Conservation and Bird Protection
Man is one of the most important agents in affecting the distribution of birds or even affecting their chances of survival in the world today. In the comparatively short time that man has been of sufficient a force he has altered the face of the Earth. Once Britain was covered in forests whereas now there are towns, pastures and ‘prairies’, and areas once rich in lakes and marshes have been drained. In his need for food, for other raw materials of life, for more land, for more airports, for more fresh water, man continues to alter the natural environment. He is continually finding new methods of removing natural objects which were an impediment to his clearances. He corralls large numbers of holidaymakers in sensitive areas like the tops of the Cairngorm mountains, or builds marinas and oil platforms, rendering estuaries sterile where only twenty years ago the Redshank and the Curlew and many other waders could feed undisturbed. These estuaries are often vital to wintering waders from Russia and, in hard winters, also waders from Northern Europe. All of which is tragic for the birds as the numbers of these estuaries are limited; when they have gone, there is nowhere else for these birds to go.
The RSPB, which is particularly active in giving evidence at public enquiries where a site of ornithological importance is threatened, reports that in recent years Secretaries of State have overruled their Inspectors on at least four occasions. At Nigg Bay in the Cromarty Firth, at Cliffe on the north Kent marshes, at Seal Sands in the estuary of the River Tees and at Arne, in Dorset. Here, Inspectors or especially appointed panels decided that the arguments for reclamation of the sites to build refineries or factories or, as in the case at Arne, for ball-clay winning were weak and that there were positive reasons on nature conservation grounds against reclamation of any but a small sector of the sites. However, successive Secretaries of State have overturned these recommendations.
It is not only on the larger scale that the natural habitat of the wild birds is being lost, but on a local scale those of us who live in the country see the continual erosion of the cover in which birds live. At least in East Anglia and East Midlands more hedges and trees are going every year. This is in spite of the work of the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group (FWAG) which has persuaded many of the bigger farmers to replant in areas where trees and hedges have been torn down. The small farmer and sometimes the young farmer can be somewhat thoughtless in their activities, and remove hedges without really thinking if their action is useful or necessary.
Furthermore, modern hedge-cutting machines allow very few young trees to grow through the hedge and consequently the vast majority of trees in hedges are old. What happens when they die? I think we shall be seeing more and more treeless areas in the arable counties. Very often this is a result simply of too much tidiness.
We can act as conservationists on our own small patches, indeed, we all should try to do this as conservation is really a philosophy for living. It is sad that not one of the books that have been written on the subject of conservation in Britain stands out as a standard or classic work and we have to go to the United States to find the technical and descriptive books which give the clearest ideas and feelings as to what is conservation.
I prefer Raymond Dassman’s definition of conservation given in his book, Environmental Conservation, to any other. It is, ‘the rational use of the environment to provide a high quality of living for mankind’. The essential word in this definition is ‘use’, which is in turn qualified by the word ‘rational’. I think that many naturalists have never really accepted that conservation means use; use by farmers, by hunters, by foresters, even industrialists. Many of them use the word conservation when they really mean nature protection or wildlife management. Both bird and nature protection and wildlife management are part of conservation, as much as is farming, harvesting a crop of wildfowl or pheasants or any other proper use of the natural environment.
The word conservation is badly misused. You read of conserving ancient houses or conservation areas in towns. Until European Conservation Year 1970 the word protection was used and it still is the best word for many of these activities. There is nothing old-fashioned about good honest protection where it is needed. I have been basically a protector of birds from the unwise uses of the environment by man and I have also been a wildlife manager in the sense that I have in my early days with the RSPB manipulated land to provide good habitats for birds, and indeed I still do in my own back garden. I hope too that, in my own outlook on life, I am a conservationist in the sense that I think it may be sensible for farmers to rationalize their field sizes, and use certain chemicals against pests; that it is perfectly legitimate to shoot and eat certain birds; that some building for industry and housing is necessary. But it is also my duty to ensure that the evidence I have relating to the scientific value of the land to be used for any of these purposes, is accurate and is properly presented to any court of enquiry held to assess the differing point of views as to what is ‘rational use’.
Birds share the environment with man and many other creatures. Their song, their movement and their colours make them conspicuous and this conspicuousness makes them in turn good indicators of the way in which man or nature is changing the environment. We have already seen that the drought in the Sahel region of North Africa reduced the numbers of Whitethroats and Sand Martins visiting Britain. There may well be other natural disasters within the geographical ranges of birds visiting Britain which have reduced the numbers of some species but which are in areas too remote for us to hear about.
Birds have also been indicators of the more long-term ways in which man has affected his environment. By changing the vegetation of Britain from largely forest to one which is largely agricultural and built up, man has obviously altered the composition of the communities to the disadvantage of some species but to the advantage of others. The drainage of the Fens was disadvantageous for Bitterns, Bearded Tits, Black Terns and Avocets, but advantageous for Skylarks amongst others. The clearance of forests and introduction of sheep by Neolithic man, and rabbits by the Normans, may have reduced the number of forest birds but was advantageous for Wheatears and other species which prefer to hunt over short-grazed turfs. However, the reduction in the number of rabbits following the spread of myxomatosis in the mid-1950s also meant that in lowland areas, grass grew longer again and Wheatear numbers were considerably reduced, as were those of the Stone-curlews.
The total numbers of birds has probably not declined: the numbers of some species have declined, but others have risen. Indeed it is rather interesting to note that in spite of all the changes in the environment to which man and nature have subjected birds, the number of species breeding in the British Isles has been increasing since 1940.
A number of voluntary organizations are involved in bird protection and conservation. First and foremost is the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds with a membership of over a quarter of a million, which is still growing, and with more than 80 reserves protecting birds totalling about 40,000 hectares. With money supplied by its members it is continually adding more reserves of ornithological interest. On these reserves, on advice from its own Research Department, it manages the land to provide optimum living conditions for the birds that live there. It also provides special protection for rare breeding birds like the Osprey. The Conservation Planning Department collects evidence on the ornithological value of sites which are threatened by agricultural or industrial development and also gives evidence at public enquiries. The Education Section seeks to influence public opinion by educating the young through teachers, through its Young Ornithologists’ Club, and its excellent quarterly magazine Bird Life. The Investigation Branch tries to track down those who are misusing birds and committing offences against the Protection of Birds Act 1954-67. The RSPB is of such a stature that it now has its own Political and International Branch. Members are encouraged to join Local Members Groups which aim to help the RSPB to raise more money for reserves, to educate and inform through lectures and field outings. Sometimes, they carry out field investigations, although this is usually the province of the British Trust for Ornithology or the local Bird Clubs. The Society also publishes a colourful quarterly magazine, Birds.
The British Trust for Ornithology is for the more scientifically orientated and, by the corporate research of their members, it has investigated the distribution of breeding species throughout the British Isles and the Atlas of Breeding Birds in Britain and Ireland by Dr J. T. R. Sharrock is the result of these investigations. The BTO has also been compiling a register of sites of ornithological importance. It co-ordinates bird ringing throughout the country, and from year to year runs a number of special enquiries into the summer or winter distribution or special habits of our birds. The results of these enquiries provide valuable data to ensure the better protection and conservation of our wild birds.
The County Naturalists’ Trusts have a field of interest which covers all wildlife. Nearly every country has its own Trust, although the Scottish Naturalists’ Trust caters for the whole of Scotland. One of the main functions of Trusts is to ensure the better protection and conservation of wildlife within their counties by acquiring nature reserves, running education programmes, and influencing as far as possible local authorities and, particularly, local planning authorities in order to safeguard areas of special scientific importance. Because Trusts have few paid staff they rely enormously on voluntary help from their members both in their offices and in the field. The work of the Trust is co-ordinated by the Society for the Promotion of Nature Conservation.
These three bodies are all non-governmental organizations, and I must briefly mention here the Nature Conservancy Council, a government department, which was established to advise central and local government on nature conservation matters. It has also the powers to establish National Nature Reserves, of which it now has a very extensive range; it also undertakes some research. Although it does not have subscribers there is close co-operation amongst the NCC and the main conservation bodies.
What can we do to help as birdwatcher-naturalists? By joining your local Conservation Corps, often organized by the local RSPB Member Groups or County Trusts – particularly if you are feeling young and vigorous – or the national body which is the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers, you will be making a direct contribution to the effort. Some people feel that only when they are helping to manage wildlife by cutting down something, planting trees or clearing lakes and rivers, are they being conservationists. But wildlife management is only one part of conservation. The wildlife of the area needs monitoring before this stage of management can be started; someone also needs to monitor the effect of the changes afterwards. So when you say, ‘I want to do something for conservation’, do understand there is a lot you can do without cutting something down.
No one who is interested in birds for scientific reasons or, who as a bird lover, enjoys seeing birds around can, these days, avoid the responsibility of doing something to ensure their better protection and conservation. The simplest thing you can do is to support the main organization for the protection of birds, which is the RSPB, also join one of its Local Members Groups. If you are a keen birdwatcher-naturalist who would like to take part in some corporate ornithological research, then you should join the BTO as well. At the same time you should join your local bird club and if your interests extend beyond birds you should also support your local Naturalists’ Trust. For it is with your own parish, district, county or vice-county area that you have the opportunity of making your personal contribution to bird protection and conservation.
The essential thing is to know your own area well and the numbers of birds that may be found in it. This may sound an incredibly dull sort of occupation to many people who perhaps like to go off to areas where a wide variety of birds can be seen regularly and where there is a good chance of something pretty unusual turning up. But over the years I have found that the long-term study, even in the ornithologically dull area in which I live, can produce interesting results, and even here the occasional rarity turns up in spring and summer. This type of study will show changes in population level and following on from this you will want to know whether the changes you are observing are a reflection of a national trend or are a purely local event.
Another very important point about knowing your own area and recording what you have seen is that you can determine at once if something is going wrong and either take action yourself if it is within your capability, or draw the attention of the appropriate authority to the problem. If there are proposals for industrial developments or roads, marinas and so on, which threaten some area which has special ornithological importance, you will already have some evidence as to the importance of the site. The evidence of the local birdwatcher has been used in a number of public enquiries of local and national importance in recent years. The information you can gain may have an intrinsic merit and be a study whose results are worth publishing in their own right. It will also mean that you can also act as a very well informed watchdog for a local organization and even a national one such as the RSPB.