22 December 2000

Melchett – vandal or visionary?

Lord Melchetts supporters champion him as a selfless

campaigner for safe food. His critics dub him a misguided

vandal. But now hes stepping down at Greenpeace and

will be spending more time on the family farm. But will

he be just any other farmer? Tim Relf reports

IM GOING to get into terrible trouble with my kids mentioning Rolf Harris, laughs Peter Melchett, sitting in Greenpeaces London office.

The executive director of the environmental pressure group is talking about the Glastonbury music festival. "I saw Rolf Harris – that was one amazing gig."

Its not, it has to be said, a conversation you expect to be having with the Eton and Cambridge-educated Peter Robert Henry Mond, 4th baron of Hartford Hill.

But the 52-year-old vegetarian has never been one for convention. He only took the title Lord, he says, so he could change the system from within, recently voting for abolition of the Lords. "Im clear that hereditary power and privilege are wrong and should be abolished."

He was a minister under the 1970s Labour government but abandoned a promising political career and, after spells with WWF, RSPB and the Ramblers Association, joined Greenpeace in 1986. "Very few people get such an amazing chance in life," he says.

It was more recently that his name really hit the headlines as one of a group hauled before the courts after making a dawn raid on a trial field of GM maize at Lyng, Norfolk last year.

The group was later acquitted of theft and criminal damage – but not, however, before the quietly-spoken man had spent time on remand in Norwich prison. Not, he points out, the first time he had seen the inside of a prison, either, having visited many as a student of criminology at university. "Its a terrible thing to be put in prison. A soul-destroying and miserable experience."

It was a high-profile case that split public opinion, with the protestors action causing outrage among many. NFU president Ben Gill dubbed the not-guilty decision "perverse", claiming it "gave the green light to wanton vandalism and trespass".

But Peter – sitting with a photograph of white-overall-wearing activists in pride of place on the wall behind him – is adamant his actions were justified. "What we did was lawful," he says. "I know its difficult to say it – Jeremy Paxman found this on Newsnight."

People tend to assume it was unlawful, he says. "But if you are found not guilty, that means what you did was lawful. It was upholding the law."

The defences argument was that GM crops posed a real and immediate threat to other property (ie crops) and so the groups action was protecting other property.

And its back to Norfolk that Peter is now heading to get more involved with his 360ha (890-acre) farm, a third of which is certified organic, with the remainder in conversion.

Itll mark a return to the county in which he was born and a return to the farm his father bought when Peter was 11. "Through my teenage years, I spent a lot of time tramping around Norfolk and the Fens, listening to my dad talk about farming. Its not," he adds quickly, "an ancestral estate or any nonsense like that."

He runs a single-suckler herd on marsh grazing, with wheat, barley and sugar beet the historical arable rotation. "But in the future, who knows?"

So is he optimistic about that farming future, then? "Im always very optimistic. I dont think you can work for a campaigning pressure group without being optimistic."

Hes looking forward to taking a more hands-on approach. Fostering barn owl and harvest mice numbers. "Thats real change again. Its not debating, its not theoretical. I get huge pleasure from that. Its hard to imagine anything more exciting, really.

"Ive always thought the important thing was getting things changed for the better. Not having a discussion – not having an ideological debate. Im not interested in ideology and theory and educating people. It seems to me what matters is what happens on the ground."

It was partly this – the frustration at having to toe the Party line – that prompted his exit from politics. It was this, too, that discouraged him from pursuing a career in business as a young man. "In those days, businesss capacity or interest in changing things on the social or environmental agenda was more or less zero."

Business would, in many ways, have been a logical path. His father was the first chairman of the newly-nationalized steel industry; his great grandfather founded ICI.

But he is now going into business, as environment and ethical adviser to Iceland, the frozen food chain, which has led the way removing GM ingredients from its own-label range.

He is also planning to do more walking – a favourite pursuit of his. "Ive been going on holiday in the Lake District for 25 years. The same pub; walking the same hills. I love it."

Peter is president of the Ramblers Association, an organisation which has proved unpopular with many farmers and landowners over its Right to Roam policy.

So how easy will it be for him, all things considered, to integrate seamlessly back into the Norfolk farming community? "I dont think Ive ever integrated seamlessly into the Norfolk farming community," he says.

And what do they generally think of him now, farmers? "Mixed. I dont know. Im not terribly interested in how they see me."

Which, in a lot of cases, is probably just as well.

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