I grew up in Bristol and went to Bristol Grammar School where a couple of masters (Derek Lucas and Tony Warren) were instrumental in fueling my interest in birds. I was in the Young Ornithologists' Club.
In the school holidays I practically lived at Chew Valley Lake - a bicycle and a pair of binoculars were all I needed.
My parents liked nice scenery and walks in the countryside and that gave me plenty of opportunities for birding.
I spent a few years when rare birds were very important to me but aside from the very occasional lapse they aren't any more!
I did a Ph.D. on pipistrelle bats but most of my research before joining the RSPB was on bee-eaters in the south of France (nice eh?) and great tits and marsh tits around Oxford. However, the first scientific paper I wote was about the lekking behaviour of great snipe.
I joined the RSPB staff in 1986 as a researcher, became Head of Conservation Science in 1992 and Conservation Director in 1998 - all have been great jobs!
If you read the Farmers' Guardian online you will have seen this rather lurid headline; Agreement on wholesale cull…of grey squirrels. If you read the article then it quotes me as saying: Dr Mark Avery, RSPB director of conservation, took part in Saturday’s (July 25) CLA debate on wildlife. He said: “If I could magic away the grey squirrel tomorrow, I would make that decision.”
The quote is accurate but the headline is not!
In fact, my remarks were made in response to a CLA spokesperson who said something like "The species my members would most like to see killed are grey squirrel, mink and muntjac deer." My response was something very close to this: "Well, I don't think that my members would be nearly so keen on killing them. But I can say that if I could click my fingers and magic them all away then I would click away. Of course, in reality it isn't as easy as clicking your fingers and the practicalities, cost and a whole range of other issues means that it's nowhere near as simple.". I said something like that and would stand by it. And by the way, I don't remember the Acting Chair of Natural England, Poul Christenson, signing up to a grey squirrel cull either but then he doesn't have his photo in the Farmers' Guardian - pity , he is much more handsome than I am!
Grey squirrels are known to be the major cause in the massive decline in numbers of our native red squirrel, American mink cause havoc for water voles and some ground-nesting birds, and muntjac deer are having massive impacts on our native woodlands. All three are introduced species and there is evidence from all over the world that introducing non-native species into any country can cause major ecological, and sometimes economic, problems. I'd click my fingers to magic them away - but that isn't an option.
Do you know anyone called Brocklehurst? Apparently it was a Mr TV Brocklehurst from Henbury Park in Cheshire who has the strongest claim to having introduced the grey squirrel into the UK - in 1876. There are about 58 Brocklehursts per million of the population in the UK - that's about 3600 of them. Maybe we should ask them to round up all the grey squirrels and ship them back to the USA under the 'polluter pays' principle? That's got as much chance of succeeding as any other plans to remove the UK's grey squirrels!
These things happen in the media. Maybe the journalist who was present had nothing to do with the headline - maybe that was written by an excitable sub-editor who wasn't present on the day. I'd defend a free press quite strongly, I'd be less keen on defending that 19th century Mr Brocklehurst, but I think we'll have to live with free squirrels for quite a while.
I've just been looking at the 2008 figures for lapwing, snipe and redshank numbers on lowland wet grassland RSPB nature reserves. That's reserves like the Ouse Washes, West Sedgemoor, Otmoor and Ynys Hir. Overall numbers increased from those of 2007 and were also higher than in 2005 - when our current nature reserve strategy began. This is good news but you can never take anything for granted with these birds - they face so many complex threats - and I wouldn't guarantee that this year will see further rises. I'll let you know when I can.
But it reminded me that last year the Countryside Alliance mounted a campaign called Save the Waders which asked people to sign up to a Downing Street petition to call for more wader-friendly policies and to recognise the role of predator control in saving waders. This was a thinly disguised campaign against various predators - foxes, badgers, buzzards to name but three - and a bit of a campaign against the RSPB too.
The campaign seemed to have sunk without trace but, remembering the ability of the Countryside Alliance to fill the streets of London with angry people, I thought I ought to check what was happening. The Downing Street website shows that only 247 people signed the petition before it closed this year on April Fools' Day.
Well, I say 247 signed up to it but that actually includes a few names that are clearly fictitious (Hooray Henry Chinless-Twit), and some that are actually against the petition. Some of the apparent signatories are interesting: a few grouse moor owners, the current chair of the Moorland Association, the former and current Chief Executives of the Scottish Countryside Alliance and a couple of trustees of Songbird Survival. Call me cynical but these are the people who always seem to me to be rather more anti-raptor than they are pro-wader.
You can also read the 10 Downing Street response to those 247 people - and the response seems to me to be eminently reasonable and encouragingly well-informed.
Breeding waders are in trouble in the UK - particularly in the south of England and Wales. Their numbers have been hit by land drainage, flooding, the switch from spring to autumn cereal sowing, silage cutting, maybe climate change and in some places probably by increases in numbers of generalist predators such as crows and foxes (particularly foxes, I think). Much of our work is spent working with land-owners and trying to influence government policy so that the right habitat is in place for these birds - and we do have some successes. And we recognise that, in some cases, control (that often, but not always, means killing) of predators such as foxes can help wader populations recover. However, the generalised swipes at almost any predator contained in the Save the Waders campaign were clearly not well thought through and I guess that's why it was so unsuccessful.
In contrast, at the Game Fair over the weekend 600 people signed up to our bird of prey pledge which aims to show politicians that people want legal protection of birds of prey to remain. That pledge now has well over 140,000 signatories. This certainly doesn't mean that more people like birds of prey than like waders - but it does seem to show that people are keen to add their voices to help sort out real issues and they see illegal killing of birds of prey as a real issue.
As I wandered around the Game Fair at the weekend in my half-veggie way (see yesterday's blog) I did have a very nice venison burger. I guess this was from a deer farm rather than a shot beast but who knows? It was delicious!
And our freezer often contains the odd pheasant or wood pigeon.
Now I've always thought that eating an animal that has been living wild in the countryside, and which was despatched rapidly by a bullet or bunch of shotgun pellets, must be morally better than eating something that was factory-farmed. And I've always thought it might well be healthier for me.
However, a conference held in the USA last year, and attended by RSPB staff, draws attention to surprisingly high lead levels in meat from species that were shot with lead bullets or lead pellets. Ingesting too much lead is bad for wildlife and for people. Much of the conference was directed at research on the impacts of lead on the tiny Californian condor population.
I don't think that my venison burger will have done me too much harm - but then it's probably too late and too far gone in my case! - but we know that a variety of organisations are talking about this as an issue that needs to be addressed.