Guest blog – Opportunity for young people by Keith Betton

Keith Betton is, amongst other things, a mate of mine and the co-author of Behind the Binoculars, in whose pages you can find out more about him. At the moment he is in Senegal birding but he left this blog before he left.





I was at a local bird club meeting recently when someone raised the question as to why there were no young people present.  Indeed, in my mid-50s I was definitely in the youngest 25% of the audience. And it left me wondering if we should be worried about the lack of younger people attending meetings of local societies.

Thinking back to when I was a kid, there were very few people of my age at my local bird club and I and my friends were treated with a certain amount of disdain.  We were sharper-eyed and more knowledgeable than many of the older club members and they clearly resented it.  So I think that it has always been the case that local bird clubs have been the domain of those in their middle ages and beyond, and I suspect it always will be the case.

But I am hopeful, because the big difference between then (the mid-1970s) and now is that all of the national wildlife organisations are almost falling over themselves with enthusiasm to welcome young people to their membership.  Bodies like the RSPB and BTO are often celebrating the achievements of young people, and the BTO has had a number of young speakers at its recent conferences.  On top of that we have the relatively new groups – A Focus On Nature and The Next Generation Birders – which have been skilfully set up to not only allow young birders and naturalists to find their way but also to encourage them to take leadership roles to move the organisations forward.

So, I am confident that there are plenty of young birders around. But they have many other things to do that take priority in many cases. The key thing is to make sure that all young people are aware of nature so that they can decide whether they want to make it part of their lives – either now or later. Most of our local club members only got involved in their 40s and 50s – so they are proving the point that people choose their own time to get involved.

One of the brightest young birders in my county – Hampshire – was Cameron Bespolka.  He was a keen photographer and active birder both locally and further afield.  Tragically 3 years ago he was killed in a skiing accident and his family and friends now run a charity in his memory, The Cameron Bespolka Trust.  We are trying hard to create and promote opportunities for young people to engage with nature, and have decided to make available full sponsorship of one young person between the age of 16 and 18 to attend the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology’s Young Persons Event in New York between 6th and 9th July this year.  Everything will be paid for, including that person’s flights.  I am sure that a few 16 to 18 year olds read this blog, but more than that I’m hoping that if you’re reading it and you know someone in that age group who could benefit from that sponsorship, then please bring it to their attention.  It could take them to the next stage in their ornithological development, or maybe even result in them working with birds as their career.


Mark writes: this is a great opportunity for someone. Cornell is a great place for a birder to go; lots of birds and lots of birders. The Cornell Lab or Ornithology is a bit like the BTO – but more exciting! Can you imagine that?!  Give it a try – go on!  Here are a few blogs about my times there which don’t tell you very much except the affectionate tone in which they were written tells you how I was feeling about the place (see A memorable Memorial Day,  28 May 2013; What a hoot, 29 May 2013Room 101, 16 May 2011; Fitz, 17 May 2011). If I were 16-18 I would certainly throw my hat into the ring for this opportunity.

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11 Replies to “Guest blog – Opportunity for young people by Keith Betton”

  1. .With your permission Keith I would like to advertise this at the college where I teach, the young students there are studying for a qualification in Animal Care/Management and there are some keen birders in the groups that I teach the Wildlife module to. What a great opportunity!

    1. I now have at least one definite applicant from my students (but they have to be quick - the closing date for applications, according to the page provided, is today!)

  2. My score is 1 out of 3
    with the other 2 generally interested with all 3 playing golf so certainly know what a 'birdie' is! The Carlisle Natural History Society is very much like what Keith mentioned - mainly older folk but a new Ecology course at the University of Cumbria based in Carlisle has 24 students in one course and 12 in another and still they can't give 1 night in 2 weeks to come to a meeting with if you are lucky 2 turning up! One of the tutor's claims most have evening jobs as they can not survive if no real money is coming in. But I know many folk who are naturalists and none of their kids are into wildlife begging the question - 'How do you get kids interested even if their parents are interested'?

    A classic on Wednesday when I was over at Duridge Bay, was a man scoping the North pool at Chev while his wife had to take his 2 children to the beach to pass the time in winter! I showed them some egg cases of shark species littered about on the beach but again no response from mother or children! An earlier trip to Holy Island had parents glowing over an Isabelline Wheatear while it was up to me to show their kids a sleeping herd of seals which no one had noticed. Before this I noticed the kids were bored stiff but finally the mother took her eyes off the wheatear and set up her scope for the kids to see the seals.

    So I suggest a lot has to come from the parents who in most cases need the training to understand the countryside before passing onto their children. I am now a Grandparent so I will have to start all over again!

  3. With the demise of 'field' experience in University courses, its more vital than ever to get young people into wildlife and nature conservation. At Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, we now run around 50 apprenticeships/traineeships/internships (a variety of different opportunities) each year - a hot bed for building the next generation of nature conservationists. If any young people are interested in these opportunities do get in contact (

  4. I'm guessing that there will be quite a few (very good) applicants - so how will one be chosen from among them I wonder? Won't be easy....
    And, since the trip is still five months off, any chance of asking for donations via this blog or via crowd funding to allow a second or even a third person to go? That would seem to be well worth a go - and I'll certainly make a donation.
    Ps. Agree with Keith re. bird club (and other wildlife/naturalist group) meetings...they can be rather cliquey, unnecessarily formal and unwelcoming - even to adult newcomers....

    1. Agreed totally on the cliquishness of many bird groups, and they tend to be rather snobby too. I can get excited over a single bluetit but some birders groups really look down on people that like common birds. Can you imagine a young kid coming in just loving all the common birds around them and then having scorn poured on them for not only seeking exotics? I don't have to imagine it, I've seen it.

      I'm not worried about the future for birding though. Young kids love birds, even the ne'er-do-well teens who terrify the Daily Mail readers have been known to sit and watch the blackbirds chase each other around (and have been found, with bottle of supermarket cider in hand, watching some otters on the local stream too) so kids and teens are interested and do care; they just find their own ways and peer groups of enjoying them. I think birder groups are for later in life really, sometimes I think they are almost a substitute for social services at times, but for anyone under forty, the plethora of nature shows on tv and of course the internet allow a whole new level of wildlife enjoyment and peer group sharing.

  5. I think it's a spot on comment that many bird groups aren't particularly welcoming - or for that matter do much for conservation, struggling to recall any that have done much directly for schools in their areas - general comment, sure there are exceptions, but probably not enough. The first and so far last time I went to Minsmere there happened to be a school party enjoying it too along with a teacher and a parent helper. Whilst they were in the hide there was also a 'lady' of latter years with some expensive kit. It seems that one of the boys about 8 or 9 I guess might have accidentally bumped a set of binos lying on the shelf (they were not well placed) with the result that they fell on floor. The 'lady' was obviously a bit upset, but rather than bite her lip and act calmly she launched into a tirade about how awful this was - the little boy in question, and it may not have been his fault, spent the whole time staring at the floor looking pretty terrible. There was no let up with the 'lady' and the helper intervened pointing out it was an accident and there was no need for this, she could help out as an witness to make an insurance claim, the 'lady' still prattled on. The enduring memory that wee boy will have of Minsmere and one of those unpleasant incidents in early life that never leave you is of the nasty old woman who had more money than sense or compassion. That was 24 years ago now and to this day it's probably the worst example I've seen of that kind of insensitivity - marred my trip to Minsmere too. I get the feeling that there are too many older birders who aren't particularly bothered about encouraging the next generation, have little time for them.

    I've found the RSPB itself utterly excellent when we used to do a lot of conservation work with kids in a lower income area, once they were asked for help - they like to be asked in case they look as if they are imposing themselves - they were brilliant, plenty of staff time and certainly donated lots of guide books, toys etc which we gave away. It's the membership that tends to let the org down IMHO.

  6. One of the rarest animals in the countryside is a kid or teen on his or her own enjoying the scenery and wildlife. I think I saw one twenty years ago. He or she was bare foot and was exploring and traversing a deep bog. The distance between us was about 50 yards with dense willow understorey obscuring the view. In my excitement to make contact, a rotten branch gave way and I fell. And that was it: the young person fled back to terra firma and disappeared. If only …

  7. Speaking as someone for whom memories of "twenty years ago" mostly involve learning to do interesting things like walk and say "NO!" I think that openness is definitely an issue in ecology more widely. I've commented on here before that not all naturalists are exactly welcoming (although I would add that a great many are) and sometimes you find situations that are downright miserable.

    As an example of this, I remember meeting a twitch once where nobody would tell us what they were looking at, how is that supposed to make me feel about getting into ornithology?

    The other thing for me has been the internet and social media. If I want to talk to people about wildlife I'll do it on Facebook, or Twitter where I can talk to much larger groups of people with broader ranges of experience and knowledge.

    I'm sure there are many great things about being part of a local bird club, but nobody has really sold me on it yet...

  8. Although I am in my fifties the birding community is still a daunting environment to step into. It must be that much harder for a young newcomer. I agree with Random's comments, seeing common species can give as much enjoyment and learning as spotting something much more rare. From what I can see birding is like any other activity or sport, some people are very competitive. But there will be others who are genuine, open and welcoming - it's those people who need to be supported and encouraged.


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