It was a soggy Saturday. The People marched, quietly, fiercely, joyfully, through the West End of London. Many played the magical sound of a dawn chorus from their phones. A remarkable human squid walked alongside Sussex University’s Professor Dave Goulson in a Bee-suit.
Running repairs were made to a giant stag-beetle, which had lost its structural integrity after several hours of soaking rain. A remarkable giant bat, whose wings flapped slowly, like a manta ray, moved gracefully through the streets. Sadly, neither Princes Charles nor William appeared at a window of St. James’ Palace to give us a wave (or the thumbs-up), as we turned the corner from St James’ Street into Pall Mall.
Yes, of course, I’m talking about the People’s Walk for Wildlife. The people came from all across the UK (someone even came from Uganda), mostly with their waterproofs (having seen the forecast) and a wonderful variety of umbrellas – many of them wildlife-themed.
Welsh wildlife legend, Iolo Williams, stood behind the stage in a tee-shirt. I asked him if he had forgotten his waterproofs? “This isn’t rain!” he said. “I’m from Wales.” And that summed up the mood of the day. Positive, defiant.
Billy Bragg and Chris Packham had re-worked some of Bragg’s most famous songs and Chris joined Billy in a duet. It’s not something any of us will forget. Billy then sang alongside Grace Petrie and Saskia Eng.
This wasn’t just a one-off. Earlier last week Chris had launched the People’s Manifesto for Wildlife – produced at an unprecedented speed, and looking fantastic.
I must admit that, as one of the contributors, I may be biased: The Manifesto calls for action to halt the destruction that has brought Nature in the UK to its knees. Chris has appointed Ministers to his Nature Cabinet which includes young conservationists like Bella Lack and Mya-Rose Craig; writers Robert MacFarlane and Amy Jane-Beer, legal expert Carol Day, urban Nature guru Kate Bradbury, pesticides expert Dave Goulson, journalist and environmentalist, George Monbiot, Mark Avery, Ruth Tingay, Lush film-maker Ruth Peacey, Mark Carwardine and many more. No-one represents any organisation – we are representing ourselves – and Nature. I felt humbled to have been asked to join such a group (as Minister of Farming and Food.)
Some of us lucky Ministers had been singled out to speak for a couple of minutes about our topic. And others – Beaver nut, Derek Gow, Martin Lines from the Nature Friendly Farming Network, and Findlay Pringle from Ullapool who has been sacked as Ambassador for the Shark Trust for speaking out against Bear Grylls’ plans to have captive sharks as part of a “dive experience”. Young Fermanagh naturalist Dara McAnulty recited his own poem on Nature’s crisis. It was an amazing moment.
Despite everyone’s best efforts the speeches and singing over-ran. The walk had to start at 1pm sharp, as a series of rolling road-closures parted the traffic on some extremely busy West End streets. The last set of speeches were abandoned. I found myself at the front being herded forward, straining to listen to Billy Bragg singing Where Have All the Flowers Gone, wanting to run back to hear that incredible song. I looked at the crowd behind me as the rain eased off, thinking that maybe a couple of thousand had braved the elements, and that would be impressive. But as the March entered Piccadilly I realised that I could not see its end and that far more people must have arrived to join in. By the time we reached Whitehall it was clear that the police had underestimated how many people were there – and as we were squashed onto the pavement, they re-opened the road where people spilled out to form a substantial crowd.
As we waited for the end of the March to arrive, speakers who had missed out earlier – Kate Bradbury, Mark Carwardine, Mark Avery and George Monbiot, had their chance to talk. It worked out exceptionally well with George giving a very rousing speech to conclude the day.
Number 10’s conservation adviser John (Baron) Randall, was there to welcome us, perhaps on behalf of an absent Environment Secretary, Michael Gove. Chris and a group of young conservationists duly delivered the Lush petition and a copy of the Manifesto, which Mr Gove has promised to read carefully, once he’s worked out that it is not a report on the Bioblitz. Later I heard the police had estimated the March as 10,000 strong. For a soggy Saturday in September that is really impressive.
People will realise that if we don’t act now, it will be all too late
Producing the Manifesto at break-neck speed, organising a major outdoor event, including a stage with sound-system; getting everyone together on the day, working with the police to get 10,000 people from Hyde Park to Ten Downing Street – it was a herculean effort, led by Chris Packham with a great team working with him. What does it mean though?
The traditional media took little interest in the event. There was a snippet on Radio 4’s lunchtime news; Sky news covered it well (apparently) – and there were small pieces in the Observer and Independent, plus a couple of mentions on other newspaper websites. Social media was a-buzz on the day – with #peopleswalkforwildlife getting to number one UK trending on twitter.
Most of UK Nature NGOs turned up to support the March – at least lots of their staff did. Had they all put out a big call for their members to come, perhaps the March would have been bigger. But it was organised entirely independently of the Nature charities, and so there was no expectation that they would promote it. A few politicians turned up – I saw Labour’s Kerry McCarthy in the crowd, and I understand there was a good turnout from green politicians.
For me, this feels like a marker has been put down. It feels like it could become something significant. That people will realise that if we don’t act now, it will be all too late. Perhaps it already is too late, but we have to believe that things can change.
Please read the Manifesto. Take action – we can all do things in our own lives which make a difference. And badger you politicians – your councillors, your MPs. Challenge them on what they are doing for Nature.
And if there’s another people’s walk for wildlife, please come along. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.
this post first appeared on Lush Times