Birdwatching as a political act – Guest Blog by Matt Adam Williams

Matt Profile Pic smallMatt Williams is a conservationist and photographer. He is spending 2013-14 working in Indonesian Borneo for the Orangutan Tropical Peatland Project. Matt is also an ambassador for the A Focus on Nature project, and a freelance writer for the Good Men Project and The Ecologist onlineStarting his conservation career early, he has been a member of the RSPBsince the age of five. Follow him @mattadamw and find more of his work at


Whether you vote or not, go birdwatching

In the recent spat between Russell Brand and Robert Webb about politics, voting and revolution, one key element seems to have been forgotten. What role is there for birdwatching?

By this I partly mean, will the post-revolution, empowered and engaged citizenry of tomorrow, who have thrown off the manacles of their fawning political overlords (never anything more than branded and packeted corporate puppets), still find the time to take up binoculars and dabble in a spot of twitching, in between collectivising local vegetable production and setting up new councils to manage the equitable redistribution of revenues from comedy shows?

But mostly I mean that birdwatching, that most understated and seemingly conservative of pastimes, is a deeply political act. I will argue this for three reasons.

First, in conversation a couple of years ago with a friend (who while interested in the environment frankly couldn’t tell her arctic tern from her albino robin) we came to a profound conclusion: birds are the ultimate anarchists.

As a very young child, I remember sitting on the end of my bed, looking out the window with my father, seeing a huge bird flying away. I was told that this was a heron. My mind boggled. As a four year old my entire life was, in a sense, decided for me. I was got up, washed, dressed, fed, read stories and put to bed by other, larger people. This huge bird, on the other hand, could fly around without a single person telling it where to go and when to do so. This is perhaps why birds have, in so many cases, become symbols of freedom.

They are also ubiquitous: if I ask you to go outside and show me the first living creature you can find, chances are the easiest thing to do is to look up and show me a bird.

No politician, corporation or individual tells a bird when and where to fly. Their freedom is, symbolically at least, absolute and inspirational. While this is perhaps an inaccurate way to think of human existence, it does at least offer some motivation to take advantage of the opportunities we do have, even if for many these are restricted by outside factors.

The second and third reasons why birdwatching strikes me as deeply political are two sides of the same coin. Let us begin by considering it as escapism. Now, I am always watching for birds, from the moment I wake to the moment I sleep. I even dream of birds more frequently than is probably healthy but that’s a story for a therapist one day.

But to truly go ‘birdwatching’ involves leaving urban settings behind, or at least seeking out their greener corners. It means recognising the artificiality of our towns and cities and getting back to something to which people are more fundamentally connected: nature.

This counter-cultural act, spending time in the natural world, is both a geographical move and also one that involves an internal, spiritual change. While we wait, watch and listen, we can take in the tranquility, calm and sense of connection that come from surrounding ourselves with the life that surges up from the Earth beneath our feet. This provides time to realise that beyond the fast-paced, 24-hour culture of everyday life there is something slower, softer and in a sense apolitical.

Finally, birdwatching is also deeply political for the exact opposite reason: it draws us into the politics of the day. By going birdwatching unashamed of the stigma or stereotypes that are attached (anoraks, moustaches, long telescopes, many of which are giant sandcastles of fallacies built on a minuscule grain of truth), each of us is, silently, saying something important:

We value the natural world. Our existence would be diminished, the edges of our world imperceptibly and yet undeniably shrunk inwards by damage to nature. For example, if the purr of the fast-disappearing turtle dove ceases to grace the UK’s shores, I will, for perhaps more than a moment, pause to mourn.

Economies may demand endless growth, politicians may decry the legislation which protects our green spaces at the expense of development, but there’s something wrong with that. In birdwatching is something that nature provides for free, that we love and cherish and want to see protected. Take your rainforest-devouring over-consumption, your climate-warping fossil fuels, your intensive, chemical-rich, unsustainable, subsidy-dependent farming and find better ways to do things that don’t threaten nature and its creatures.

Indeed, the late nineteenth century origins of the UK’s Royal Society for the Protection for Birds are in the political acts of the women who rose up against the fashion industry’s unsustainable reliance on feathers. The US Audubon Society fought the same cause on the other side of the Atlantic in the early 20th century. To this day such organisations’ stock in trade is being the fly in the ointment for Governments and businesses that think they can ride roughshod over the natural environment.

Birdwatchers are part of an esteemed political history. Every time we take up binoculars we are making a political statement. So whether you side with Robert Webb or with Russell Brand, whether you choose to vote or not, go birdwatching.


10 Replies to “Birdwatching as a political act – Guest Blog by Matt Adam Williams”

  1. I am sure that most readers of this blog will not need much persuading to go out bird watching but I much less sure that in and of itself going bird watching can be described as a political statement. Of course, when people do become interested in birds (or wild flowers, butterflies, bees or any other taxonomic group for that matter) they come to value them and the places they inhabit which in turn can lead to concern about the many threats wildlife faces, but what then?
    It could be argued that every time someone visits a nature reserve or buys a birding magazine they are somehow casting a vote for nature and, if these things are counted, the people who make decisions about land use must take account of the evidence this provides that large numbers of people care about birds and the habitats they occupy. That is all very well but it’s a somewhat limited way of showing that you care (and even more people ‘vote’ for TVs and iPads, fashionable clothes and fast cars) and if we are intending to make a political statement it is surely necessary to go beyond just going bird watching and there are many options, providing a sliding scale of engagement for everyone from the mildly concerned to the deeply committed (and the bio at the top of his piece indicates that Matt’s own engagement goes much further than just going bird watching).
    Matt also highlights the ‘rainforest-devouring over-consumption’ and ‘climate-warping fossil fuels’ of the modern economy and suggests bird watching is an antidote to this but – as is occasionally pointed out by other commenters on this blog – bird watchers are also part of this economy. When we buy our glassware and gortex coats and when we travel to distant locations to see birds we are ourselves consuming resources and adding to pollution. I am not saying we should only ever bird watch within a radius of home that we can reach on foot or by bicycle or that we should never travel abroad – I certainly couldn’t claim to do that, but we should certainly be conscious of it and do what we can to keep our environmental footprint in check.
    So, yes, let’s encourage as many people as possible to go outside and take an interest in wildlife and thereby learn to love and value it but let’s not leave it at that. If we care about nature we need, each in our own way and according to our abilities and opportunities, to act to protect it.

    1. “I much less sure that in and of itself going bird watching can be described as a political statement”

      I don’t think you need to feel unsure about it.

  2. Birdwatching has shaped who I am and my attitudes, and I think it probably does for many, many thousands of birdwatchers. I suppose there are people who go out and birdwatch without it having any effect on the way they see the world but I find that hard to understand.

    At a very practical level, birdwatching has had a huge effect on at least some of our landscapes – first, through the huge impact of the Flow Country on forestry in the uplands – during which mark was the chief ‘birdwatcher’ (if you’ll excuse that description of a serious RSPB-employed scientist, Mark !)

    Understanding birds had a huge impact on my involvement in the management of our national forests in England, Scotland and Wales: everyone has their slant – some of my colleagues no doubt thought only about the Sitka Spruce but I think that was rare – some might start from the history of the landscape, others the soil, others the landscape and all of those would have been in my mind – but it was thinking about bird s and their habitat that always helped me work out how to create a more diverse and interesting forest landscape.

    Whilst it may be hard to see our impact on the present Government, its also worth remembering they aren’t the only players in the game and globalised business can and does play a positive as well as negative role – I’d flag up the Kingfisher Group – B&Q – who through Dr Alan Knights, following the public’s sensitisation to where timber came from as a result of the Flow Country & tropical Forest campaigns, really led the drive for FSC certification in the UK – and is still pushing hard and has now achieved 100% certification for all its wood products ! That came from us – the public – with, as I’d see it, us militant birdwatchers very much in the lead.

    1. Militant bird watchers there is a thought to conjure with.
      I have not followed the National Trust – Hen Harrier moor debate but how about:
      Local bird watchers who want to DO something: set up a fund to buy the lease on the moor. For a source of funds target NT members ask them to forgo a years visiting Trust properties and their nice tea and cakes.
      Let’s have a Hen Harrier Day. Picket the entrance to Nat Trust properties with placards.
      At the least the nice members of the national trust may ask the people they pay to do something about these militant birdwatchers.

  3. Some inteersting comments! From my experience of dealing with politicians they see birdwatching and indeed all wildlife interest as a leisure industry and therefore consider that we have to be part of some sort of balance with other more environmentally unfriendly pastimes like sport etc.. What they can never understand that our natural world is something to be cherished if for no other reason that when it is in good health then so is the human race.

    Here in Wales our new agency Natural Resources Wales seems only interested in exploiting our biodiversity. When pressed they cannot actually explain what they mean. Nowhere in their terms of reference will you find the word wildlife.

    The sad thing is that biodiversity seems to be much further down the list of people and politicians priorities than it was even a decade ago.

  4. Sadly Derek here in England our erstwhile guardians of the natural environment ‘Natural England’ too are keen to develop NNRs as alternative country parks for people with dogs and horses to exercise and bikes to ride. I recognise that is helpful to local authorities who are having to place restrictions for health and safety reasons on their public places. But NNRs, I thought the priority on these was protection of examples of best [habitat] type?

    In principle Open Access sounds great until you scrutinise the process that has been adopted in side stepping compliance with the Habitats Directive. It’s one of those unhelpful pieces of red tape? There has also been a failure to consult the public and interest groups. So, we’d reject any claims of open and transparent procedure, that might infer democracy and I recall someone reminding us that we are a ‘representative’ one. ‘Judge and jury’, conflict of interest? Surely not?

    Please think about signing

    Better still write to your MP, if you’d like the contact details of the NE Senior Director promoting the plan/project then please do get in touch with us through the Forum’s website.

  5. Thanks to all for their comments. An interesting discussion and I’m glad that people seem to have enjoyed the article on the whole. Here are some attempts to respond to some of these points:

    Jonathan: thanks for your comment. I think that beginning to value something is the starting point for political action. The million plus members of the RSPB are a massive political force, but few of them do little more than value birds or nature. Evidence shows that values are the basis upon which attitudes and then behaviours are formed. So, not only can a shift in values change politicians’ outlook on what their priorities should be, it can also change the behaviours of citizens and consumers. What’s more political than that? But I completely agree that we need to make sure that birdwatching is as sustainable as possible.

    Leslie: Great point and our influence as consumers is just as important as our influence as citizens. However, I sometimes fear that we’re often told that we’re consumers first and citizens second (or not at all!).

    Andrew: really interesting. I’ve just encountered a group of local people here in Indonesia raising funds to buy rainforest, bit by bit, before the palm oil companies get in there and buy it instead.

    Derek: Interesting point and no denying that the environment has declined as a political priority. This is a really big discussion but if you look at Common Cause research ( the evidence seems to suggest that medium-term shifts in values are the cause. If we can slowly shift values back towards caring about nature, both in the public and among politicans, then this can change.

    Bog-Trotter: to play devil’s advocate: evidence suggests that spending time in green spaces (for whatever activity) makes people value nature more. Surely a society that values nature more is no bad thing and, overall, could lead to more conservation of it, even there are a few sacrifices in the short term?

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