Return to Swanwick

I’ve been attending BTO Conferences at Swanwick in Derbyshire, off and on, for about 35 years.

Over the years some things have changed and others haven’t.


Hardly changed at all:

  • there are always some inspiring talks – Ellie Owen’s was a highlight for me this year
  • there is always a feeling of comradeship amongst birders with a purpose – these are people who enjoy understanding birds through ringing, mapping and counting
  • the food – is firmly in the ‘school dinners’ niche.  It’s perfectly adequate but not much better than that.
  • there is a crush to get to the bar
  • there’s a very friendly atmosphere

Changed for the better:

  • the standard of presentation of talks is higher
  • there are now towels in the bedrooms
  • TVs now exist on site which meant that I didn’t have to drive around Derbyshire looking for a betting shop to watch the Tingle Creek Chase

Changed for the worse:

  • my recollection, which may be wrong, is that this was an ‘event’ in the calendar of anyone doing a PhD on birds, or even ecology, as one met and listened to some of the top people in your field.  Maybe it was never that good – but that’s why I think I started attending. Now there are far fewer young people who fit into that category, and possibly the conference is less of a ‘draw’ to those who do exist
  • birds, and wildlife in general, are facing much greater threats.  In my first BTO conferences I think we lived in a more optimistic world where we were studying birds because ornithology was an exciting profession and we all shared a love of the natural world.  The science was a celebration of the natural world.  These days we are living in a world where birds are still amazingly interesting, and studying them is fascinating, but you can’t help but notice that the big picture is a worrying one.

But there’s no point living in the past, partly because it wasn’t generally better than the present (and it’s up to us to make sure that the future is even better).  What of this conference?

It was very enjoyable.  The BTO is in good shape although I think it faces difficult times ahead.  The organisation was on a ‘high’ because of the publication of the Atlas – a great achievement which I have celebrated on this blog (here, here, here, here, here and here).  Also, the President (Barbara Young) and Chair (Ian Newton) were both stepping down after years of great service and there was an outpouring of affection and gratitude for both of them.  Also, the BTO has a lot of very nice and talented young staff as well as a few old and experienced folk on the books – and that, if managed well, should be a recipe for future success.

But we did have a discussion about the future of the BTO and I’ve been thinking about it since.  Here are a few random thoughts.

The BTO from a member’s perspective.

I’m a member of the BTO and I can’t, now, imagine not being one.  I have come and gone as a BTO member over the years as at times I have looked at my subscription and thought it wasn’t that relevant to my interests.  I feel closer to the BTO than I ever have before so my membership fees are likely to flow towards Thetford for a good few years.

The revamp of BTO News, the new logo, the use of social media and simply the liveliness, and friendliness, of BTO staff wherever I come across them, all make me feel glad to be a volunteer and member of the BTO.

In addition, my local contact with the BTO, through my regional rep (a volunteer) is excellent.  I get emails encouraging me to take part in work, reminding me of my BBS commitments and thanking me for what I have done.  All that is excellent.

I’m not a ringer and I have very rarely filled in a nest record so I don’t see much of that area of BTO work, but what I do see, through the areas where I am involved and through generally noticing BTO in the news, is great.  But the BTO doesn’t exist to keep me, or you, happy – although if it doesn’t keep us happy then its job is made much more difficult.

The BTO as a going concern

The BTO is like other wildlife NGOs – it depends on its members but it also depends on getting grants and contracts to keep its financial head above water. I don’t know much about the BTO’s finances, and I don’t particularly wish to, but these are not easy times.  BTO membership is growing – which is obviously good (but I don’t know how much money has been invested in that growth and so I have no idea what the return on investment looks like).

Money from government is likely to continue shrinking.  That’s bad news.  And money from other sources is unlikely to fill the gaps – for example, with most parts of the RSPB facing 6% cuts in budgets to pay for brand-shift and recruitment drives (I am told) the RSPB contribution to WeBS, BBS, Birdtrack and any specific research projects is likely to come under pressure. I can’t think of any BTO partner organisation which is likely to be flush with money for the next few years.

So, I’m not writing from a position of particular inside knowledge, but I would expect the next few years to be relatively tough ones for BTO finances, just like they will be for lots of NGOs.

The BTO’s strengths

The strengths of the current BTO are in mobilising armies of volunteers (like me – and maybe you) to collect data (for free!) which can then be used to inform the world about birds or inform decision-makers about what they should do to make the world better for birds.  The BTO is currently a ‘citizen-science on birds’ organisation.

As I have said before, sometimes to the irritation of the BTO (although I think it is because they know it’s true), the BTO is not a conservation organisation.  What has it conserved?  Science, sometimes BTO science (but not quite as often as you would think if attending a BTO conference), is used by policy makers but it takes an awful lot of work to get any science adopted and used by decision-makers.  And the BTO is not well-adapted to that task of selling science to policy makers – except at a very generic level.

Primarily science-based organisations, and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is another example of this, are usually schizophrenic about talking to decision-makers.  They want to claim that their science is influencing the world, but they are nervous about talking to those very people who do influence the world.  And when they do talk to them they are almost paralysed with fear about stating an opinion (except the opinion that some more analysis would be quite useful).

The usual phrase employed, and I’ve heard it so many times from the BTO over the years, is ‘we provide the bullets and XXXX fires them’ (where XXXX is usually, but not always, the RSPB).

I don’t know much about making bullets but I am pretty sure that the essence of being a good bullet-maker is producing the bullets that fit modern firearms, on time, cheaply, well-packaged and to a detailed specification.  Bullets have customers who need to be satisfied.  And so there is little point making lots of bullets which look beautiful to you as a manufacturer if there is no-one buying them.  And that means that you have to have a very close relationship with the bullet-users.

The people who use the BTO’s bullets are other wildlife NGOs (primarily the RSPB), the statutory agencies and government itself. Sometimes it’s industry too.  The trouble with that lot of bullet-users is that they all have less money to buy bullets, and some of them aren’t too bothered about whether they have any bullets or not.  Government can get by without using much science for years at a time – it is public and NGO lobbying which makes government take notice of the science.

I think that BTO science doesn’t have a very strong customer base. All the potential customers are a bit skint, and some of the potential customers have to be forced to buy the product even in the good times!  Making money out of knowledge is difficult.

The BTO has always faced the danger of having too many scientists around who think that everyone wants BTO science – maybe everyone should want it but it’s not very high up the ‘must have’ list of many organisations. And therefore, that’s a problem in the future.

As a scientist, I would say that the biggest two things that the BTO could contribute towards over the next 10 years are understanding the reasons why trans-Saharan migrants are declining and the role of climate change in determining animal abundance and distribution.  These two areas probably overlap quite a lot – but certainly not completely.  Both are difficult. Both are challenging. Both are expensive. Both are continent-wide subjects which probably require a lot of collaboration with others.  Both are international in scale. Who will pay for them? And is the BTO skilled enough to tackle them?

Perhaps somewhat controversially, I would say that the BTO’s outstanding skill at the moment is in organising large numbers of talented amateurs rather than in doing amazing science.  There isn’t anything much wrong with BTO science (but nor is it world-beating stuff) but the BTO really is a world leader in getting amateurs to do fieldwork on a grand scale and with real scientific merit.  But how sell-able is that skill?

Should the BTO use its expertise in this respect with other taxa? It already is to some extent with dragonflies, butterflies and mammals.  I think that the answer is probably yes – but, yes, in this way.  I would like to see the BTO reaching out to other organisations and collaborating with them on developing the insect monitoring or plant monitoring schemes that will fill voids that exist at the moment.  That’s a big and slow job – and depends on the enthusiasm of others as well as that of the BTO, and depends on someone finding the money from somewhere.

UK nature conservation is hampered by the lack of data for many taxa – birds and butterflies are well-served but others are not.  The State of Nature report published this summer is notable in being only a little better informed that its equivalent of 20 years ago.  Bird knowledge has stormed ahead and left other taxa even further behind.  This is not something that birdy-folk should feel too guilty about!

The biggest contribution that the BTO could make to nature conservation in the future would be if it boosted the quality of data for non-birds.  But would BTO members live with this (I would, but I am unusual – I think) and would anyone pay for it?

The BTO is in excellent shape right now. That is good! But it will be the decisions made now that will determine the shape of the BTO in 10 years time. What will Swanwick 2023 be like?  I intend to be there, so I’ll let you know then!

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6 Replies to “Return to Swanwick”

  1. Mark, It was my first BTO conference and the positives you cite I am in total agreement with, especially the friendliness of the BTO staff and members. I know that won't save the planet but it helps morale ! You have much more experience than I do of this event but you were the only person I recall referring to the "bullets" analogy. I agree that the challenges ahead are as great as ever and that the BTO will have to make some tough decisions to face up to these. But as you say, the organisation is in good shape, and what I overwhelmingly took away from the conference was inspiration and motivation both for myself and to get others involved.

      1. Yes certainly Mark, or before if I bump into you at some other event. You raise many good points btw, as I'd expect from you !

  2. Great analysis Mark! The trans-Saharan migrant decline is one that is particularly close to my heart because I found myself talking about it so often in Wildlife Enquiries. The Sahel Drought had an effect thirty years ago and that gave us the hint. Unfortunately, the picture did not improve when things returned to normal and it was clear that something else had happened after the drought began that was masked by the climatic change. Short range migrants had been hit to a point (slightly more extensive dryer conditions generally in north Africa) but they recovered quickly so all the clues were there. I am amazed that six years after I left the RSPB, no explanation is available.

    1. Ian - I'm not surprised - it's complicated stuff. Lots of clues but some will turn out to be false leads or just random. That's always the way.


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