My passion for wildlife was stimulated in my teenage years, mainly thanks to my Mum (a biology teacher) who made me look at the world differently and being inspired by writers such as Paul Colinvaux. This early interest developed into biological research in my 20s, when I did practical conservation work in places such as the Comores and Mongolia.
Today, any free time I have I spend pottering around the flatlands of East Anglia or escaping to our hut on the Northumberland coast looking for wildlife and castles with my wife and children.
I studied Biological Sciences at Oxford and Conservation at UCL, and worked at Wildlife and Countryside Link before spending five years as Conservation Director at Plantlife.
I joined the RSPB as Head of Government Affairs in 2004, became Head of Sustainable Development in 2006, before becoming Conservation Director in 2011.
When I accepted the job as Conservation Director of the RSPB, I knew I had big shoes to fill. Mark Avery’s new book, “Fighting for Birds”, reminds me just how much he achieved in his 25 years working for the RSPB and, alas, the scale of the challenge that still remains.
The book is everything you’d expect from Mark: beautifully written, instructive, forthright and fun.
Although Mark claims this is not an autobiography, for those of us who know Mark so well, it is good to get an insight into his backstory.
The early chapters explain how he moved from birding around Bristol to studies at Cambridge and Oxford before he joined the RSPB as a scientist working in the Flow Country and then on seabirds. These chapters are a joy to read. As expected, he helps you understand the science, articulates the conservation challenge but he also gives generous acknowledgement to the people around him nurturing and inspiring him in the early days of his career.
His own experiences and conservation philosophy help to bring to life the RSPB conservation toolkit: sound science, protecting species from direct threats, saving special places, improving the wildlife value of land and sea and putting back lost biodiversity. This approach evolved during his time at the charity and remains in place today. These chapters are so good, they should serve as a text book for any budding conservationist.
Mark has always been a passionate birder and made his mark as a scientist. But, he is also a brilliant communicator, lobbyist and gambler. And it is his love of horses and gambling that gives a clue to how he approaches life. Yes, his is unconventional and occasionally courts controversy. But he is never rash. He plays the odds and is not interested in investing in battles that he cannot win. This is why you won’t get him to join a sweepstake – he’s not interested if the stakes are unknown and the outcome is left to chance.
Mark is at his best when science and politics collide. His book provides excellent accounts of what it was like to be at the frontline of debates about genetically modified crops, avian influenza, farming and raptor persecution. He prided himself in being on the right side of the argument.
As you’d expect, he doesn’t pull punches – he no longer needs to. It’s clear that he is enjoying life as an independent commentator. Like his blog, this book is bound to upset some people but that is because he speaks from the heart, points out inconvenient truths and always does whatever he thinks nature needs.
The only downside to this book is you are reminded of past battles that, despite Mark’s best efforts, just don’t seem to have gone away. The prospect of an airport in the Thames still looms nearly a decade after Mark led the RSPB’s fight against Cliffe Airport, birds of prey are still persecuted, wind farms still get built in the wrong place and farmland birds have yet to recover.
The closing chapters offer a constructive critique of the sector and of the organisation he left and the one I still work for. I didn’t squirm, it’s a fair summary of where we are and the choices we have to make. And the final chapter is an optimistic call to arms to the whole conservation movement. Following last week’s reminder about the parlous state of many of our breeding birds and the row over climate change, it is a call that we need to respond to. If we slip up, or fall short for whatever reason, one thing is certain – he’ll tell us what we did wrong on his blog.
For a change, I’ll have the last word. If Mark had won more battles, my life would be a lot easier today. So, if I was harsh, I’d blame him for all those sleepless nights I've had over the past 14 months.
But I’ll be nice (which is what he’d expect). Without Mark, the natural world would be in a much worse place than it is now. So thank you Mark for everything you did over the past 25 years (and that includes giving me my first job at the RSPB in 2004).
Read the book and tell him what you think. I’m sure that he’d love to hear your views.
Mark cannot be at all the battles but no one fights harder for wildlife than Mark Avery in my opinion.
I have just read his blog on Skylark patches and its very good; I may read his blog. I never saw Mark at the Newbury Road protests where we really fought a road, pollution and SSSI destruction ! We put our bodies on the line ! Is that what RSPB means by a "rash" battle ?