide Action Network and Ambassador for the UK Wildlife Trusts. In 2015 he was ranked at No.8 in BBC Wildlife Magazine’s list of the most influential people in conservation. (Picured: Dave Goulson speaking at The Big One at Westminster, April 2023. Photograph by Linda Newbery.)
“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds", wrote the American conservationist Aldo Leopold in A Sand County Almanac. Not so much alone now as Leopold must have felt in 1949; 'climate grief'' and 'eco-anxiety' are now widely-used terms which have their own Wikipedia entry.
Dave Goulson's book, subtitled Averting the Insect Apocalypse and referencing of course Rachel Carson's seminal 1962 book Silent Spring, won't exactly help sufferers to feel more confidence in the future of wildlife and biodiversity (how could it?) but is nonetheless appealing and informative. I both read and listened - the audio version is engagingly read by Goulson himself. I heard him speak at the Chipping Norton Literary Festival last year, where he related an anecdote that appears early in this book. Asked at short notice to be interviewed for Australian radio (from a men's loo - the quietest place he could find in the pub where he happened to be eating a meal) he was confronted with the opener: "So - insects are disappearing. That's a good thing, isn't it?"
Unfortunately, that question reflects the view of a great many people who see insects only as bothersome pests, biters and stingers, unwelcome invaders of homes and gardens and spreaders of disease. But, as the biologist E O Wilson has written, "If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos." Even if we're incapable of valuing wild creatures for themselves and not merely for how they can serve us as pollinators, ecosystem managers or food, we're taking huge risks with our careless approach that creates such drastic losses.
Goulson examines the complex relationships between insects and ecosystems and how drastically these can be affected by human interventions. The chapters on neonicotinoids and glyphosate are particularly shocking, revealing how university-based, peer-reviewed studies were challenged and in the end overpowered by the interests of Big Business. I was dismayed, too, to learn that flea treatments readily available for dogs and cats (including Frontline, which I've been using for my cats) contain neonicotinoids.With dogs in particular, there's a risk that swimming in rivers can release neonicotinoids into the water, with dire effects on aquatic wildlife. Glyphosate is widely used by councils and elsewhere to suppress weeds, so even though the World Health Organisation's International Agency for Research on Cancer stated in 2015 that it's 'probably carcinogenic to humans', most of us probably have it in our bodies. This conclusion was countered by safety evaluations commissioned by Monsanto, the manufacturers, which came to a different conclusion. Who would we rather believe, and who should we believe? "Allowing companies to evaluate the safety of their own chemicals remains standard practice around the world," Goulson writes, "despite the obvious conflict of interest that this creates." He also points out that chemicals are tested in isolation, it being impractical to run controlled experiments on the cocktail of pesticides insects and plants are regularly exposed to, to investigate what cumulative harm might be caused.
I share Dave Goulson's frustration that toxic chemicals are displayed in garden centres and supermarkets everywhere, with names like Bug Clear encouraging consumers to see all insects as dirty, dangerous nuisances and to spray their gardens indiscriminately. The campaign group Pesticides Action Network, of which Goulson is a trustee, pressures retailers to stop stocking harmful toxins, with some success: in the UK, Waitrose and the Co-Op have made recent commitments to remove these products from their shelves; this April, the Royal Horticultural Society has just issued a statement that it will no longer refer to slugs, beetles etc as 'pests', and will stop selling insecticides in its shops.
Nonetheless, by the time you've read about the threats from neonicotinoids, glyphosates, excessive nitrates from fertiliser and the drastic effects of global warming, you might quite understandably feel that it's all over for the natural world. To offset this bleakness, chapters are interspersed with brief descriptions of particularly endearing or peculiar insects and their life-cycles: the pine processionary moth, the bombardier beetle, the suicide bomber termite. Briefly, Goulson almost takes to fiction as he describes the imagined future life of his son, ekeing out a living from the land and contemplating the folly of previous generations. The final chapters offer practical guidance on how we can do better: with farming, with government, with individual actions such as gardening for pollinators, joining campaigning groups and eating more plant-based food rather than intensively-farmed meat.
Natural scientists have a difficult balance to find: too much gloom is a deterrent to readers, while an over-rosy picture of hope doesn't reflect reality. Recently Goulson wrote critically in The Guardian about Saving Our Wild Isles, the final episode of David Attenborough's Wild Isles which, unlike the rest of the series, was available only on BBC i-player. Like me, he'd expected something harder-hitting, aimed at driving home the message that we really are on our last chance to save the natural world. "Environmentalists have been saying 'it is not yet too late' for a long time. In reality it is already too late to avoid much worse damage than we have already seen, and whatever we do now the climate crisis will continue to worsen ... Saving Our Wild Isles is charming, and perhaps it will inspire a few more people to do more for nature, but I was hoping for something different, something that might really wake us up to the dismal state of our country."
We certainly need that. Silent Earth can't give any guarantee that things will change for the better, but at the very least it's reassuring to spend time in the company of a influential and articulate expert who's doing all he can to urge policymakers to wake up and take notice.
Silent Earth is published by Vintage. This article was first published on Writers Review on 15th May 2023.
Catherine Cannon has campaigned for animals in various ways since she became vegetarian at the age of 14. Her work as teacher of English as a foreign language has taken her to various countries including Japan, India and Oman. Now back at home in Somerset, UK, she leads the campaign for Plant-Based Councils, which began during lockdown and urges councils to help make plant-based eating the norm, as part of their commitment to tackling the climate emergency.
LN: I know your mother grew up on a dairy farm. Did that lead to your interest and concern for animals as well as your decision to become vegetarian at quite a young age?
Catherine: Yes, my mum's farming connection certainly had some influence. We lived very close to her old farm and often took walks there, and my parents had a small paddock that was let to a local farmer, usually for sheep. I remember spending hours in there one spring with some friendly lambs, who would climb all over me. On a visit to the farm of a family friend when I was 14, I was shown inside the large shed where pigs were kept. It was a shocking experience, and I didn't eat meat or fish after that. Around this time, I also read a lot about deforestation in the Amazon, and how the meat industry was directly responsible for much of it.
LN: That must have taken some determination. Did you find yourself at odds with the rest of your family? (I think you're still the only vegetarian, now fully vegan.)
CC: My family were actually very supportive, although I do remember my dad saying he thought it was a 'fad' that I'd grow out of! My parents were traditional eaters - we were a 'meat and two veg' family - so for the first few years I usually ate what they did with a serving of kidney beans or chickpeas instead of the meat. As I got older, I began to cook for myself and sometimes for them as well, and soon my mum began to enjoy concocting veggie dishes. After graduating from university, I lived in various countries - including Japan and Spain - and yes, maintaining a meat-free diet in those countries required some effort! I remember one time ordering a salad in a restaurant in Japan, and it arriving with grated dried bacon on top! I also spent time living in India and Oman where I adopted the habit of eating lentils and pulses with every meal. Although my cooking was mostly plant-based, unfortunately I didn't stop consuming dairy and eggs until I returned to the UK in 2019 (I find it hard to fathom why it took me so long), and since then my mum has enjoyed making vegan cakes, which I think she sees as a new challenge. My family still eats meat and dairy occasionally, but their diets are now largely plant-based.
LN: What were the first campaigns you became involved with? Did you start by joining groups or organisations, or by campaigning on your own?
CC: As a teenager, I joined WWF, Friends of the Earth and the RSPB. It was 'armchair activism', I signed petitions and wrote letters - this was all
long before the internet of course. I spoke to people about the environmental impact of the meat industry and the cruelty involved, but as I spent almost 20 years living abroad, in countries with
different cultures and languages, this was not always easy. For a long time, I think I was immensely frustrated with the world and with my own lack of action on the issues that I cared about
most, but I just didn't know what to do. When Extinction Rebellion came along I returned to the UK and began to devote most of my time to activism.
LN: As animal advocates who use social media for our campaigning, we see horrible cruelty almost daily. How do you guard against feeling overwhelmed by that?
CC: I do my best to avoid seeing graphic images and video - it took me several days to recover from watching Dominion. Knowing that I'm doing what I can to help shift society towards plant-based eating certainly helps guard against feeling overwhelmed and grieved by climate breakdown and biodiversity loss.
LN: You became involved with Plant-Based Councils in its early days, and now work for the campaign with great determination. How did that come about?
CC: The Plant-Based Councils campaign was started by a small group of people from Animal Rebellion in Hackney, London, in November 2020. I saw a post online, went to an introductory talk and immediately saw it as something logical and achievable that had the potential to create a huge cultural shift, to transform what we see as normal. Originally, the campaign had the aim of encouraging local authorities to include more plant-based options in school lunches, but we learned that most local authorities no longer have control over school meals, and when they do, they are managed and contracted out in numerous complex ways. Additionally, ProVeg's 'School Plates' programme was already doing fantastic work in this area. So we shifted our attention to asking local authorities to opt for plant-based in their own catering, which is, of course, the logical next step after declaring a climate emergency. We are also asking local authorities to consider what else within their remit can be done to promote and normalise plant-based eating - such as including more plant-based options in leisure centres, council-run cafes, care homes and schools.
LN: You're very good at inspiring, organising and encouraging others. Has your previous career helped with that?
CC: I worked as a teacher of English as a foreign language for 20 years, and also trained as a primary school teacher. I've also worked as a Bikeability instructor and as a sustainable transport advocate for Sustrans. I am lucky to be working alongside other dedicated people in the Plant-Based Councils campaign - we really do have a fantastic team.
LN: What have been the most satisfying achievements of the campaign so far? What are your aims?
CC: Oxfordshire County Council's successful motion, which you had a large part in, was certainly an early highlight. This created a lot of media interest, and I was heartened by the resolute attitude of councillors who were not deterred by the media backlash, knowing they had taken the right path and were showing true leadership. When Oxford City Council followed the County lead a year later, it was really encouraging to hear the overwhelming and unanimous support across the council. Perhaps for me, the most satisfying achievement was when Exeter City Council voted to serve fully plant-based food at their internal events, developing further policy to raise awareness of the benefits of plant-based food and to increase and improve its availability throughout the city. I lived in Exeter for several years and worked with councillors on their motion, so it was wonderful to see the level of support from councillors across the authority and also from local NHS doctors.
We aim to have motions debated in at least ten local authorities in 2023. We believe that all councils which have declared a climate emergency should be taking steps to encourage people to eat more plant-based, in the same way that they already encourage people to recycle and reduce energy use. Making a commitment to go fully plant-based in internal council catering sends a powerful message and is a great way for elected leaders to play their part in supporting the changes society needs to make. At the very least, we want to see councils discussing the impact of animal farming whenever they discuss climate and biodiversity loss.
LN: Can you see a future in which we have very different attitudes to intensive farming and using animals for our own ends?
CC: Yes. Call me an optimist but I believe that in my lifetime we will see the end of animals and their products being seen as a normal source of food - in the UK and western Europe at least. There are so many organisations working to achieve this, and the climate science and health advice is on our side. Companies are realising the potential of the plant-based food market and emerging technologies for meat alternatives will play a part.
More importantly, it's clear that our relationship with animals and the natural world is broken, and our actions are not aligned with our values. I think that as a nation of animal lovers, we will be nudged into thinking about who we want to be as a society. I have faith in humanity to ultimately do much better.
LN: You seem to me to work tirelessly. How do you unwind?
CC: I love to cycle and sleep under the stars. Whenever the weather is nice and I have time, I go on a bicycle tour - the simplicity of camping and
cycling is a perfect way to unwind and enjoy nature.
LN: Thanks so much, Catherine - all power to you, with your determination and dedication. The work you're doing is so important in changing attitudes towards sustainable eating. I hope, now that the Plant-Based Councils campaign is gathering momentum, many more councils will pass motions this year and that we'll all start to see plant-based eating as the norm!
If you'd like to find out more about Plant-Based Councils, visit our website. We have regular introductory talks, so if you'd like to persuade your local council to move towards plant-based catering, do come along and learn how!
There's a bit of a theme here, with the first four books looking at our relationship with the natural world and how we need to treat it with more respect. Merlin Sheldrake's Entangled Lives is a fascinating delve into the crucial importance of fungal networks to trees, soil and therefore to all life on Earth. In Regenesis and Sixty Harvests Left, two timely and important books, George Monbiot and Philip Lymbery respectively look at the ways in which animal agriculture is destroying the planet, and how the future of food needs to adapt.This is also important to Henry Mance in How to Love Animals and Protect our Planet, where he also looks at the cognitive dissonance of our relationships with animals and how we're trained by society to accept and ignore cruelty to animals reared for food.
On other subjects: I loved Katherine Rundell's brilliant exploration of the life of poet John Dunne, Super-Infinite - especially her close commentaries on the poetry. Like many others I'm fascinated by the doomed Franklin expedition, lost in an attempt to navigate the North-West Passage in the 1840s. Ice Ghosts, Paul Watson's compelling and wide-ranging account, takes us from preparations for the voyage and last communications from its crew to the many searches that followed, emphasising the importance of Inuit accounts and records, and bringing us up to date with modern technology and the eventual finding of the lost ships, Erebus and Terror.
Patrick Gale's Mother's Boy is based on the life of Cornish poet Charles Causley, focusing on his childhood, adolescence and naval experience, his viewpoint alternating with that of his devoted mother, Laura. A poignant, absorbing read in which Gale draws on the poetry to explore Causley's inner life and sexuality. Alison MacLeod's Tenderness is a tour de force, moving from D H Lawrence's death in Italy, back to his stay in a Sussex artistic community and forward to the Lady Chatterley trial, while another thread portrays Jackie Kennedy in the months leading up to her husband's election, and her interest in Lawrence. Colson Whitehead is another writer who always compels: The Nickel Boys depicts the harshness of life in a reform school in 1960s Florida, with Jim Crow laws still in effect. It sounds bleak but somehow isn't, thanks to the dignity and idealism of teenage main character Elwood. Finally, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt is a long, absorbing read at 770 pages. Centred on an art theft with dramatic repercussions throughout the life of narrator Theo, it's part coming-of-age story, part thriller, and wonderfully written throughout.
Welcome to Gina, who is, in her own words, “a lifelong Biophiliac, a lover of all life.”
Following Art college and a career in design, Gina left London for the far north of Scotland where she rebuilt a derelict watermill. For 18 years she lived in an even wilder part of Sutherland, miles from amenities and people. During this time she’s completed a permaculture design course, studying soil ecology and systems theory; she has also designed a Highland species identification booklet aimed at helping children to connect with nature and wildness.
In 2018 she bought the assignation of an 80-acre Highland croft along with 100+ acres of common grazing which will hopefully soon be reforested under a Native Forest Scheme. Named Highland Veganics, it’s being designed as the first vegan plant protein croft in crofting history.
Gina is one of the founders of Vegan Land Movement. This is a CIC (Community Interest Company) that aims to buy areas of agricultural land to restore to (and by) nature. The aim is to also eventually transform some parcels of land to produce food veganically alongside creating wildlife and animal sanctuaries, raising awareness of complex ecosystems and working with nature rather than against it under the vegan principles of least harm.
Most recently (last month, June 2022) the Vegan Land Movement’s crowdfunder appeal successfully bought a fourth 10-acre parcel of land formerly used for dairy farming. There are many other projects in their sights.
Here Gina kindly answers my questions about her life and work.
Linda: You describe yourself as a “lifelong biophiliac”. Where did that early love of nature come from? Is it shared by everyone in your family?
Gina: I was a lucky child as my parents both had a love of nature, mainly of birds. We grew up on a council estate but had quite a good size garden where my mum always grew vegetables. There were areas of what we called waste land nearby, where we spent many school holidays catching lizards and collecting caterpillars. I remember my dad making a great cage out of an old fireguard to keep tortoiseshell caterpillars in. We fed them stinging nettles and watched them pupate and then set them free as butterflies. We had all manner of creatures living with us and hand-reared many that were either orphans or injured.
Linda: You made a drastic career change, switching from designing in London to living simply in the wilds of Scotland. Was this a long-held ambition or did something happen to prompt it?
Gina: There were several events that sparked this change. My Nan, who I adored, suddenly died and I hadn't seen her for several weeks due to working such long hours in London. It really shocked me. I used to design window displays for Libertys and one day I left by a concealed back entrance (this was not unusual) to see all of last month’s sculptural pieces all thrown into a skip. These two events were within a few weeks of each other. Both were about loss: the loss of a loved one and the loss and waste of all that time and creation. I felt bereft, and had some sort of an awakening. I was overwhelmed with just how shallow the fashion/acquisition industry was, and is. I already knew this as I'd always been a part time activist and a member of Greenpeace etc, but I realised that I just wasn't living my truth. I spoke to my partner, who felt the same, and we both decided to get out of London and search for a better life. My partner already had a love of the Highlands so we went looking for that new life there. We found it, but parted a couple of years after. I then moved to the wilderness alone and into a semi-derelict remote cottage owned by a sheep club. I would stop it from falling down in return for living there rent-free.
I knew nobody and soon realised that I didn’t really know myself either. Some incredible things happened very quickly - the first was being snowed in two miles from anyone for nearly two months. I was unprepared, with hardly any food or fuel. The snow was waist-high and I had dig under all of that to find the potatoes I'd had planted earlier that year; I had to live on rations for weeks, as did my two dogs. I also had to burn furniture and drag fallen branches through deep snow 200 metres from a woodland farther down the hill; it was a very difficult time.
Something clicked and I went into some sort of warrior survival mode. I'd always been practical and solution-based but this was new. I was on the edge and this was, I realised afterwards, one the biggest gifts of my life. I found two really important parts of myself and what it means to be human: my resilience and my resourcefulness. I will never forget this time - it was so life changing and life affirming.
Linda: How did you cope with the change of surroundings, the distance from other people and the lack of amenities? Were there times when you regretted your decision?
Gina: There is something very strange about being in the Highland landscape. It is very hard to describe and I think there is some sort of primal pull there. It has a rugged untameable quality and the beauty is overwhelming. There's a saying about the English in the Highlands: some last for just two years some stay for four but in the end have to leave, and then there are those who stay for life. I appear to be the latter.
After the survival experience I really got into Maslow's hierarchy of needs. What is it that we need? The basic ... food, warmth, shelter and if we are lucky companionship. I had begun to strip myself down. So I didn't miss other people at all because I'd started to go on a journey of working out what it means to exist. I was captivated by simplicity and what was really important.
Moving into this semi-derelict remote cottage I soon realised I was not alone. I shared it with wild creatures. The cottage was a hibernation place for hundreds of the same tortoiseshell butterflies I grew up with. It was also home to mice and birds. I decided early on to let them all share the cottage with me - after all, they were there first! So I immersed myself in their lives, letting the mice run over me and making sure they had enough food, too. I would re-hibernate the butterflies if they woke too early, and let the dunnocks and robins roost in the kitchen - the window was always open.
Linda: Were you brought up to be vegetarian / vegan? If not, when and why did you make the change?
Gina: No, and I had no idea there was such a thing until I went to art college at the age of nineteen and met a vegetarian who I became friends with. I think I first became vegetarian when I was twenty-four or five. I was in my early forties when I became vegan, so around seventeen years ago. Like many others, I've no idea why I didn’t join all these dots sooner, and feel ashamed and sorry about that.
Linda: A similar story for me. I've been vegetarian since my early twenties, but it took me far too long to take the logical next step of becoming vegan.
Linda: How did the idea of Vegan Land Movement come about?
Gina: In 2017 a friend made me join Twitter and I was surprised to realise that there were hundreds of thousands of other vegans out there. I’d had no idea there were so many of us.
When I bought my croft I decided to try to create a veganic cobnut farm (hazels are native to the Highlands so it seemed sensible to grow orchards of cultivated cobs and filberts here) but there was no funding to help me, not even to grow basic vegetables. I then heard a shocking story on BBC Radio 4 about how the far right were funding hate blogs by crowd funding. It was awful, but it got me thinking about trying to crowd fund my nut orchards. I looked at the various crowdfunding platforms, realised that none were vegan, and thought: this is what vegans need! Their very own crowd funding platform. So a few of us on Twitter created the not-for-profit globalvegancrowdfunder.org (GVCF) and my nut orchard was its first project. It took a while but vegans eventually donated from all around the world.
We then raised money for the 91 pigs saved from horrific cruelty by Beneath The Wood Sanctuary in Wales and globally built them a barn and a feed club.
The Vegan Land Movement CIC (VLM), founded by Kevin Greenhill, Sara Eloquin and me, is GVCF’s sister initiative and GVCF is the platform used to crowd fund the land movement’s buyouts. They also share a website and resources to keep down costs, as we’re all volunteers running both initiatives.
I’m surrounded by animal agriculture in the Highlands and because I’m a vegan environmentalist I realised very early on that the root of animal farming is the land itself. To end the suffering of farmed animals, to save species, to mitigate against climate breakdown and basically save life on Earth, we need to give the land back to biodiversity and the earth and do it under vegan principles.
So The Vegan Land Movement came into being. The three of us had many discussions about the name, and the creation of something we could all become part of and work together on. The VLM is for us all. A vegan land movement to help create a vegan world acre by acre.
We then looked into becoming a Charity but as an activist I found it too restrictive. A lawyer suggested that we should consider becoming a CIC (Community Interest Company). A CIC has something called an Asset Lock that locks assets away from humans gaining financially, and this seemed a perfect fit as this was not about any of us. We wrote a constitution that names the Earth and species as the CIC beneficiaries as well as the wider human communities, because we will all benefit from rewilded veganic havens.
Linda: Did this seem like an impossible dream at first? How did you gather the support to make it reality?
Gina: I really had no idea of what would happen when we launched the fundraiser for the first plot of dairy grazing land. But it was amazing, people donated from all around the world and on the auction day when we started to lose, people donated even more money. Even so, we were outbid, and we were all devastated. Because of our transparency there was a lot of ridicule on Twitter by farmers at the time and in all honestly we feel they may have clubbed together to outbid us.
A few weeks later we went to another auction in secret and won easily.
This first site has now been planted with various native saplings as has the second site. The third site we are planning planting a veganic community orchard this coming winter. The fourth, that we won on the 20th June, will become a 10-acre native woodland.
Linda: Have you met with more opposition from local farmers and landowners?
Gina: Not yet. Hopefully, if we do, we can talk to them about how important it is to try to save endangered species etc.
Linda: Your plan of non-interference, letting the land decide what it wants to be, is different from other rewilding projects I’ve read about, for example the Knepp Estate, where grazing animals are used to keep scrub in check. What made you decide not to have grazing cattle or sheep? Do you think you’ll ever have to intervene, for example if invasive plant species threaten to smother the native vegetation?
Gina: The Vegan Land Movement is a purely vegan initiative, so we’re opposed to grazing any farmed animals or any hunting and culling. I have always been puzzled by the idea of wild ‘land management’ as it is so anthropocentric. I say to people: Who do we think we are to feel that we might know best when, let’s face it, our track record is nothing but destruction? And what is an invasive species anyway? A species in the wrong place because of us. We have really messed things up and the whole planet has species in the ‘wrong’ places. We also attach human time onto everything when in reality if humans left the Earth tomorrow, nature would heal itself. Maybe that would be a mix of the wrong species in the wrong places but as nobody will be around to point that out then it really wouldn’t matter, nature would adjust. I often think of this: what if humans didn’t intervene at all. What would that look like? The land would go through several stages as it tries to revert back to forest. We need to just let it be and learn to not interfere. We need to observe and learn. We are such an arrogant species. We are very clever and inventive, but this doesn't make us wise.
Linda: We’re increasingly aware that public consumption of meat and dairy produce has to be drastically reduced if we’re to have any chance of meeting carbon targets. Do you think we can make the changes in time? How can the Vegan Land Movement help raise awareness?
Gina: Sadly, I don’t. I actually think we're facing an apocalyptic future because of the way humans are. We are too greedy - I think everyone needs to get snowed in alone with little food and fuel. The picture is also different from what is being painted. We need a mass behaviour shift and this means moving away from relentless consumerism and acquisition. We must end the consumption of animals immediately because it is the biggest cruellest injustice there is. It is also why we've become so self obsessed. People talk about the loss of connection to the natural world and how we need to reconnect but in all honestly I feel that we have never been connected.
We are at a pivotal point now where we can choose what the future will be as a species. We carry on with business as usual to extinction or we change. That change has to be a huge education initiative. The pandemic gave people a taste of a different life, but sadly they all rushed back to business as usual.
My original dream for the VLM is for every vegan of Twitter to become part of it. For all of us to work together in creating the world that we want. We cannot and must not wait any longer for corrupt governments obsessed with growth. There is every profession on vegan Twitter, from lawyers to builders. We have everything we need to create an alternative compassionate ethical system. It really is that simple. I personally want to create an educational forum as part of the VLM too. so that we can all share ideas in how we go forward.
Imagine if all the animal and planet harmers disappeared, just leaving vegans behind! We wouldn’t need to send out graphic footage any more - but what we would need to do is create a veganic system that works. This is what The Vegan Land Movement is about. Creating the alternative.
We need to move away from protest and outrage towards creating that alternative.
This is one of my favourite quotes:
“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” Buckminster Fuller
Linda: You must have met with a number of practical problems in managing your croft and woodland. Can you always solve these in ways that don’t conflict with your principles?
Gina: I haven’t really met any problems because it’s really is a research site at the moment. The trees are only three years old and won’t produce for another five to ten years. I rarely go into the woodland lower down on the croft because every time I do I seem to scare the little sika deer and her fawn who live there. I did walk down there a couple of weeks ago but didn’t stay long because of the various alarm calls from nesting birds.
Linda: Do you keep rescued animals on your croft, or are they looked after elsewhere?
Gina: I have three ponies who I’ve had as companions for twenty years. They are free to just be who they are and I am blessed that they seem to like me. They come and see me in my caravan and often knock on the window to say hello. They have around twenty acres of the croft and seem to keep the gorse in check. In three years there has been a remarkable difference since the previous owner’s sheep and cattle left. So much wildlife has returned. The croft is buzzing with life and every summer more arrives.
Linda: Finally: in your life and work, you really have followed the idea (mis)attributed to Gandhi of being the change you want to see in the world. What advice would you give to anyone, particularly young people, who want to live as far as sustainably and compassionately as possible?
Gina: I’m not sure I can give advice but I think from my experience and journey, the answer would be one word ... simplicity. We also need to join so many dots. A while back Nestle launched a vegan KitKat. It’s wrapped in single use plastic and contains palm oil as do many other vegan products. Palm oil is not vegan because of the damage to old growth forests and countless species, and neither is single use plastic, millions of tonnes of which are ending up in the oceans killing marine life over and over again for around 500 years.
So with this in mind the questions I ask myself are these. What is this product made from? Where is each ingredient from? Was there ecological damage involved? Have animals been hurt, either directly or indirectly? Is this product ethical? Have humans been exploited too?
If the answers are yes, then boycotting the product will mean less harm for all life. But the biggest question of all is: do I need it to survive?
Linda: Thanks so much, Gina, for answering my questions so fully. Your project is a really inspiring one which I hope others will follow!
You can listen to Gina’s Off the Leash podcast, an interview with Charlie Moores at the newly-acquired Somerset site, here. (Off the Leash is a great podcast for all things animal-related.)
Illustrator Mini Grey is well-known and loved for her highly distinctive style of pictorial story-telling – it’s energetic, colourful and full of witty detail, every bit as appealing to adults as to children. She worked in theatre and schools before studying sequential design at Brighton University, and has acquired a range of skills including puppet-making, welding, carpentry and set design.
When she entered the world of children’s books with The Princess and the Pea and Biscuit Bear, her talent was immediately recognised: she was selected as one of the Booktrust’s Best New Illustrators, going on to win the prestigious Kate Greenaway Medal in 2007 for The Adventures of the Dish and the Spoon.
Her new book, The Greatest Show on Earth, published this month, is a real tour de force – I won’t be at all surprised if it wins Mini the Kate Greenaway Medal for a second time, and I hope it will.
I’d known of Mini’s brilliant books for many years, but it was when I met, walked and talked with her on a youth climate protest in Oxford, and then read her article Fury at the Farm (more about that below), that I realised she’s an animal advocate and environmental campaigner. You can find out more on her blog, Sketching Weakly.
I don’t usually have the chance to meet my guests in person, but for this feature I met Mini, appropriately, in the Museum of Natural History in Oxford.
Linda: First of all, congratulations on your wonderful new book! How did the idea come about? How long have you been working on it?
Mini: About ten years! This Museum is a regular haunt for me and my son Herbie. When Herbie was about 5, we began wondering how to understand the concept of 4.6 billion years, the life of the planet, and started making a timeline. Later, Pollock’s Toy Theatre invited various artists to make toy theatres in the Victorian tradition, and with mine I had the idea of insects telling the story of life on Earth. This led to the idea of using the different parts of a theatre: the main stage (the scenes of life evolving), the wings, which give pictorial information, and the orchestra pit, which would be an unrolling tape-measure of time, each centimetre representing one million years. In that scale, it’s astonishing to realise that all of human life occupies less than the final three millimetres! When I made a dummy of a theatre book, my editor saw it and was keen, and it went from there.
Linda: Your books often have an unusual narrative standpoint, and here it’s insects who take us through the vast span of geological time. Why insects?
Mini: That was partly inspired by the great collections of insects – dead and living! – here at the Museum, and I thought of having insects as observers telling the story. Also I wanted to step outside our human point of view, and see what the story of life would look like from an arthropod viewpoint.
Linda: Your article Fury at the Farm looks at the idea most of us have, from childhood, of a picture-book farm: “a random collection of one or a few of several animals living together with a farmer – it’s a kind of animal sanctuary. No-one gets killed. The main danger is usually foxes or wolves. Old MacDonald had a picture book farm. Eee-i-eee-i-oh….”
It’s an excellent article, acknowledging the value of animal stories for the very young, but also stating that “The farm myth in picture books acts as a very useful screen.” It helps create cognitive dissonance about meat, letting people see themselves as animal lovers while ignoring the cruelty behind the meat on their plates. To counter this, you say that “the picture book superpower is to be able to put the reader into the place of someone else … Someone who might be a chicken,” and your story Doris, the Chicken who Changed the World was published in The Puffin Book of Big Dreams. “You’ll never believe this, I know, but once upon a time, people used to eat animals...”
Have you any plans to write more stories in this vein?
Mini: I think the world need to hear about farming from a chicken’s point of view, and it’s time for a picture book with a brave chicken hero. (hint, hint!)
One of the ideas Mini suggests in that article, and in more detail on her blog, is for food to be properly labelled so that we know what we’re buying in terms of animal welfare and environmental impact. While we talked, we had coffee and cake at the Eat the Future café in the museum, where most of the meal choices are labelled in this way: A for least impact, E for most. Here are the illustrations from Mini's article and one more serious suggestion for food labelling. Food packaging is labelled for calorie content, vitamins, carbohydrates, etc.; shouldn't we also know what our food costs in animal suffering and carbon emissions?
Linda: Your son Herbie (to whom the book is dedicated, as well as to the Museum of Natural History) is now 15. As he’s grown up, how have you found a balance between informing and encouraging responsible choices, on the one hand, and giving a depressing picture of the future of humankind, on the other? With Herbie and his friends, do you see fears for the future / awareness of the situation we’re in / ambition to make things better for their generation?
Mini: I think he does feel that depressing picture of the future, and he has been on a few of the school climate strikes. But I think he’s not that keen to discuss because it’s just misery-inducing.
Linda: Your blog Sketching Weakly is almost a political manifesto – you introduce such detailed ideas for better, greener ways of living. It makes me think that you’d be a great County Councillor, politician or climate advisor! Have you ever thought of taking part in public life this way? Or do you think you can make more impact through your art and writing, using that ‘picture book superpower”?
Mini: I fear that being a councillor involves a LOT of tasks that aren’t being an eco-warrior. But I think it’s also very difficult for ordinary individuals to stand up to decisions that councils take – especially where to build. I think it’s time, especially in the light of Oxford having declared a climate emergency, to commit to only building in places that have already been built upon or that are biologically bereft. And that would mean not – not to build – as Oxford City are planning – on ancient meadows in the middle of Iffley Village, near my home. Here's the leaflet I've produced about that.
Linda: There’s a lovely post on your blog called If Sketching Weakly Ruled the World in which you find two reasons for hope, both derived from our experience of Covid and lockdown: Firstly, People will step up to a Big Ask, i.e. changing our behaviour quite drastically to meet the urgency of the pandemic, and secondly, People Love Nature – many people relished their local walks by rivers, in parks, etc., and found a new appreciation of the natural world and its wildlife. You ask whether we can use these two things to tackle climate change – and clearly you believe that yes, we can!
Mini: Yes, I decided to try and write a post about what I would do if I was in charge of the world – as a way of finding out if there were a few things that stood out as possible solutions to our planetary problems.
Linda: You had the chance to take part in the Oxford Citizens’ Assembly on Climate Change. What did you take from this? Did the whole experience give you hope?
Mini: Changing behaviour was a theme that came up constantly, and that change is happening, but never fast enough. Some changes are down to individuals, such as changing our energy supplier or heating system, getting an electric vehicle or turning down the heat, but all these would happen faster with a nudge for behaviour change. A price on Carbon is the nudge the world needs. How can we make it easier to do the right thing, and harder to do the wrong thing? Pricing has a big impact on behaviour change.
There was one slot for biodiversity, called ‘Biodiversity and Offsetting’. It added up to a disappointingly brief part of the weekend with very little time to address the subject of using nature to help the causes and impacts of climate change. We need to think long-term, e.g. over the next 100 years, about what we want our local city and landscape to look like. The green areas around cities are the green space that’s the most used and valued of all. With the wider landscape, can we improve it to boost wildlife, sequester more CO2, and hold more water? That would be win-win-win!
Linda: What new projects are on the way?
Mini: Really, getting The Greatest Show into the World!
Linda: Thanks so much for answering my questions – and congratulations today on the publication of this very special book! I’m readers of all ages will love it.
Finally, these panels on Mini's website are so appealing that I couldn't resist including this one, to give you another taste of her distinctive and engaging style.
Find me here in the Reading Corner - talking to the excellent Nikki Gamble of Just Imagine about my new book, about attitudes to animals and what one person can do to avoid cruelty and reduce carbon emissions.
I was delighted to take part in the YALC conference, talking to the excellent Gill Lewis - author of such great books as Sky Dancer, Scarlet Ibis, Eagle Warriors and more recently A Street Dog Named Pup (which is already one of my Books of the Year). Here we talk about the issues we raise in our books, how animal awareness can become part of everyday life and the small or larger changes everyone can make to improve conditions for animals. You can listen to our conversation here, on YouTube.