Ian Carter

Published on 27 February 2011 in Other

This is a taster of a potential new feature in BB. The idea is to bring you an insight into the lives of key figures in modern-day ornithology, by posing a standard set of questions – some serious, some less so. We decided it to trial it on our website by putting the questions to members of BB‘s editorial board. Let us know what you think by posting a comment.

Ian Carter has worked as an ornithologist for Natural England and its predecessors for over 20 years, focussing especially on birds of prey, reintroductions and bird licensing. He is an avid collector of bird monographs and wrote one on the Red Kite, which was first published in 2001. He has contributed to numerous papers and popular articles on bird conservation, and has been a member of the BB editorial board since 1998.

What’s your earliest memory? I have by far the worst memory of anyone I know. Recalling the events of last week is hard enough but trying to go back the best part of four decades is a real challenge. I do vaguely remember landing on my chin during a family ice-skating outing and needing several stitches when I was quite young so I’ll go with that.
What was your first job? I used to do a weekend gardening job when I was at school, helping to look after a garden on the floodplain on the River Thames in Pangbourne. I was always short of cash during wet winters because the garden disappeared beneath two feet of water.
How and when did you get into birds? I loved collecting things as a child and it was the thrill of finding nests full of eggs that really got me into birds. The collecting phase ended abruptly when a neighbour told me I could go to prison for stealing eggs and I started to take photos instead. Frodsham marshes was within cycling range of the house and, at the time, was an extensive and magical place with old lanes and deserted marshes. Perhaps it still is – I’ve not been back there in over 30 years.
Who are your heroes and why? Ian Botham was my main sporting hero and I spent much of the 1981 summer holidays parked in front of the telly watching him swot the ball to the boundary from within inches of his (unhelmeted) head. More recently I’d say Richard Dawkins. He has come to be vilified by some for doing no more than suggest that we teach our children the truth, rather than, as in many schools, taking advantage of the fact that kids believe everything they are told by adults. I’ve just about managed to persuade my kids that Father Christmas doesn’t really come down the chimney of every single house in the world in less than 24 hours but the God delusion is still a work in progress.
What’s the biggest conservation challenge/priority in your country today? All the evidence we have suggests that in order to conserve wildlife effectively in the long term we will need larger and better connected areas set aside for conservation, or at least managed in a way that allows room for wildlife. With growing pressures from development and agriculture, including a likely rise in crops for biofuels, it will be a major challenge to secure that land.
What would get more kids interested in birds? I’ve noticed with my children is that whilst it is devilishly hard to persuade them to get out into the countryside, once they are there, they always have fun. After a few hours exploring a local wood they are glowing, lively, cheerful and full of conversation. After a session helping Mario to negotiate yet another new world their eyes are glazed over and they can barely raise the energy required to communicate. As is often pointed out, there are now far fewer opportunities for kids to get hands-on contact with the natural world, either because of health and safety concerns or because of overly-zealous restrictions on what they can do. Their nearest council-run nature reserve in Horsham even forbids the picking of blackberries, putting up signs to say that the local birds will starve if we remove their food – utterly short-sighted and ridiculous (though otherwise I must say the council-run reserves in and around the town are excellent!). Egg collecting is no longer an option (quite rightly I suppose), picking flowers is frowned upon and even approaching certain types of newt too closely can land one in trouble. Is it any wonder that kids quickly lose interest? Having said that, with persistence, I think it is still possible to inspire an interest in the natural world. Drag them outside even if it’s cold and wet and they don’t want to go. And take them to places where they can get close up to spectacular wildlife – Shetland’s Puffins and Otters made quite an impact on my two but there are lots of other options.
What are your views on reintroductions? I’ve been involved with a few projects, especially the Red Kite reintroduction, so I can certainly appreciate the positive aspects. They are a fantastic way of enthusing people about their local wildlife and, without public support, conservationists will not achieve their aims. They pull in private funding sources that might not otherwise be available for less sexy projects and they provide a focus for tackling problems that affect a whole range of wildlife. To give just one example, Red Kite deaths have helped highlight problems with highly-toxic modern rat poisons. Various initiatives have been set up to try to tackle this problem and these benefit not only the Red Kite but also other species such as Raven, Buzzard and Polecat. Although reintroductions are often perceived as expensive they take up a tiny fraction of the overall conservation budget and I think provide excellent value for money.

I appreciate that reintroductions are not universally popular and they can be seen as involving excessive human interference and meddling. I can understand these arguments although I think it’s important to take a long term view of what they can achieve. Fifteen years ago the ‘plastic’ Chilterns’ Red Kites with their plastic wing-tags were perhaps not widely appreciated by birders. Now, the population is increasing and spreading to new areas with no need for any further human invention (and there are far fewer wing-tags). To a large extent they have regained their ‘wildness’ and, with that, their appeal. How many birders dwell on the origins of the reintroduced Capercaillies when watching them in the Scottish Highlands?

Having emphasised the positives I do think this approach should be adopted sparingly and only when absolutely necessary to restore a species. I’m not a huge fan of the Crane project because the birds are busy colonising southern England naturally and don’t seem to be in need of human help. There is a danger that this extremely useful and beneficial approach to conservation could lose support if it comes to be seen as a publicity stunt and that would be a great shame.

When did you last use a notebook? I must admit that I don’t often take a notebook out with me when birding so the last time was probably when doing an Atlas square, when there was no real choice. I’m not a great chaser of rarities and despite my appalling memory I find that I’m generally able to recall the key species and numbers from a day out in the field. Scribbling notes all the time would feel like a chore and distract from the pleasure of just being outdoors. Having said that, since an early age I have religiously kept a wildlife diary and write something in it almost every day, even if just the weather conditions or an autumn Goldcrest in the garden. It would be sensible to adopt a digital approach for these notes and I have wasted many hours in the past wading through hand-written notebooks trying to find a particular event. But there is something oddly therapeutic about using a pen to physically create a permanent record and I can’t see myself going digital anytime soon.

Where and when would your ideal birdwatching day be? I’ve always had an ambition to find an Ivory Gull for no reason that I can really put my finger on. So I’d be on my local patch, the Ouse Washes in Cambridgeshire, in the depths of winter with all the drains frozen solid and snow covering the fields. Not many birds around, and definitely no people, but a dead Whooper Swan out on the washes and, casually feeding on the remains……

If you could go back in time, where and when would you go? I’d love to get a feel for what Britain was like at its maximum extent of woodland cover following the last glaciation – perhaps around 6,000 years ago, before humans started to make a real impact. In the countryside we have left today it’s almost impossible to get away from the influence of people. Our top predators are long gone and everything is fenced or coppiced or grazed. There is much debate among woodland ecologists currently about whether our primeval woodland was wall to wall mature trees or broken up with clearings kept open by large herbivores. It would be great to settle the argument.

What do you consider your greatest achievement? I’m proud of my involvement in the Red Kite reintroduction work in England and the book that I wrote about this species though these are hardly major achievements. In fact, having paused to think about this question for far too long, I very much hope that my greatest achievement is yet to come!
How do you relax? I love watching sport, especially cricket and football, mostly on the telly but I also get to at least a few games every year, usually with my children. I’m a sucker for various sitcoms of the type that are repeated endlessly on UK Gold; mainly from the 70s and 80s but I also love Frasier. I find walking the dog very relaxing even if she rather diminishes the birding opportunities – though very occasionally she does manage to flush something interesting. I also enjoy playing 5-a-side football. Most day to day worries tend to disappear when you have just missed the target from 3m.
What keeps you awake at night? The next door neighbour’s dog for a while although we have now come to an understanding (if I’m awake then he is too!). The ashes in Australia if a test-match is at a critical stage. Anything work-related that involves speaking to a room full of people. I could never get to sleep before school assemblies and I’ve not got much better over the years.
What book would you take on a cruise? I’m going to assume this is similar to Desert Island Discs but with Harrison’s Seabirds thrown in for free rather than the Bible (which I’d refuse) and the complete works of Shakespeare (which, come to think of it, I wouldn’t want either). I think I’d go with The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins as I’ve not re-read it for ages and I think it’s just about as close as you can get to the meaning of life. It regularly influences the way that I think about things.

What are you doing to save the planet? Not a huge amount I must admit. I’m involved in bird conservation in England through work, though even the most successful projects sometimes feel totally insignificant when considering the global problems that we face. I’ve tried to bring up my children to appreciate and value the natural world but I also burn a lot of carbon travelling up and down the M11 to see them. Like most people, I don’t seem to be able to behave in the way that I think everyone else should in order to help sort out our problems. Its back to Dawkins again – we are all intrinsically selfish and short-sighted and, as a consequence, probably doomed (can I go back to that question about being kept awake at night?)

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The BB editorial team