Will coronavirus lead to a game meat ban? Did the BGA sell out to BASC? What about the lead shot ban? Incoming BGA chief executive Liam Stokes talks to Charlie Jacoby about the future of his organisation and what he plans for members, for the public, and for government.
Marketing pheasant meat: the British Game Alliance got the job in 2018 and started by looking at previous food marketing campaigns. Whether or not it considered ‘made to make your mouth water’ or ‘naughty but nice’, it decided to take the good idea that is the British produce ‘red tractor’ scheme and copy it. Pheasants in supermarkets and elsewhere either are or aren’t BGA-assured. So what’s going to happen now that the BGA has a new chief executive?
Liam Stokes replaces Tom Adams in the BGA’s top job. Stokes comes to the BGA from stints at BASC, the Countryside Alliance and, most recently, DEFRA. Working for the government, he was a senior lead on farming policy for 14 months during first the Brexit negotiations, the general election and, latterly, the COVID-19 response.
Is Stokes a Field reader or a Sporting Gun reader? ”I read everything,” he says, tactfully. ”People may or may not know that I am not from a shooting background. I’m not dyed-in-the-wool on big shoots. But I have no axe to grind against people shooting loads of birds.
“When I was training gamekeepers, 50-bird days was the sort of shooting I spent most of my time involved with and so, of course, I want to see those smaller shoots joining the BGA. They are the lifeblood of our industry. That’s where most people involved in game shooting are.”
Stokes inherits an organisation that has concentrated its attentions on the big shoots and with a simple message: ‘to increase the demand for game meat’. In the future, Stokes sees the role of the BGA as threefold. He wants the BGA to promote game meat, to develop the game meat market and to assure the game meat market. Stokes’s approach to the BGA it to treat it like a three-legged stool, with one leg the BGA’s game meat assurance scheme, another its role representing stakeholders in the production of game meat, especially shoots, to potential end markets, and the third the marketing of game meat. Stokes believes that all three parts of the mission are based on the value of game meat.
“What the BGA needs to do is to become a grown-up, credible, serious meat organisation along the lines of the beef and sheep organisations,” he says. “These producers have credible representation with officials.”
Stokes denies that the BGA does the same work as the other shooting organisations. “We are not trying to replicate anything anybody else is doing,” he says. “There are loads of organisations doing fantastic jobs. What we do is look at game meat from egg to plate and support our members, our supporters, with interactions [with officials]. I think I think we’re uniquely placed to do that.”
Stokes admits, however, that there is crossover between the BGA’s work and game meat marketing campaigns from BASC (Taste of Game) and the Countryside Alliance (Game To Eat). “We all think game is wonderful and want to promote it,” he says. “In many ways there’s no problem with having different operations promoting to different parts of society. I think that’s absolutely fine and right. I think what we need is an organisation that focuses on this idea of game as a valued commodity, as a valued product, and promote it to the entirety of society.”
In recent months, the BGA has had to answer charges that BASC ‘owns’ the BGA. BASC put out a statement to deny that. Stokes prevaricates on this point “I’m not going to give you a definitive answer on this because I don’t want to give you the wrong answer,” he says, “but what I can tell you is that we are not owned by BASC. Any money that has been put into the BGA will go back out again, if it is a loan, or whatever we have received. I wouldn’t have taken a post in an organisation that was not completely independent.”
Antis attack the BGA for being part of the ‘old guard’ of Countryside Alliance, BASC and GWCT. They try to label the BGA as extremist in order to marginalise it in their campaigning. Stokes answers that charge. “We have representation from all the major organisations on our advisory committee as well as the wider shooting world. They absolutely have a say in what we do,” he says. “But we are an independent organisation and we couldn’t serve the shooting community if we were not an independent organisation.
“Antis are always going to assume bad faith. What they can’t get away from is our assurance scheme. It’s public. People can see what the standards are, and that it is assured by an independent auditor. I don’t think there’s anything else available that comes close to that level of credibility and transparency.”
The assurance scheme – leg one of the three-legged stool – is audited, like many assurance schemes, by Lloyd’s Register. BGA assessors visit shoots and make sure they meet certain criteria.
The BGA has recently confirmed a new set of standards for lowland shoots, which are more detailed than its previous set of standards. Once the coronavirus lockdown is lifted, the audits will begin again.
Stokes estimates that 25 million to 40 million pheasants and partridges are released every year in the UK and that 40% of them enter the food chain. That means between 10 million and 16 million wild birds end up on the nation’s plates each year. The BGA currently assures nearly 30% of those, he says – though he adds that “shooting is a low information industry” and “nobody knows the definitive answer to that question”. His aim is to assure the remaining 70%.
“This has to be an initiative of the shooting community,” he says. “This can’t be something that we are enforcing on anybody. This is something we want people to be a part of and something we want people to be able to access. Everybody, no matter the size of the operation, should be able to say, ‘our game is assured’.
“We’re trying to impress the public – and that might be the game-consuming public who wants to be reassured about its provenance, or it might be the public who don’t consume game but takes an interest in game shooting and what we’re doing.
“They might want to know that the game being served in local shops is sustainable. The stockists – the end users – have got goals they need to meet. They need to be confident that they’re stocking food that has been ethically sourced. The government needs to be sure that there is some sort of credible assurance for game meat. The emphasis on standards and the food chain is only going to grow in the wake of coronavirus. And, finally, I think the shoots themselves and the shooting community needs to be confident that we are providing something robust and rigorous, otherwise what’s the point of being involved?”
Stokes refuses to take responsibility for shoots that fail the BGA’s assurance scheme. He points to the independence of the scheme’s audit process. “If there are issues, they [shoots] will be given time to fix them, if they are minor,” he says. “If they’re major, then the process is different. This is all on the website. If infractions aren’t sorted, then penalties will be in place including being evicted from the BGA. That’s the proper working of an independent assurance scheme.”
“It’s really important that the BGA maintains its neutrality. Our credibility is based on standards that the shooting community and our end users agree are necessary. They are the standards we want to see enforced on shoots and we then pass those to an independent body. That’s the only way this this can work.”
Stokes inherits a commitment to phasing out plastic wads and lead shot in cartridges. Before Stokes took on the job, the BGA was a joint signatory to the commitment by several shooting and countryside organisations to a voluntary ban on lead shot and plastic wads by 2024. “The plastic wad issue is a conservation issue,” says Stokes. “I don’t think anyone is going to say we shouldn’t be phasing out plastic wads as rapidly as well as we can. I don’t think that’s controversial.
“On lead, we are a meat operation. We are driven by what our end users want and, again, there’s no getting away from the fact our end users, the public and particularly the supermarkets, want to see the back of lead. The BGA’s position on this is driven by what we need to achieve. The only responsible thing to do is to communicate to our members that this is what the end user wants, so this is direction of travel we have to take.”
As well as looking sideways at the BGA members, Stokes has to keep an eye on danger from above. One of those dangers is growing international concern about ‘wild’ food following the tracing of the original outbreak of coronavirus to a ‘wet market’ in Wuhan. The World Health Organisation has already ruled that there will be no ban on wet markets, partly because such a ban is unenforceable. The European Union has also debated the issue. Stokes stays alert. “We absolutely have to be aware that this idea is out there,” he says. “It links back to something I said earlier, that there is going to be a greater emphasis on assurance and traceability within the food chain. We need a credible assurance scheme that people can be a part of, that can trace birds through the system from egg to plate. We absolutely have to get that in place.”
Stokes says that the EU debate was partly driven by the animal rights lobby, using coronavirus as an excuse to crack down on meat marketing. He says he does not expect animal rights activists to pull the same stunt in the UK parliament.
In 2019, the BGA was able to announce that it had sold 250,000 pheasants to Hong Kong. Although Wuhan Province in China banned the sale of wild game following the coronavirus, Stokes says he knows of no risk to the Hong Kong deal, though he says the BGA is monitoring the situation. “There’s a lot of noise at the moment,” he says, “and trying to separate the signal from the noise is a challenge. Our understanding (as of yesterday) is that the deal is still happening and in progress but it’s an evolving picture. Part of our role in this is to be linked into government and to be picking up this information as soon as it becomes available.”
Also in 2019, the BGA held 13 meetings in Japan – but these apparently came to nothing. Stokes is not aware of, “anything currently happening in Japan or indeed anywhere other than Hong Kong,” he says.
Heading off criticism that sending pheasant carcases halfway around the world does not fit modern models of sustainability, Stokes is not as keen developing on foreign markets for British game meat as his predecessor, Adams, was. “We are going to be focusing on making sure that the British people know that game is a locally-sourced, traceable, sustainable source of meat,” he says. “That’s going to be our main focus moving forward.
“My priority is the British market. I think there is an awful lot to do here. There’s a huge amount of potential and that’s where we’re going to be focusing our energies.”
The second leg to the BGA’s stool is its work as a representative body for shoots. With challenges to shooting now including regional government, the judiciary, the interpretation of rules by the civil service and the actions of the police, as well as lobbying for new laws by central government, can the small team at the BGA hope to have influence? Especially when organisations from the National Gamekeepers Organisation through to the Game Farmers’ Association via BASC, the CA and GWCT are already walking those various corridors of power? Stokes answers carefully: “I think we need to be a bit careful about that idea of being a representative body. We represent the interest of those involved in the production and consumption of game meat. What is really important is that we maximise the benefits that we can bring to the sector from within our remit. By sticking within that, and amplifying the benefits we can bring within that, we can leverage the interest of shoot members and game farm members by working with our partner organisations. We’re not here to replicate what BASC, the Countryside Alliance or the NGO does. Those are fantastic organisations that already do brilliant work.
“Similarly, we have a relationship with government as an organisation representing meat producers. We speak to the food and farming side of government. Through those conversations, we can have a voice in places that the wider shooting organisations do not.”
He rejects the charge that the BGA’s marketing role is simply to copy-and-paste press releases from other shooting organisations, and that it would be better off as a department within a larger shooting organisation, rather than a standalone organisation with its own membership “Our independence is absolutely crucial,” he says. “You asked me earlier on about how we are supposed to have credibility if we are too close to the other organisations. If we have been a part of the other organisations then some of the stakeholders we work with – we would be on to a loser straight away. We have to be an independent organisation looking after the game meat sector.
“I wouldn’t get too concerned about the idea that there are six organisations signing a letter not five because, having just come out of government, look at the roster of organisations that turn up to represent the conservation movement. It is massive. You might think, ‘what a waste of money – why haven’t they got one?’ – well, every one of those organisations gets a seat at the table. It’s nonsense that we would be better off if we only had one seat at the table.
“What we will be doing is plugging into the DEFRA forums on the production and sale of meat. We are already on the Food Chain Emergency Liaison Group, we are already on the Brexit Breeding Group which is a spin-off group of the Brexit Livestock Group. These are industry forums with representatives from across the food and farming sectors.”
Does Stokes have DEFRA minister George Eustace’s mobile phone number? He says he does not.
The last leg on the stool is game meat marketing. The BGA has backed the launch of Game Aid in recent weeks, it has re-posted press releases about its members’ charitable activities, and it has pushed its message hard among the elite and expensive shoots and shooters with some arguing that it has ignored the mass-market lower end of shooting. “I’m not going to comment on what’s happened previously,” says Stokes. “I think some clarity of mission is really important at this point. My focus is going to be keeping the BGA thinking about these three things: the promotion of game, the assurance of game, the development of game products. That’s what we’re going to be doing.
“We’re here to sell game. We’re here to introduce… to help the public get to know that game is fantastic.”
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