Unelected Defra ministers won’t protect wildlife

Is our government fit to protect wildlife? We take a look at two men with key ministerial roles in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra): Richard Benyon (on the left in the image above) and Robbie Douglas-Miller (on the right).

Defra has a number of tasks, perhaps the most important one being to protect the environment. You might think that ministers who have key interests that conflict with that task would be excluded from top positions in Defra. Think again.

Robbie Douglas-Miller

The public was shocked, and many outraged, when former prime minister David Cameron made a sudden return to government after seven years. He is no longer an elected MP of course, but was given the unelected role of foreign secretary by current prime minister Rishi Sunak and made a baron in the unelected House of Lords on 17 November. But just two weeks later, on 1 December, the lesser-known but equally unelected Robbie Douglas-Miller was also appointed a baron by the king. His new title allowed the Scottish shooting estate owner to become Defra’s unelected Minister for Biosecurity, Animal Health and Welfare. His appointment flew under the radar in comparison to Cameron, but Douglas-Miller’s obvious conflicts of interest should have made every national headline.

The Guardian did, however, highlight how problematic the appointment is. Douglas-Miller has a vital role: animal welfare. But The Guardian stated:

Downing Street is facing calls to explain why it has appointed a wealthy, unelected shooting enthusiast as its animal welfare minister after it emerged he has backed the culling of seals and wild birds.”

The newspaper noted that Douglas-Miller:

“owns a grouse moor in Scotland and has argued for the relaxation of rules on shooting wild birds that prey on salmon.”



Indeed, the animal welfare minister owns the Hopes Estate in the raptor-persecution hotspot of the Lammermuir Hills. The Guardian said:

In September, he signed a letter with fellow grouse moor owners lobbying the Scottish government to water down new laws that bring in licences for grouse-shooting in an effort to address persecution of birds of prey.”

Yes that’s right: we have a British minister who, just a couple of months before his Defra appointment, actively lobbied the Scottish government against the protection of raptors (which should already be protected under British law, but are regularly found poisoned on or near shooting estates). Such conflicts of interest make a mockery of Britain’s so-called democracy.

Back in 2005 Douglas-Miller bought a grouse shooting estate named Horseupcleugh. In 2007 The Scotsman described Douglas-Miller’s motives for buying the land:

The red grouse is unique to the UK and wealthy people will pay considerable sums for the privilege of indulging in what is the most demanding of all game-shooting disciplines. The right to shoot a brace of grouse can cost up to 300 plus VAT, so it was clear to Douglas Miller that if he and his keeper, Ian Elliot, could push the annual bag towards 300 brace then the finances of the estate would look much brighter.”

On top of all this, a look at Companies House reveals that Douglas-Miller was director of the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) from 2006 to 2013. The GWCT lobbies the government on bird shooting. Protect the Wild has already noted that “any efforts to strengthen legislation in favour of protecting birds (by shortening shooting seasons, for example) are met with fierce resistance” by lobbyists such as the GWCT.


Cormorant characteristically drying its wings


Douglas-Miller not only profits from the murder of grouse, he is also responsible for the murder of other birds, and made an application to murder seals, too. The Guardian wrote:

He is also on the board of a fishery which applied to obtain a licence to kill seals in 2021; last year he gained a licence to kill wild cormorants and sawbill ducks [fish-eating species including Goosanders and Red-breasted Mergansers].”

Incredibly, Natural England, the government’s adviser for the natural environment in England and which reports to Defra, has issued licences to fishery owners to kill more than 11000 Cormorants in the past decade.

Green MP Caroline Lucas summed up the absurdity of Douglas-Miller’s appointment in a tweet on Dec 7th when she said:

“Great! Just the person for the job of new Environment Minister – an unelected landowner who has restricted public nature access & backed bird culls. Someone I’d definitely trust to prioritise animal protection, nature access & environmental restoration…”

Why, when Rishi Sunak has 349 other MPs to choose for the job, did he opt for an unelected landowner? It certainly wasn’t to protect wildlife…


Richard Benyon

Sunday Times Rich List millionaire Richard Benyon, also a baron, has held the Defra role of Minister of State for Climate, Environment and Energy since November 2023, although he has held other roles in Defra since 2021. His responsibilities include international nature and wildlife. Benyon’s 14,000 acre Englefield shooting estate sits in both Berkshire and Hampshire.

Journalist Ben Webster recently revealed in openDemocracy that this summer Benyon:

allowed gamebirds to be released into protected wildlife sites for hunting despite his own experts warning it could spread bird flu to at-risk species.

Webster continued:

“Lord Richard Benyon, who himself owns a shooting estate, overruled Natural England’s recommendations and approved licence applications from other estates to release pheasants and partridges in, or near to, Special Protection Areas (SPAs).”

Shooting estates must be granted licences from Defra before releasing birds in or close to SPAs. And this year Natural England had called for greater limits on the release of pheasants and partridges as avian flu ran rampant among wild bird populations.

Webster wrote:

“But documents obtained by openDemocracy from Defra – Benyon’s department – reveal he and [former Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] Thérèse Coffey…repeatedly overruled Natural England’s recommendations. The two ministers made decisions on 36 licence applications during seven meetings this summer, with Benyon chairing five and Coffey two.

Natural England recommended 30 of the applications should be refused. The two ministers overruled the regulator by approving 15 of them.”

The documents obtained by openDemocracy showed that all decisions to overrule Natural England were made in meetings attended by lobbyist GWCT, of which Benyon was previously a trustee.

Walshaw Moor. Image Tim Melling

This is not Benyon’s only stint in Defra. He also served as government minister in the department from May 2010 to October 2013, sparking controversy as he put shooting interests above conservation. Back in Spring 2012, Natural England attempted to prosecute the owners of Walshaw Moor for damaging an area of deep peat blanket bog. At the time, veteran environmental journalist Mike McCarthy wrote in The Independent:

Defra – read Mr Benyon – forced it to drop the prosecution. That went largely unnoticed; perhaps it emboldened him. But his extraordinary decision to allow buzzards’ nests to be destroyed with shotguns will be noticed, and resented, and challenged, all over Britain.

All birds of prey are fully protected by law (for details see our Protectors of the Wild page Birds of Prey and the Law), but The Independent is referring to plans – which were scrapped by Benyon in May 2012 after public outcry – to give shooting estates licences to trap buzzards and destroy their nests to protect pheasant shoots. But a year later, in May 2013, The Guardian revealed that Natural England

licensed the secret destruction of the eggs and nests of buzzards to protect a pheasant shoot, according to documents released under the Freedom of Information Act.”

A government unfit to protect wildlife

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak shoots, and his constituency of Richmond is in North Yorkshire. The county is consistently noted as having the worst record on the illegal persecution of birds of prey in the whole of the UK. Both men, appointed by him in November and December 2023, have clearly been put in these key roles to further shooting interests.

And so we have two trigger-happy ministers: one who will happily murder cormorants and goosanders for fishing industry profits, as well as lobby against the protection of raptors; and another who put wild birds at risk by approving the release of pheasant and partridges in SPAs.

  • Protect the Wild supporters will no doubt agree with us that such conflicts of interest show that this government can not be trusted to look after Britain’s wildlife. They are putting their friends – and their own – shooting interests above all else. Through their shooting estates, both Douglas-Miller and Benyon are profiting from messing up the UK’s ecosystem, and are causing untold suffering to countless wild animals in the process.