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Interview with BASC’s new Chief Executive, Richard Ali

PUBLISHED: 09:58 28 June 2013 | UPDATED: 09:58 28 June 2013

Richard Ali is full of fighting talk

Richard Ali is full of fighting talk

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James Marchington interviews BASC’s new Chief Executive and finds he is full of fighting talk

Ali on conservation…

“Because shooters manage such a large area, we can make landscape-level differences to biodiversity, whereas a nature reserve is isolated. Our Green Shoots scheme is all about the environmental benefit that shooting delivers. The story that shooting doesn’t deliver environmental benefit just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, but we need the evidence to push it.”

Shooting has nothing to apologise for. We should shout about our contribution to the economy, the environment and society – and expose the prejudiced bigots who are willing to harm Britain by banning shooting. That’s the very positive message from Richard Ali, the new Chief Executive of BASC, who spoke to Sporting Shooter just two months into his new role at the head of Britain’s biggest shooting organisation.

Ali took over in March from the venerable John Swift, who served 40 years at BASC, 25 of them as Chief Executive. If shooters were hoping for a grizzled wildfowler to take the reins, they will be disappointed. Ali sits in the BASC library dressed in a freshly-pressed shirt and tie. His hair is unruffled by the marsh wind and there is no mud under his neatly-clipped nails. You could drop him into any boardroom, or Westminster for that matter, and he would fit right in. In fact, I find myself wondering if he is often mistaken for Ed Miliband.

Ali freely admits that it’s 20 years since he last fired a shot, and that was with the cadet corps at school. But he’s keen to point out his country roots: “I grew up on a beef farm on the edge of the Lancashire Pennines, and did a little bit of rough shooting,” he says.

His career has been firmly anchored to the land, too, including a degree in agricultural economics, a spell as Chief Executive of English Beef & Lamb and a role at AB Sugar, the group that owns British Sugar. He has spent years immersed in agricultural marketing, policy and lobbying, “All the sort of things you need for a job like this,” he says, adding with a smile: “So I come fully trained.”

Ali on raptor persecution…

“People must follow the law. BASC and other organisations are quite clear on that. Action will be taken against people who break the law. But there’s another side to it: there’s a clear process in place for issuing licences, and it should work based on the evidence.”

Since starting at BASC Ali has met a great many shooters and says he has been made to feel welcome. “It’s been really heartwarming,” he says. “I’ve found that shooting is very much like a family.”

Far from criticising him for not being an out-and-out shooter already, people have offered to take him out and show him the ropes. “Most people have said ‘well, you’re not employed to shoot, you’re employed to run the organisation and help us’.” By and large, he says, “BASC members are a thinking bunch, and they get it.”

That’s good to hear, but the honeymoon period will soon be over and BASC members will be looking for results. Does Ali see his role as delivering more of the same, or will he be leading BASC in a whole new direction?

He quickly points out that BASC is a democratic organisation. BASC Council represents the members, and they set direction and policy. “My job is to make sure we take the resources we’ve got and deliver council’s policy. So ultimately it’s about the staff delivering what the members want.” Ali himself is on a fixed five-year contract so, as he puts it, “my feet are held to the fire immediately”.

Ali on lead shot...

“BASC is very firm on this: comply with the law as it is but no evidence, no change. Levels of compliance need to be significantly greater. If regulators see a low level of compliance they may be tempted to go down the route of prohibition. There are people who want to ban lead shot for whatever reason, and how they achieve that makes no difference to them.”

True enough, but his leadership will set the tone for the next five years, so I press him on what direction that might go – and quickly realise there are some significant changes afoot. “The world is changing very rapidly,” he tells me. “BASC needs to go through a process of... not a revolution, but a rapid evolution.”

Top of his list is a refreshingly open attitude to other organisations. “If we’re talking about the wider shooting family, it is important we act as a family,” he says. “My door is open, and will always be open, to every other shooting organisation, or every other organisation that has shooting as a component of what it does.”

The words fall easily from his mouth, but that could mark a new era for the way shooting is represented. In the past, rivalry between individuals and organisations has seen too much time and energy spent fighting amongst ourselves rather than fighting threats to shooting.

“Like all families, the shooting family has had its disputes,” Ali says. “Sometimes it takes a change in the weather for people to realise that we have more in common than what separates us.” Sure enough, he was quick to accept an invitation to speak at the AGM of the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation, and says he was made to feel very welcome there.

When I ask about fighting shooting’s corner, a glint comes into Ali’s eyes. “Let’s talk about promoting shooting rather than defending it,” he says. “Shooting doesn’t have anything to apologise for. It’s a great sport, it makes a real economic contribution, it makes a real environmental contribution and it makes a real social contribution. It’s part of people’s lives. It’s essential to the countryside; in fact I’d say it’s essential to the UK.”

Good strong stuff, but there’s more: “You’ve got to look at the people opposed to shooting, and ask why. Is it because they are opposed to eating meat, to people enjoying themselves, to a more traditional set of pursuits or are they frankly jealous? There’s ignorance, stupidity and downright prejudice. Education can correct ignorance. Nothing can correct stupidity but the vast majority of British people are not stupid.”

He harks back to his time at English Beef & Lamb, when the received wisdom was that people wanted meat in anonymous plastic packets that didn’t remind them of where their food had come from. “We did the opposite and produced posters with an outline of the animal showing where the cuts come from. The consumers loved it.”

In the same way, he feels the British public are more receptive to shooting than we give them credit for, if only we go out and promote it. “Shooting has big ticks in all those things the government is trying to encourage: a sense of social cohesion and family, better biodiversity and conservation and economic growth. The naysayers – the prejudiced bigots – are quite prepared to harm Britain by banning shooting, and we must expose them.”

Ali has all the right credentials, has quickly absorbed the shooting message, and seems keen to step into the ring fighting. Making a real impact in a tenure of just five years is a massive challenge – but as I reflected driving away from Marford Mill, he might just be the man to do it.

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