Much can be learned from the tactics employed by animal welfare campaigners against Britain’s first ‘super-dairy’, writes Johann Tasker.
It started off as an ambitious plan to set up an 8100-cow dairy herd. Months later, the proposal was torn in half and numbers reduced to 3770 cows. Last week, after more than a year of wrangling, the idea was finally ditched altogether.
The two farmers behind Nocton Dairies – the company hoping to set up the “super-dairy” at Nocton Heath, Lincolnshire – now have nothing to show for the tens of thousands of pounds spent preparing their planning application.
Nocton Dairies cited objections from the Environment Agency regarding pollution risk as the “sole reason” for withdrawing the proposal. In truth, the agency’s stance was only the final nail in the coffin for a project mired in controversy from the outset.
The planning application had incurred the wrath of animal welfare groups, environmentalists and local villagers. But it took on special significance for a little-known charity on the fifth floor of an office block on London’s Grays Inn Road.
The World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) – the acronym is pronounced “Whisper” – is more usually busying itself rescuing dancing bears in central Europe and Asia. Until last year, few in farming had heard of it.
Much of the charity’s campaigning takes place overseas. But much of its fundraising takes place in the UK. WSPA was looking for a campaign that would show it could be just as effective at home as it was abroad. Nocton fitted the bill perfectly.
“We were looking for a cause to raise our profile with our UK supporters,” says Simon Pope, WSPA’s head of external affairs. “Nocton appeared out of nowhere and fitted everything we stood against. We were completely opportunist.”
It would be unfair to suggest that WSPA stopped the super-dairy single-handedly. After all, Nocton wasn’t short of opponents and farmers themselves remain divided over the merits of large-scale dairying. But WSPA’s methods warrant closer scrutiny.
This was to be WSPA’s first major UK campaign, so success was vital. A corner of the WSPA office was turned into a campaign HQ and three full-time staff worked the phones, helped by two part-time volunteers.
Like all seasoned campaigners, Mr Pope knew he needed a catchy slogan. He soon found one, adapting the “Not in my name” slogan used by campaigners against the war in Iraq so it became “Not in My Cuppa”.
“We knew we didn’t want a slogan based on animal welfare issues alone,” says Mr Pope. “We wanted an everyman slogan that would appeal to a much wider audience. We also wanted it to have a lifespan beyond Nocton.”
Having settled on a slogan, the next move was to start building alliances with like-minded people – including sympathetic MPs, other animal welfare groups and environmentalists and academics.
“We were very mindful there were organisations out there who knew a lot more about the subject than we did,” Mr Pope admits. “There was no way we could become experts on everything ourselves, so we built an alliance of experts.”
WSPA had soon forged alliances with organisations including Compassion in World Farming, Friends of the Earth and the Soil Association. It wooed newly-elected MPs such as Labour’s Ian Cawsey and Tory Zac Goldsmith.
More than 50 MPs attended a Westminster “Not in my Cuppa” reception. Some 20 MPs even posed for a group photo afterwards and an Early Day Motion was launched with MPs signing a life-size cut-out cow.
“We realised early on that this was going to be a numbers game,” says Mr Pope. In other words, WSPA would have a better chance of stopping Nocton if it could demonstrate mass support. So it commissioned a MORI poll to show just that.
The poll found that 65% of people in the East Midlands would not buy milk if they knew it was produced from cows kept indoors on large-scale farms. It was a statistic used repeatedly by anti-Nocton campaigners.
At the same time, the group embarked on a series of headline-grabbing stunts. They included dozens of anti-Nocton campaigners running through the streets of London wearing cow masks and Guantanamo-style orange jump suits.
Right or wrong, the suggestion was clear: Cows would be incarcerated like prisoners. And it was a sentiment that echoed Compassion in World Farming’s campaign slogan “Cows belong in fields”.
WSPA media relations manager Katharine Mansell makes no apologies for using such emotive imagery.
“We knew that if we were to reach consumers, we would have to use an arresting and simple concept,” she says.
The team also harnessed the power of social media and the Internet. A dedicated “Not in my Cuppa” Facebook page now boasts almost 10,000 members. A Twitter channel with the same name has attracted 1,500 followers.
Both Ms Mansell and Mr Pope reject suggestions that WSPA is anti-farming. In fact, Mr Pope comes from a farming family. Perhaps more surprisingly, his grandfather is a dairy farmer, from Pewsey, Wiltshire.
“This wasn’t just an animal welfare campaign – it was about much wider issues too,” he says. “There should be much more support for small-scale dairy farming – you should be able to be extensive and small-scale and still make a profit.”
So what can farming learn from all of this? The overriding lesson is the importance of public relations and harnessing consumer support. While the campaigners embraced PR and used it to their advantage, Nocton initially didn’t bother.
Some maintain Nocton was plain wrong, others that it was ahead of its time. Either way, it was a leap too far. And by the time Nocton started to fight back, it was already dangerously close to losing the battle.
Originally, the Nocton proposal had been submitted with little regard to public relations. The farmers behind the plan had been reluctant to speak to the media, fuelling suggestions that they had something to hide.
Realising the error of its ways, Nocton eventually called on the services of Oxtale Public Relations to help get its message across.
Oxtale is run by Amy Jackson, who has more than 25 years experience in agriculture and PR. “We have to get the farming message out there in a far better way,” she says. “I am not knocking the industry at all – farming is great in this country and something to be proud of – but we have to be much more proactive in getting our message across.”
Farming must become much slicker in the way it engages with the public, believes Ms Jackson. “The industry has to decide how it is going to reassure the public that the milk and other food is produced to standards they can have confidence in.”
Agriculture also needs to be much faster in the way it counters misinformation, she adds. “It is no longer possible to shy away from talking to consumers – the public are interested in where their food comes from and farmers have a good story to tell.”