Mark-Avery-110409-12-2 By Mark Avery In response to Iain Robertson's editorial in the March issue of BB, I contend that bird conservationists in the UK actually have a pretty good record of saving species, whether it be the return of the Osprey Pandion haliaetus, the recovery of the Bittern Botaurus stellaris or the increase in numbers of Corn Crakes Crex crex. I can now see a Red Kite Milvus milvus from my Northamptonshire garden on any day of the year, whereas as a boy growing up in Bristol I had to make several trips to mid Wales before I saw my first. And when I was born, the Peregrine Falcon Falco pregrinus was a rare and endangered species, whereas now I can see it regularly in central London. Add to that the land now purchased and managed for nature conservation and the sites that have been saved from destruction (such as the North Kent Marshes from an airport, the Flow Country from further afforestation) and that makes a sizeable legacy of success. Conservationists' successes have been in protecting species from direct threats and protecting the very best sites from destruction or damage. A network of nature reserves and nest-guarding allowed Avocets Recurvirostra avosetta to recolonise the UK and reach their current rather impressive population levels. Even in farmland, for localised species such as Stone-curlew Burhinus oedicnemus and Cirl Bunting Emberiza cirlus, targeted conservation management, backed up by government grants, has turned around the fortunes of species that quite possibly could have been extirpated from the UK were it not for conservationists' actions. Add in a few reintroduction projects and the conservationists have much of which they can be proud. Let's not ignore all these, and many other, successes just because there are plenty of things that are still going badly. All this conservation activity costs money - quite a lot of money - and our largest wildlife NGO, the RSPB, has an annual budget of only about £100m. I'd say that wildlife NGOs, not just the RSPB (but certainly including my former employer), have spent the money we gave them pretty well. If we all doubled our contributions, then they could do at least twice as much good work each year. But the nature conservation successes are islands in a sea of economic activity that tends to sweep nature aside. My local environment has Red Kites but precious few Grey Partridges Perdix perdix, Turtle Doves Streptopelia turtur, Tree Sparrows Passer montanus or Corn Buntings E. calandra and those losses are due to the way we farm. I say 'we' but most of us are not farmers so we can't fix this ourselves, and we can't expect wildlife NGOs to buy the countryside and turn it into a nature reserve. The only way to bring back farmland wildlife is to persuade thousands of farmers to do their jobs, and earn their livings, differently. Since we put billions of pounds of our taxes into the pockets of farmers each year, and billions more through our purchasing decisions, then we have quite a lot of leverage. You can try chatting up your local farmer in the pub but a more productive route is probably through changing the regulations and incentives that influence how all farmers behave. NGOs have been reasonably successful (believe it or not) in influencing agricultural policy - things would be much worse were it not for political lobbying on behalf of wildlife. That said, the combined efforts of wildlife NGOs has only been to put some pressure on the brake pedal - the juggernaut of unsustainable farming is still moving forward. What is true for agriculture is true for forestry, fisheries, the planning system, climate change and many other aspects of our lives. The pressures of a growing global human population, growing demands for food and an addiction to economic growth mean that nature conservation often comes head to head with economics and politics. And it is a bit of an unequal fight. The flipside of the RSPB having a million members is that 62 million UK residents are not RSPB members. We nature lovers are a minority and so it is bound to be difficult to get what we want. When I worked for the RSPB, I was often amazed by how much difference we did make considering the resources we had and the vested interests we challenged. There have been plenty of political victories in the past. The Peregrines I see in central London are there because the world banned the pesticides that were poisoning them and thinning their eggshells - that was a political victory. We need more political victories. Hardly a bird, a plant or an insect is threatened because people are deliberately nasty to it (the Hen Harrier Circus cyaneus is an exception). Most losses of species and habitats are because economic development is too blind to its environmental consequences. We could do much better at living on this planet if only we integrated environmental considerations into all other aspects of human activity. Wildlife would be better off if there were fewer of us, and if we reduced our ecological footprint by using less of the world's resources. But those are big political issues with powerful vested interests on the other side of the argument. It's not surprising that nature conservationists have been more successful at reintroducing Red Kites than stopping the decline of farmland birds - for the former you need some birds in a cage, for the latter you are trying to change society and its values. I'm amazed we have done as well as we have. The future success of wildlife NGOs in saving nature will depend on how well they can mobilise both the arguments for a more sustainable approach and their members to speak out for change. That's what is needed to influence first the political landscape, and second the real landscape of singing Skylarks Alauda arvensis and humming insect life. It's quite a challenge. Will our wildlife NGOs rise to the challenge on behalf of wildlife? I'm sometimes asked whether it's too late to save wildlife and I reply it's never too late. Those of us who care really can make a difference. But we'd better get on with it! Here are five things that you (yes, you!) could do to make the world richer in wildlife:
  1. Support the good guys. Review your memberships of wildlife NGOs and increase your support overall but ditch any organisations that aren't doing a good enough job (and write and tell them that's what you have done).
  2. Be politically active. Vote every time you get a chance and vote with wildlife in mind. Write to your MP each month about wildlife issues.
  3. Reduce your ecological footprint. This is something you can start today - it's not up to anyone else and you don't have to wait for permission. You can use less energy and water, and create less waste right now if you give it some thought.
  4. Spend your money to do good. Buy less 'stuff' but buy wisely to support good farmers, good energy suppliers and good land management. Eat Marine Stewardship Council-certified fish, organic locally produced meat and sign up to 'green' energy deals.
  5. Engage in the debate. Talk to people, write to the papers and use Twitter and Facebook to amplify your voice. You can be a 'voice for nature'.
But don't forget to go out and enjoy the natural world too. When I feel down about the state of nature, then the sight of a Red Kite above my head can cheer me quite a lot. First, because it is a beautiful bird; second, because it is a symbol of hope; and third, because I played a small part in it being there. You can play your part too - be a 'player' not a 'bystander'. Mark Avery Dr Mark Avery worked for the RSPB for 25 years until he left in 2011 to become a freelance writer. He writes a daily blog on conservation issues ( and his book, Fighting for Birds provides an overview of the UK nature conservation scene. His next book A Message from Martha is about the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon and is published by Bloomsbury in July this year (the year of the centenary of the Passenger Pigeon's extinction).
Issue 5
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