Note to self

A year ago I had a permanent job but after 25 years and one month at the RSPB (the best nature conservation organisation in the world), and after 12 and a half years of being its Conservation Director, I gave up a well paid and very satisfying job to explore new challenges. Was this really a good idea?

I’ve not regretted it once.  At first there was the fun of heading off to the USA for a 6-week journey of exploration so how could I regret it then?  Those six weeks were fantastic with their warblers, bears, National Parks, waitresses, breakfasts, miles of open road, conversations with strangers, condors, prairie dogs, music playing in the car, beautiful scenery and wide open spaces.  And I was called ‘Honey’ and ‘Baby’ lots and visited museums and Ground Zero and talked to American birders and conservationists.

On my last full day in the USA, at Malibu Lagoon, I saw a man inadvertently disturb a killdeer and its chicks. I wrote about it thus:

, via Wikimedia Commons”]Yesterday, at Malibu Lagoon, I saw a man walk along the shore while a Killdeer parent called loudly and incessantly. The man seemed completely unaware of the fact that he was disturbing the Killdeer’s chicks who were no doubt crouching in fear nearby, but maybe he just didn’t care. Much loss of wildlife on Earth is done without us realising what we are doing, without noticing the Killdeer crying out in distress, but some of what we do is done when we have the cries of nature ringing in our ears but we don’t listen.

I would have called from the bridge where I was watching if the man hadn’t moved on fairly quickly. Those of us who hear nature’s call need to stand up for nature and make a difference.

And that’s what I have been trying to do.  As an independent environmentalist I can say whatever I think needs saying to advance the cause of nature.  And that’s what I have been doing in this blog, in my monthly column in Birdwatch, in occasional articles in British Wildlife, The Field, The Independent and The Guardian.  And I have a book coming out in August which sets out some of my experiences in, and some of my thoughts about, nature conservation here in the UK.

I’ve made a living for a year and it looks like I will probably make a living for the next year too – with all the things that are fixed or in the pipeline.  That’s not a bad start.

I am looking forward to spending this May and June seeing more wildlife close to home.  I will occasionally note the date and think ‘I saw my first bear a year ago‘ or ‘It’s a bit colder than it was on Navajo Bridge when I looked at bad lady #54 a year ago‘ but I hope that cuckoos and butterflies and corncrakes and orchids will see me through that time.

I’ve had a few comments on this blog, and away from it, that I am taking too robust an approach – criticising everybody.  The usual refrain is  ‘it’s very easy to criticise’ but actually it isn’t very easy to criticise – you need a certain amount of courage, determination, confidence (and perhaps arrogance too)  to stick your head above the parapet and criticise, that’s why so few people do so.  Very few organisations criticise government and that’s partly because government gives organisations things that they want – money, access, the promise of influence, honours for their staff, mentions in Ministers’ speeches and many other things.  I don’t want anything from government so I feel able to criticise when I think it might help (now I might get that judgement wrong but it’s not because I’m in hock to government).

And it’s sometimes said that working with those people who think differently from yourself can make a difference in the end. Well it can – but often it doesn’t, and that’s not really an option open to someone as insignificant as me anyway.  Intransigence can’t be persuaded and so it’s better to try to go around the intransigent and influence things around, behind and above them.  Let’s take three examples:

1.  Lead ammunition: I wrote about this subject yesterday in response to the Shooting Times having a rant about it last week.  The evidence for harmful effects of lead ammunition on wildlife and perhaps on human health have been around for years.  Privately many in the shooting community accept the need for lead to be withdrawn from use as it has been in some other countries already.  but they don’t come out and say that publicly and they struggle with the intransigents in their community. It will need a jolt from outside to inject some sense into this debate – the shooters can’t be trusted to do it themselves.

2.  Hen harrier persecution: conservationists and grouse shooters have been talking about this issue for years and years.  Everyone – actually not everyone – says they love hen harriers but the good guys can’t influence the bad guys in the shooting community and so time drags on, hen harriers are still killed illegally and nothing changes (except for the worse).

3.  Farmland birds: our farmland has shed its biodiversity to a greater extent than most other European countries and yet the elected representatives of the people who own and live in that countryside, the NFU, deny that there is a problem and argue for policy measures that will prevent wildlife recovering.  There is a limit to the number of unproductive conversations on the same subject that anyone should be expected to go through.

On all these issues there is little new to be said and little progress has been made.  An independent voice can at least try to tell it as it is – and try to explain why and how the world could be different.  And that’s what I will continue to do on these and other issues.

Now, this blog is a bit like a newspaper – except you get it for free remember – in that you may or may not agree with its editorial line.  That’s fine – you can always go somewhere else to get your views and commentary.  What you will get here is an independent take on UK, primarily English (‘cos that’s where I live), nature conservation.  And I’d like to think that I give you a stimulating and thought-provoking mix of subjects and ideas (and some great guest bloggers too).  And I welcome your views, whether they accord with mine or not, provided they are well argued or at least passionately argued.

So I’m looking forward to another year of blogging every day on these subjects and hearing your views.


And you have just two days left to vote in the two polls of the best and worst UK wildlife conservation organisations.  I’m looking forward to telling you the results on Wednesday.




22 Replies to “Note to self”

  1. You were a great loss to RSPB and can’t believe it’s a year since your departure, how time flies. Its useful to have someone at the helm to challenge and move the debate on and this is exactly what needs to happen with the issues you have highlighted, for me notably the decline in farmland biodiversity and the disgraceful debarked around hen harriers and the wholesale slaughter of birds of prey in the uplands (and the current Wuthering fiasco).

    As you point out rightly, little has been achieved on some of the issues and we need a strong voice to air these concerns and that is also what many of our leading NGO’s and our own ‘independent’ nature conservation organisation should be striving to do. I hope we are not here in 12 more months with the hen harrier count in England at zero and farmland birds another notch down the indicator and only a few warm words about how this is wrong. We need to pick our fights carefully to avoid being branded as a serial objector but the 3 you highlight need serious action fast.

    For me locally, I find it bonkers that society can get so worked up about the cull of non-native Canada geese on Windermere yet the slaughter of some of our rarest native birds happens just 20 miles away as the hen harrier flies and we say very little about this. We need to challenge this and highlight those who commit such acts before we lose an important part of our heritage and culture, more valuable to many than the privilege of blasting a few grouse in August.

    Keep up the work Mark, you are now a useful independent ally in the conservation debate and those who matter certainly still take note of what is said on your daily blog. I’m also glad you can make a living out of it, maybe the odd flutter on the horses helps out too!

  2. Keep on keeping on Mark. You’re not wrong. I think you’ve said before that we nature conservationists are too nice. We think if we rely on science and reason we’ll get there in the end. Sometimes it takes more than someone talking nicely. You are right, it’s not easy for everyone to criticise (although some find it easier than others!). It’s not easy to stick your head above the parapet. That you have written this blog shows you at least think hard about what you are doing and whether it is really necessary. If someone feels unduly criticised, chances are they are defensive for a reason – you’ve hit a chord they don’t want to admit to.

  3. Mark,

    I first picked up on your blog about a year ago (when I started as a freelance ecologist). And it has kept me hooked ever since. I wouldn’t claim to read every blog, every day, but I suspect I’ve come close. What is more, I have never felt compelled to respond to blogs until yours. Why? It’s interesting. It’s written by a knowledgeable individual. It’s passionate. It adds to the debate and creates debate, either between the readership or privately, within our own thoughts. So keep going. And I’ll keep responding when I feel I can add something.

    And I hope that Ministers and MPs (in particular Caroline Spelman and Richard Benyon), Shooting Times readers, the NFU leadership, and others read it too.

    The killdeer is still calling…

    1. Richard – thank you very much for those kind words. And I value your contributions here and I read your blog regularly too!

  4. Mark, Congratulations on being a year old. I read what came before and I now read what comes here. Sometimes I cringe and mostly I applaud but we do need people prepared not only to stand up but to shout up for nature. Well done.

  5. Well Mark you must have been a big loss to the RSPB but leaving has allowed you to say exactly what you think and people like that are needed in all walks of life especially in wildlife and of course people sometimes disagree with you which is how it should be but however much someone disagrees with you you almost always publish their comment.Nothing could be fairer than that,of course you must occasionally be wrong as the law of averages means we all make mistakes but there should be no problem with us forgiving that from such a passionate person.
    You will of course carry on saying exactly what you feel and a little bit pleased that that is what we your readers want from you.

  6. Keep up the good work Mark, its good to read your trenchant views and I’ve enjoyed the debates you’ve encouraged some of which have stimulated me into doing stuff I wouldn’t have done.

    1. Phil – thank you, and that’s good to hear (although I suppose it depends what you did).

  7. Mark,

    As a fellow in freedom (I was much worse – I was actually inside the system !) I’d make just one suggestion in response to the critics who say you are being too robust: why not feature more of the best ? You touch on some of your farming friends who are doing a great job but inevitably the debate is around the worst end – that’s the way our media, politics etc works.

    What I’m absolutely not suggesting is that you go soft – because from some of the things I’ve been writing about what emerges is that the worst looks spectacularly blacker set against the best – and especially where the ‘goodies’ , NGOs etc are concerned there’s a strong tendency for a warm, fuzzy blanket of goodwill to be wrapped around things that really aren’t going right – not a privelege we ever enjoyed in government service. Linked to your article in British Wildlife, I looked at how a number of fairly randomly selected woodlands were being managed by a range of NGOs – and the conclusions matched yours pretty closely and was all the mopre vivid when you compared what can achieved with what was being done. I won’t name the baddies but the Forestry Commission and RSPB came out well ahead – ownership does matter, had the Government got away with forest sales and general NGO standards been applied to the best FC woods we’d be heading for a double dip decline in woodland birds.

    There’s another thing – what about the reactions from the people you criticise ? How often on this blog have we seen any organisation come back and say ‘actually you’re right, we’re not getting it right and we’re going to sort it’. Maybe its the way we do politics, but the idea of actually recognising a need to improve seems to be as rare as hens teeth – especially amongst the conservation NGOs who know they are right and therefore above criticism. That again is where FC caught out an NGO sector which has still failed to find the grace to recognise that from its dire performance in the 1980s it has actually grasped the nettle and changed sepctacularly to a major plus for the environment.

  8. Why could you not make your views fully known within the RSPB?

    As a director, what were the barriers to change from within the organisation?

    1. Thomas – welcome to this blog. I don’t have any complaints about my time with the RSPB – I loved it. But working for any organisation means that you are promoting its ideas and views in the way that you and the organisation think is the best way to do that. You need to think about the impact that what you say will have on all the organisation’s ‘stakeholders’ eg membership, government, upland landowners, the NFU, funders etc.. That wasn’t much of a strain fopr me as the reason I joined the RSPB and stayed so long was that I believed in its work and its approach. And when I became a senior figure in the organisation I had a very large say in what we (see – I still say ‘we’) said and did so i couldn’t complain. But being outside an organisation means that as well as having less money, fewer resources and less influence on the world I have fewer constraints on how I approach things. And that’s fun. thanks for your question.

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