BB eye: The British Birds Charitable Trust

Published on 10 January 2018 in Editorials

Satellite-tracking projects to understand more about the migration of the Common Cuckoo, both in Britain and in China, have been supported by The British Birds Charitable Trust. Graeme Willetts

Who owns British Birds? British Birds is published by a company, BB 2000 Ltd, which in turn is wholly owned by The British Birds Charitable Trust. BB 2000 was established (as its name implies) in the year 2000 to acquire the journal, by a group assembled by Richard Chandler. Richard was joined by Peter Oliver, Jeremy Greenwood, Bob Scott and Robin Prytherch, who came together on a voluntary basis to rescue the journal. For some time, BB had been losing money, and it was in danger of having to close. Matters came to a head in March and April 2000, quite soon after the majority of readers had renewed their subscription. The group put together a rescue plan in which the company would henceforth be overseen entirely by unpaid volunteers.

The rescue was made possible only by generous support from the RSPB and around 20 private individuals and trusts, all of whom made substantial loans with no guarantee that they would ever receive repayment. In the event, within a few years the journal had generated sufficient cash to repay all the money, although many of the supporters generously waived some or all of their loans. One main objective of the rescuers was to ensure that the journal would not fall into the hands of a business that might not have the long-term interests of BB as a priority; another was that, once the journal was restored to financial health, any surplus funds not needed for reinvestment could be given to bird-related charitable activities. Originally, those charitable donations were confined to promoting the study of birds, but they were later extended to include supporting the conservation of birds and their habitats.

So, why are there two bodies, the company that publishes the journal and the trust that owns the company? This is not an unusual structure, and results from a particular feature of UK charity law: namely that a charity cannot undertake commercial trade (such as the publication and sale of a journal). Consequently, charities often establish a commercial trading company, whose profits are paid to the charitable parent, which as a charity is exempt from liability to pay tax on such distributed profit. In a similar way (for example), the BTO carries out its trading activities through a company, BTO Services Ltd.

Now that British Birds has been restored to sound financial health, sums have been paid regularly to the BB Trust for charitable use since 2011. The trustees have been able to make donations totalling around £40,000 to date, recently at a rate of about £5,000 per year. Since this is not a large amount, the trustees’ policy has so far been not to publicise this funding widely, but to use their contacts, and those of the BB 2000 Ltd directors, to nominate suitable projects and causes to support. The trustees have taken the view that an important element in promoting the study of birds is to encourage young people to develop their bird-related interests. Part of the fund has therefore been earmarked to support young birders, with grants of between £50 and £250 to fund equipment or visits to bird observatories and the like. These have been publicised, and we are grateful to BB director Adrian Pitches for his work on these Young Birder awards.

A recent project supported by The British Birds Charitable Trust involved work on the Eurasian Curlew Numenius arquata in Shropshire. Andrew Parkinson/FLPA

We have supported a number of volunteer local surveys, most recently the Upper Onny Wildlife Group in Shropshire in its work on Eurasian Curlews Numenius arquata, and in earlier years studies of Woodcock Scolopax rusticola, Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos, European Nightjar Caprimulgus europaeus and Woodlark Lullula arborea. We have also contributed to a number of high-profile projects, including the satellite tracking of Common Cuckoos Cuculus canorus in Britain and China, the programme on Spoon-billed Sandpipers Calidris pygmea in Eastern Siberia and their migratory stopover sites farther south, and provided funds to help fill gaps in coverage for the second European Bird Atlas. We have supported campaigns against the illegal persecution of birds in a number of overseas areas, and dealing with conservation problems such as the collapse of vulture populations linked to the use of veterinary medication. We have also helped the publication of Key Biodiversity Areas of Iraq, and of the Arab-language version of Birds of the Middle East.

The Arab-language version of Birds of the Middle East, the production of which was supported by The British Birds Charitable Trust.

 As regards the Young Birder awards, we can think of no better testimonial than the report from one of last year’s recipients, Sam Buckton:

British Birds generously funded my travel to and from Foula, in Shetland, one of the UK’s most isolated permanently inhabited islands, where I helped Prof. Bob Furness in ringing seabirds and attaching geolocators to Guillemots and Razorbills.

The name ‘Foula’ derives from the Old Norse ‘Fuglaey’, meaning ‘island of birds’, and this description held very true. I’ve never been anywhere so rich and abundant in birdlife. Every day I was woken up by the songs of Snipe and Skylark! Many of the species I saw were life firsts, including Great Skua (aka Bonxie), Red-throated Diver, Red-necked Phalarope and Marsh Warbler, a pair of which were nesting at Ham.

However, the main focus of the trip was bird ringing and geolocator-tagging. The Foula study is one branch of a major research project attaching geolocators to breeding Guillemots and Razorbills at a variety of colonies around the UK, funded by Vattenfall. The project’s aim is to compare the migration routes and wintering areas of Guillemots and Razorbills from different breeding sites, and particularly to assess to what degree their distributions overlap with offshore windfarms, which might pose a danger to these birds.

Geolocators are small devices that attach to a standard leg ring by a cable tie. To obtain the required data, we need to deploy the devices on a sample of breeding adults, then re-catch the same individuals one or two years later to recover the devices and download the data. The loggers record light intensity, sea surface temperature and whether the device is wet (so is in the water – bird swimming) or dry (in the air – bird flying).

We eventually fitted around 40 geolocators (roughly meeting Bob’s target), mainly to Guillemots, as Bob had already successfully attached many geolocators to Razorbills on Fair Isle. I was able to further my training for a C ringing permit by becoming familiar with a range of new ring types, plus ringing and handling birds larger than thrushes (the largest birds I’d handled before this!).

I also learnt a great deal about seabird ecology and physiology from Bob, particularly regarding seabird diets, including how to find otoliths in Bonxie pellets for fish identification and why the seabirds have experienced poor breeding seasons in recent years. But my experiences weren’t limited to birds: after acquiring The Flora of Foula by Sheila Gear, a Foula resident, I became familiar with a host of specialised bog and coastal plants, particularly sedges, rushes and grasses. The island’s bryological and lichen diversity also fascinated me, and reinforced my desire to become more adept at identifying these taxa. There are some interesting links between Foula’s flora and seabirds: for example, Bonxie excrement has been shown to promote a unique community of mosses. Bob aims to return to Foula in May next year to recover geolocators. I am proud to know that my efforts have contributed to gathering data on seabird movements, with important conservation implications. Thanks to BB I am now a more well-rounded bird ringer, ornithologist and ecologist, and for that I am very grateful. Sam Buckton

Following changes made to the roles of the directors and trustees in the management of British Birds, the trustees have decided to enhance the role of the BB Trust and its charitable activities. Available funding has also been boosted by a good financial performance for British Birds in the most recent financial year, thanks to the efforts of the entire BB team (both staff and volunteers) in keeping costs under control and producing an attractive journal whose circulation has increased in challenging times. The Trust now welcomes donations to help fund its grants, or to fund specific projects. For example, we recently received a donation to help fund the digitisation of historical BBRC records, the donation being made under a deed of covenant so that tax could be reclaimed to increase the funds available for use.

The trustees also intend to be more proactive in seeking nominations for projects to fund. If you are aware of a local group who have a project or study where another £1,000 might make a material difference to its success, or are aware of a project we may have overlooked and that you think deserves support, please send details for us to consider. We would emphasise, however, that funds remain limited and grants will be awarded on a competitive basis.

Neil Bucknell (chairman), Bryan Barnacle, John Eyre, Ian Newton and Richard Porter, Trustees of the British Birds Charitable Trust, e-mail BBTrust@britishbirds.co.uk