Dr Amy-Jane Beer is a biologist and nature writer, based in North Yorkshire.
My summers follow a familiar structure. The rampant joy of May, the hot and heady days of June, the awful realization in July that cuckoos and swifts are already looking south and that it can’t last. But in August, a holiday allows me to fool myself for a few weeks that it’s still summer, and even when that ends, there’s always those giddy three days on the shores of Rutland Water: BirdFair with its unique blend of inspiration, information, entertainment and conversation.
I’ve come to know those avenues of stands well over the years, and the snickets and backwaters between marquees – perfect places for a rendez-vouz, for taking a quiet breather or just using as alternative routes avoiding the temptation of the art marquee when you’ve blown your budget on books. How strange though, that for more than ten months of the year, the bustling tentscape of BirdFair exists only in the mind. My folks live very locally so I’m also familiar with Egleton in other seasons. It’s hard to resolve lie of the land without all the white canvas. From October to June, when the action is all on the lagoons or the lake, or in the thickets and reedbeds, it’s all but impossible to imagine yourself and thousands of others sitting for hours among the sheep droppings, largely oblivious to the fact that you’re in a nature reserve. The transformation that takes place every August has been honed over so many years that to the outsider it seems to happen all by itself. Of course it doesn’t. Creating that ecosystem of tents, stands, latrines and catering vans, and populating it with the same familiar community every year is an extraordinary annual feat of planning, logistics and goodwill – a true labour of love for 30 years.
But (you knew there was a but coming, right?) the thing about a well-oiled machine is that the components go on working a long time and there’s not much call for new ones, unless you start tinkering, building, or modifying. If you don’t, things might go on chugging away indefinitely, but eventually even a classic model and its beautifully maintained components start to look, well, somewhat antique.
BirdFair 2018 was the one when a lot more people noticed that the number of women on stage (and in particular in the Events marquee) and on the cringeworthy ‘Personalities’ section of the website did not come close to matching the number in the audience – or indeed in the wider wildlife and conservation sector. A few people, me included, pointed this out some months ago, after which another woman’s name appeared on the Question Time panel and a request was sent out from BirdFair HQ asking for women to offer their services. I heard from more than one source that it’s very difficult to find women to perform. Hmm. Ask the regulars. They all know women who could do at least some of what they do, as well as some things they can’t do. And ask the audiences themselves – many of whom have already been making suggestions on social media – lists of talent that would be enough to fill the schedule several times over.
It wasn’t that 2018 was a particularly bad year. The imbalance has been called out before. But we’re a lot less willing to accept it now, especially when there are so many women working and engaging with nature in other ways – their scarcity in the upper echelons is becoming a serious embarrassment. At a time when our wildlife needs every man woman and child to recognize and value it, it’s potentially disastrous for the largest event of its kind in the national calendar to fail so dismally in its equality and diversity ratings.
Mark has his own thoughts on the gender issue and has blogged about it in typically provocative style, asking which of the ever-popular male presenters BirdFair should drop. I’d say none. But many men appear every year and make multiple appearances. The regulars are great at what they do – I love hearing them as much as the next person. But there’s not a single one whose absence for a day, or even a year would kill the event. The repetition isn’t necessary. Plus there are formats that could allow others (including a lot more women) to debut and build a following. In-conversation events, panel events, double-handers featuring seasoned performers and newcomers have been tried and tested and work brilliantly well, still drawing big crowds. Some of the new faces should be male. Next year though, most should be women. There’s an impressively large pool to draw from.
Mark also asked whether women would be crowd-pullers, and made that comment about eye-candy. I flinched when I read it, partly because it sounded, well, crass, but also because over the weekend, I heard those comments too. Humans of both sexes are visual animals. Of course we pay attention when a person we consider attractive is says things we want to hear. But it also works the other way. How long does it take to lose interest in a crush when you discover that you have nothing in common, that their opinions stink, or that they are in fact deadly dull? Less than the 45 minutes of an event marquee lecture, for sure. While it can take considerably less than 45 minutes for someone whose looks didn’t initially excite to become an absolute hero. I have no doubt that at an event like BirdFair, substance will win over style every time. Of course women speakers will be crowd-pullers, because they have things to say that audiences want to hear. There is the possibility that the crowds they pull might be different. But different is representative. Different is good. In fact, different is bloody essential.
Mid-August is school holidays and many potential speakers (of all genders) have families to put first. You won’t get the same ones every year. But we don’t need to have them every year. Some might just not want to come. Fair enough, but it would be useful to ask why – do we have an image problem? The self-knowledge might be illuminating. They come might another time. Don’t write them off forever. I’d also urge the organizers to look into other pools. The event has already begun to feature lots of non-bird talks – and they appear to be popular. Writers, presenters, photographers campaigners and conservationists are now well represented alongside hardcore birders and tour guides. But there’s room for more… how about some more scientists? Some nature-inspired poets, some musicians? What about other perspectives? I’ve already written about the need to recognize people who engage with nature in different ways for the programme (see pic), but in addition, I’d love to see more farmers and more policy makers in the line ups, and I like to think we could respectfully entertain contributions from thoughtful estate managers and gamekeepers. There was one this year, you know – a panelist in the Next Generation Conservation debate organised by A Focus On Nature and held in the new WildZone (itself an excellent development). Megan Rowland is not only a deer stalker, but young, and a woman. Bravo, I hope she’ll be back.
I’m not saying it will happen overnight. But diverse presenters of BirdFair’s future are already there, if you look. Half of them are female. Some (not enough yet) are not white. Many of them are young, some startlingly so, and full of energy and drive which in some cases means they will make mistakes – perhaps horribly public ones. But we have to give them space to earn their spurs, and fast, because there are bigger battles ahead, and we need them. Meanwhile, a new Facebook group Female voices in conservation and nature has been set up – and the discussions there promise to be productive and passionate.
I have a good feeling about BirdFair 2019, and it can’t come soon enough for me.
Mark writes: over 250 of you have responded to this questionnaire which asks about which men could give way to make room for more women speakers at the main events at Bird Fair, and for your suggestions on which women you would like to see, I’ll publish the results, or at least a non-wounding summary of them, on this blog next week and I’ll be passing them on to the Bird Fair organisers. Do you think that men and women will differ in their responses?[registration_form]