Sunday, 4 December 2016

The Reluctant Conservationist

If you managed to chew your way through parts 1-4 of my recent treatise on records committees you might have drawn some conclusions regarding my view of them. If so, you are probably correct:

Yes, I feel that they are a necessary institution and do a necessary job.

But my opinion is based upon a possibly dubious premise: that accurate record-keeping is itself a necessary thing. Well, is it? Do birds - does nature - really need carefully identifying, counting, measuring, recording and archiving? In a comment on Part 1 Dylan Wrathall made this thought-provoking point: "...the natural world doesn't require judges and juries - it is there to be experienced, enjoyed and embraced." I could so easily subscribe to this view at its most simplistic level. Why not simply enjoy it all without feeling the need to convert what we see into just so much data?

I am not a biologist, not an ecologist, not a scientist of any kind. I am not even what you would really call a conservationist; personally I am convinced that man's arrogant hand is quite incapable of successfully managing this planet or its wildlife. However, I do acknowledge that to many, many people this is vital stuff, and I recognise that sound data is often the driver for thoughtful, well-intentioned conservation efforts from which our environment does seem to benefit. For that and many related reasons I am happy to provide such data when I'm in the mood. And if that includes complying with some sort of vetting procedure, so be it.

So I am probably what you might call a reluctant conservationist.

For example, no one could deny that right here we have a success story...

Cirl Bunting press release dated 17/11/2016, lifted straight off RSPB website

And I imagine that a great deal of careful observation, recording and subsequent data analysis contributed to this happy outcome. As a result, in 25 years we've gone from 100-odd to 1,078 Cirl Bunting pairs. Undeniably a success. I mean, who wouldn't want to enjoy more of these little beauties...?

Male Cirl Bunting with Brambling at Broadsands, Devon in February 2008

While we're on the subject of success stories we could make reference to Red Kite perhaps. Certainly a description species when I was still a London birder, but now a ubiquitous feature of many a skyscape, including some of London's. More controversially though, Common Crane. "Between 2010 and 2015, 93 Common Cranes were hand-reared to release onto the Somerset Levels and Moors - doubling the UK population, and helping to secure the future of the Crane in the UK" says the blurb on the The Great Crane Project website.

"Why?" says the cynic sitting at this keyboard. Were they not doing pretty well on their own?

And how about Great Bustard? Earlier this year I came across some rather gloomy data re. mortality and suchlike that confirmed for me what I've always thought, i.e. that the UK Great Bustard project is a ridiculously optimistic endeavour. Unfortunately I cannot seem to find this data right now, and a careful search of the Great Bustard Group website produces nothing that we might truly call 'results'. Maybe because they are so depressing? Ah well. Anyway, when it comes to reintroducing this species I am once again forced to ask: Why?

Evidently, time, money and massive effort is invested in all these and similar projects, but sadly I can only draw this analogy: to me it is all like polishing the wing mirror on a classic car with terminal chassis rot. Is it just me who sees things this way?

And there, dear readers, I leave you with my joyous Sunday offering...


  1. Gav, truly flattered by the reference. thanks. I'll start the ball rolling on this one - reintroductions. When they work, every conservationist worth their salt waves the flag and sings the praises of the project - when it ain't going so well? "Nothing to do with me!"
    I have been able to witness, first hand, the incredible success that the Red Kite project has achieved in The Chilterns and am very happy that it was undertaken for all the right reasons. It is mirrored by the results of The Rutland Osprey project - again a superb advert for the conservation flag bearers. I didn't see anyone waving a banner for Ravens or Little Egrets - two species which have experienced similar upturns in their status over the same time line. Is it money and commitment, or simply a provision of habitat to sustain a population which is at the forefront of biodiversity within the UK? I don't have an answer, just a question. - Dyl

    1. I have no answer either, Dyl. In terms of population increase/spread we can see successes all around: Red Kite, Little Egret, Buzzard, Peregrine, Raven etc. In terms of decline/contraction the list is depressingly long. I'm sure there are theories to account for all these trends, and some of them may even be correct. But my gloomy point is this: at the end of the day, so what? We are inexorably destroying this planet, so why not simply - as you said - "experience, enjoy and embrace" those aspects of the natural world that we still can, without worrying too much about number-crunching.

      I'm not normally so fatalistic, by the way. But I cannot help thinking that work like the Crane and Bustard projects is just so much PR-motivated tinkering, and it brings out the Devil's advocate in me...

  2. For me, the best conservationists in the birdwatching world are those that regularly give their time to taking part in surveys such as WEBS counts and here in the South East, Harrier Roost Counts, breeding bird surveys. Not the glory boys whose faces that you always see at twitches and who compete against each other to be the first to have a rare bird recorded against their name. Here in Kent we always struggle to find people keen to take part in such ordinary surveys and it's always left to the same people year after year, some far to old to still be out on bitter cold winter days and evenings.

    1. Not much glory in survey work, Derek! Seriously though, it requires a level of commitment that relatively few are willing to give, and that includes me. I suspect that's always going to be the case.

  3. You're dead right Gavin and it really pisses me off. Many of us doing this work here in Kent are in our 60's-70's and yet don't like to stop because no one younger will take our place.

    1. I don't know the solution to this, Derek, but I'll bet it's a widespread problem.

  4. Over 40 years I've seen the decline and disappearance of species such as Grey Partridge, Cuckoo, Lesser S.W, Willow Tit, Hawfinch and surprisingly, House Sparrow.
    Filling the void there's now R.N. Parakeets, Little Egrets, Buzzards, Red Kites and what appears to be larger numbers of passerines (not Spars).
    The Cirl Bunting, Dartford Warbler issue is like Common Dormice. These species are at the extreme northern edge of their natural range. They are always going to be vulnerable.

  5. The enjoyment of wildlife and other things such as pets seems to carry with them an element of protection, such as conservationists and the RSPCA. Why would that be? I see it like this. Some people like animals. The presence of their pets and natural interests calm them. If they experience others being cruel to animals, the one's who like animals then get upset. And upset people...well, could end up doing anything.
    Brilliant picture of the Cirl Bunting with Brambling.

    1. Thanks Ric. There's a car park at Broadsands (in Torbay) where seed is put down in winter. !00% reliable for Cirls. The smart Brambling was a nice bonus.

      Re your main point: in another life, Sandra would have been a hunt saboteur at the very least.

  6. Wow Gav! Mrs NQS has been named in person.
    Sounds like a piece of insurance just in case Mrs NQS dons the camouflaged kit and goes after the abusers of puppy dogs and kittens.
    The police will have a lead, and it won't be the one belonging to the victim.