Have you ever wondered what it’s like to work in the front line of conservation? Drawing on 25 years experience Mark Avery, the former Conservation Director at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, tells you exactly what it’s like in ‘Fighting for Birds’, an engaging, thought provoking and sometimes provocative book.
Like so many naturalists it was a childhood interest in wildlife that sparked off Marks career. In the first few chapters he writes evocatively about his early influences from his Dad pointing out birds like kestrels, green woodpeckers and buzzards to happy family holidays spent in the Lake District and New Forest. On his 18th birthday in 1976 his parents bought him a pair of Zeiss binoculars. It is the same pair he uses today and through which he has seen over a 1000 species, roughly a tenth of all the birds on the planet.
He then goes on to document his time at Cambridge and Oxford Universities where he made many contacts that were to prove invaluable later on in his career. In 1986 he joined the RSPB as a research biologist and the rest of the book recounts what is, with a few exceptions, a 25 year love affair with the organisation.
There during his early years with the society he worked in the Flow Country and later on Roseate Terns before describing his contribution to introducing a traffic light system of green, amber and red species for Red Data birds. I found these chapters particularly interesting as I was lucky enough to work with Mark at the RSPB’s research department for a couple of years in the early 1990s.
The approach which he helped to pioneer of focussing on conservation priorities in a systematic way was back then still very new but it was to later have a huge influence on the UK government in terms of its biodiversity planning. It also helped to shape the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, a global turning point in our battle to conserve species and promote sustainable development.
The next chapters of the book cover a wide range of conservation issues including the role of reserves versus conservation in the wider landscape (covered brilliantly in special places and hope for farmland birds), reintroductions of species like the Red Kite (one of the RSPBs great conservation success stories), climate change (where he doesn’t duck the difficult issues around wind farms while focussing on what we can all do to lower our carbon footprint) and persecution of birds of prey (where he pulls no punches and says he would launch a campaign to ban grouse shooting). But it is the chapters on trying to change the world, advocacy and the future of the RSPB and conservation which I really enjoyed.
My favourite chapter is trying to change the world, a very astute political analysis of how to influence government and the trials and tribulations of working with MPs. The political process, whether we like it or not, has more influence on wildlife than even the best efforts of the RSPB and all the other conservation organisations combined. So it’s essential that we engage with it but far too often it’s a subject which is sidelined or simply forgotten in conservation books. Not so here and I hope that Mark takes his own advice in the future and throws his hat into the political ring. He would be a force to be reckoned with and would be a huge asset to the Labour party which desperately needs people like him with his deep understanding of the challenges facing the natural world.
Over the new year I published an online survey of the top 10 environmental heroes of 2011 which was retweeted by the Guardian newspaper. I placed Mark sixth based on the huge success of the blog on his website. I said “Since it was launched at the beginning of the year Marks blog entitled ‘Standing up for Nature’ has become a must read for anyone interested in the environment. Its mix of natural history, campaigning, politics and news means it is now followed by over 5000 people”. This book will assure him a higher place in the same survey this year as I very much doubt that we will see a better book on conservation in a long time.
Postscript – if the RSPB wants more of its members and staff to engage with the issues that really count they could do a lot worse than to give away a copy of Marks book with membership and make it compulsory reading for any new member of staff joining the society. That would be a fitting tribute to his 25 years in the front line of conservation.
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