Guest blog – A story of nature and human wellbeing by Andy Atkins

andy_atkinsAndy Atkins steps down from 7 years as Executive Director of Friends of the Earth in June.  He is taking a few months break to write a book and, if there is time left over, to paint a series of landscapes from a large collection of sketches.  After that he plans to throw himself back into campaigning for nature restoration and social justice.





Bird populations have long been damaged by habitat destruction, cats and pesticides. Now this is compounded by climate change and the shifting seasons. It would be a tragedy if we fail to turn this around. To me it’s personal.

About 40 years ago I got into birds. My family had returned from overseas, where we had lived on a tropical island in the Pacific. There I had lived outdoors under the sun. My friends and I had entertained ourselves from dawn to dusk without TV.

We had archery competitions with home-made bamboo bows and arrows. We made canoes from planks and corrugated roofing sheets to paddle round the coast.

By 1975 my family was living in cold, wet rural Worcestershire – and I was bored out of my mind.

Bored teenager

The stream through the village was barely deep enough to float a toy boat. Fences and hedges crisscrossed the countryside and you were only supposed to cross a field on a Public Footpath. To cap it all I just didn’t get football, which made me an outcast at my new school. I was becoming more and more isolated, morose, depressed.

Then my aunt suggested I should try birdwatching. I liked my aunt – but I thought this an absurd suggestion. On our Pacific island you killed birds with sling shots and roasted them over a driftwood fire. Why would I want to creep about the damp British countryside and just look at them.

My desperate parents liked the idea, however. They bought me binoculars, bought me an Observer’s Book of British Birds and pushed me out of the door. I must have given it a go out of sheer lack of alternatives.

Benefits of birdwatching

The transformation seems to have been almost instant. I have a battered birdwatching diary from 1975 which records the geeky excitement that took me over. In hindsight it reveals the multiple benefits which birdwatching gave me.

At the most basic, it opened my eyes to a reality around me of which I had been largely unaware. I had no idea, for example, how many different bird species there were. On the first day of the diary, New Year’s Day 1975, I record:

Today, on the plum tree on the lawn, I saw my first tree creeper. It was hopping up and down the tree. I was intreagued [sic] by its mouse-like appearance.”

About birdwatching

I found birdwatching calming and socialising: the act of focusing on other life, often colourful or sweet-sounding, distracted me from my teenage inner world. Soon I couldn’t wait to get out every Saturday, or in the light summer evenings.

I got friendly with another boy, Ray, who like me lacked the football-obsession gene. I enlisted him in birdwatching. He started to bring along another friend of his, Simon. Before long I was actually mixing with other boys and becoming … sociable.

Nature and your health

It exercised me too. Instead of reading in my room or complaining how bored I was, I was out in the fresh air again.

Thanks to my fanatical recording of timings, it’s clear that I was frequently out for four or five hours at a time, covering miles of countryside on foot.

Thirst for bird-knowledge led me deeper and deeper into learning. On 1 March I record:

At 15.00 on Blakeshall Common, we came across four birds pellets all within a spot about 36” square in area. This was among the gorse bushes. They were made up of white hair, sand and what could have been insect remains. We studied my library book and the pellets were those of a little owl.

Ways to identify birds

I remember a growing sense of satisfaction as I learned to identify birds, not just from their colour and size, but from other factors: the time of the year, as some birds were only seasonal visitors; or where I had seen them, as most birds are quite choosy about their habitat; or even their pattern of flight.


Spotting a merlin

I record, on 30 July, how I and a couple of friends, camping in Wales, identified a bird we had seen by piecing together the different bits of the jigsaw that we had between us.

We looked up all our books when we arrived back at camp. We couldn’t believe our eyes. The colouration, that fast low jerky flight, the plucking area nearby, and the sparse open country: our books said all belonged to a merlin. We had seen one of the countries [sic] rarer birds. I doubt weather [sic] I will ever see another in the wild.”

I was becoming seriously knowledgeable about something, and with this knowledge grew confidence and ambition.

I decided to mount a month by month survey of birds in our garden. The big old vicarage garden included an ample lawn with an area of bracken, brambles and mixed woodland beyond. Our land was surrounded on three sides by farmer’s fields, the lower of which was wet meadow with a stream running through it. There was a huge variety of bird habitat within a couple of hundred metres of the house.

In the first month of the survey, March 1975, I recorded 28 different species.

Decline of British birds

These included many birds which were commonplace at the time but have since suffered disastrous declines in their populations: starlings (66% drop since the mid-1970s); house sparrow (71% drop since 1977); mistle thrush (47% decline since late 1960s); and the marsh tit, with a drop of at least 50% in numbers in the last 25 years alone.

In the peak month, June, I recorded 36 species, including cuckoo, kestrel, spotted flycatcher, redpoll and willow warbler.

You can still see all these birds in Britain, but not in the same numbers, and the next generation is being robbed of this rich presence.

I know how much I gained from nature at a critical time in my life, so I’m determined to do all I can to halt this decline. Can you help by donating to the FoE nature campaign?


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15 Replies to “Guest blog – A story of nature and human wellbeing by Andy Atkins”

  1. Bird populations have long been damaged by habitat destruction, cats and pesticides so could you tell me how much poison would be used in Britain to remove mice and rats if there were no cats?

  2. Cats are not the reason why birds have disappeared from the wider countryside. The loss of birds just hides an even bigger but less well reported story; loss of insects.

    1. John I think you are 100% correct.I doubt it is the farmers chemicals to have very much to do with insect decline as if anyone takes the trouble to find out the price of these chemicals plus cost of application they will find farmers only use them when absolutely necessary also most farmers now recognise that they are not free from damaging wildlife.
      However I accept they are partly to blame.In the last few days it has become obvious that after years of pushing Diesel vehicle sales they are now known to be the worst pollutants.
      There must be millions of these as all farm tractors,all lorries and millions of cars causing massive pollution and biggest sufferers must be small insects.
      Amazing how with all the knowledge about various technology,knowledge about other planets and getting cameras there and lots of other things it has taken all these years to recognise the pollution from their favoured engine.

      1. The insect decline which John rightly highlights is primarily due to loss of habitat which is mostly of due to changes in farming practices which of course includes the long-term impacts of pesticide use.

        It is a bug-bear of mine but I really don't think it's helpful when people lay the blame at the door of 'farmers' as this personalises the issue and serves to polarise the debate. It's more helpful to use the term 'farming practices' whilst recognising the role that tax-payer and consumer has played in our current situation.

      2. Dennis, there are undoubtedly a variety of factors that have contributed to the decline of wildlife over much of our countryside. Diesel fumes are certainly unlikely to be 'good' for insects but I don't think there is any evidence that the decline of insects can be attributed to the widespread use of diesel or any clear mechanism by which this could occur.
        The biggest reason that wildlife has retreated from the wider countryside, in my opinion, is the intensification of farming. The vast majority of our lowland grasslands are 'improved' - they have been drained and fertilisers have been regularly applied with the result that lush, strong grass growth has out-competed and eliminated most wildflowers. Great for dairy or beef production but a disaster for the insects that depended on the flowers and the birds and other wildlife that fed on the insects. Similarly, cereal production has got more efficient and the diversity of weeds in a crop of wheat or barley is much less than it once was. Changes in practices from hay production to silage and spring sown to winter sown cereal crops have also been unhelpful to wildlife.
        Of course farmers have not set out deliberately to sterilise the countryside of wildlife - it has happened as they have sought to make a living and apply what they have believed to be the best modern techniques (in common with any other industry), but it has happened. There are enlightened farmers who recognise this and try to implement wildlife friendly measures on their farms and organisations such as RSPB and GWCT have demonstrated that there are a variety of effective measures that can be incorporated into a modern farm. Unfortunately the farmers who wish to implement the most effective measures are still too few and far between.
        If we wish to reverse the problems faced by wildlife we are obliged to face the facts. Pretending that modern farming is congenial to wildlife will ensure that the Turtle Dove will go to hell in a handcart to be swiftly followed by a variety of other species.

        1. Jonathan,it is quite obvious that if diesel fumes are causing problems in say 70 kg humans and indeed deaths are being put down to those pollutants then the effect on insects of less than a gram must be horrific and denying this will undoubtedly lead many wildlife deaths not only Turtle Dove and will need more than lots of handcarts to load them on.
          Diesel fumes being denied as causes of major pollution has already caused lots of illnesses in humans and obviously in insects.
          By the way cannot see anywhere where in my comment I pretended that modern farming is congenial to wildlife.
          Modern farming is like other industries and individuals you and me included equally guilty for loss of wildlife in the countryside.

  3. Andy, the extent to which cats are to blame may be open to question but I guess few readers of this blog would challenge your point that birds - and wildlife in general - have declined steeply since those days in the 1970s when you discovered the joys of bird-watching. Most of us would agree that it is urgent that something effective is done about this decline and you provide us with a handy link to a page where we can donate to FoE's nature campaign so we can - presumably - help that happen. It is a bit of a shame though that neither your blog nor the page you link to explain how this money will be used. A quick look at FoE's web-site doesn't leave me very much wiser. As has been pointed out on this blog on more than one occasion there is a plethora of organisations vying for the cash of wildlife lovers so perhaps you could come back and give us a word or two about why £35 (!) would be better spent with FoE than with the RSPB, the Wildlife Trusts or one of the many other wildlife conservation bodies.

    1. indeed. A very enjoyable article which left me keen to make a donation but after searching for several minutes to try to find specifics of how the money might be spent or, indeed, how FoE thought the issue should be tackled I gave up! I shall continue to support my County Trust which I know spends my money on local projects, not just reserves, which support wildlife in the county.
      (I also support RSPB and other wildlife groups).

    2. Hi Jonathan,

      Thanks for your kind comments about my blog post. I completely understand the need for more clarity on where your money will be used! A donation to this appeal would be used to help us:
      • Gather evidence about how nature is disappearing and the conservation efforts that can help save it
      • Put nature high on the agenda for politicians of all parties during the general election and beyond
      • Make sure the new government honours the UK pledges to restore nature by 2020 and puts the hard-won National Pollinator Strategies into action including tough action on bee-harming pesticides, which are also likely to be harming some birds
      • Make people aware of how important it is to have abundant nature everywhere and how they can bring it back into their lives and communities.
      If you’d like to read more about our work on nature and the important of it then I suggest looking here
      Thanks again,
      Andy A

  4. At least FoE south of the border campaigned to stop the river Otter beavers from being taken into captivity and gave George Monbiot an opportunity to talk about rewilding. Friends of the Earth Scotland has done nothing despite the fact that we are hit even harder by sporting estates - driven grouse shooting AND open hill deerstalking - than the rest of the UK.

      1. Well..let's see. Open hill because the trees that should be there have been eaten to death and there's likewise no natural regeneration. Seriously limits wildlife species and numbers and increases erosion and potential flooding (look at what they discovered in Pontbren re how tree roots get rain water into the soil rather than rushing off the top of it). Also deer over population means that red deer, a woodland animal, has no shelter on bare, windswept hills and its welfare suffers as a result especially in winter. Forestry operations have to put up expensive deer fences (mostly at public cost) to get trees growing in areas with high deer numbers, which are subsequently death traps for birds which fly into them. Then of course there's the teensie weensie issue that keeping deer numbers artificially high also increases the risk of fatal road accidents. I have repeatedly pointed out and will continue to do so, that the very same people who a few years ago tried to raise public fears that sea eagles could pose a danger to children (I'm not kidding) are also fighting tooth and nail to prevent rational and humane deer culling that would reduce risk of road accidents which can and do KILL people. Answered your question Peter?

        1. How is deer stalking keeping deer numbers artificially high? It's not the same as pheasantss, they are not reared and released. So deer stalking to reduce numbers is a good thing by your own admission? Or is the problem that their isn't enough deer stalking?

  5. An interesting blog but as Jonathan points out there is no tangible link to why anyone should donate to Foe. As someone who was a Foe activist in the 1970s I know the unique role Foe can play in fighting for an environmental issue such as Save the Whale campaign. Recently, Foe have been focussing on Bees with some success so maybe they need to focus efforts on a single cause rather than a general campaign.

    1. Hi Pete,

      Many thanks for the kind words about the post. Please see my reply to Jonathan above for more information on what your donation will help us with.

      Andy A


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