Bird Fair slower thoughts

Yesterday I gave you some quick thoughts on the Bird Fair – here are some slower thoughts.

I love the Bird Fair – it’s like an old friend – much loved even with its idiosyncrasies and irritating habits. And I meet many old friends at the Bird Fair each year, and usually make some new ones. I regard the Bird Fair primarily as a social event. This year it was very social – rain always has that effect! We all feel as though we are enduring the same insults thrown at us by the weather gods and that brings us together. Whether you are sleeping with the Prime Minister or not (I’m guessing mostly not) your feet would have got wet and muddy on Friday. We’re all on an equally uncertain footing in a wet Bird Fair.

Bill Thompson III

But talk of old friends makes me think of those who I don’t see at the Bird Fair these days. I cannot pass a certain spot at the Bird Fair without recollecting Derek Moore’s voice and laugh with affection. He is missed. And this year I missed Bill Thompson III who passed away this summer. Bill was someone to whom I always chatted at Bird Fair and with whom I was lucky enough to attend the Champions of the Flyway event in Eilat a few years ago. Bill was a good birder but, much more importantly, he seemed to me to be good man, and one with whom I wish I could have spent more time.

But what of this year’s Bird Fair?

Attendance: I’m sure it was a record year, it always is, but Friday had a low attendance (was it the weather forecast or Countryfile Live at Castle Howard for the first time or something else?). Saturday was busy, perhaps as busy as ever, but Sunday was quite quiet, I thought. My prediction is that Bird Fair will hand over a smaller cheque to BirdLife next spring than it did last spring (and my prediction about that was right). I hope I’m wrong but that’s my prediction.

Ruth Peacey and Chris Packham Photo: Guy Shorrock/RSPB

The subject balance: the British Birdwatching Fair has come a long way from an event primarily for keen birders to a much more rounded event which caters for many tastes. I think the balance between commercialism and idealism and simple enjoyment is getting close to what I’d hope for. That doesn’t mean it is exactly what I would want myself, although my tastes are fairly broad, but it is close to what I’d expect.

I didn’t attend the Friday ‘debate’ as we had house guests but it was quite an impressive line up of people – although not that much difference of opinion by the look of it. Well done to the organisers, including Dom Dyer, for putting this line-up together. Maybe throw in some real politicians and the President of the NFU and an upland landowner, and put it on at midday and there would be a massive crowd (and audience if it were live-streamed by subscription).

On this issue I think the Bird Fair is ‘getting there’.

Photo: Guy Shorrock/RSPB

The gender balance: of speakers is slowly shifting, I think. Since I hardly went to a talk it was difficult to tell what impact, if any, this had on attendance at, or quality of, talks. Here again, I think the Bird Fair is ‘getting there’.

The financial model: I don’t know what the financial model for the Bird Fair is but it is something along the lines of ‘the public pay to get in and commercial interests pay to get in too, hoping that the public will spend enough money with them to make it worthwhile and the organisers and volunteers put on an array of entertainments that distract people from spending money but get them through the gates. And then profits go to BirdLife International which is pretty much invisible during the event itself’. It’s something like that anyway.

There are other models available. The Hay Festival allows you in for free (and that means you can come and go) but charges you to attend the top events. I wonder how that could work at the Bird Fair? Would anyone have paid to hear me speak on Sunday morning – difficult to tell but I don’t think an entrance fee of £1 – £2 would have put off many people (especially if they had got in to the site for free), and of course the same would have been true of Ruth Tingay’s talk on Friday morning too. Really top speakers would always fill the main events marquee even if the cost were £10. I wonder what the market would tell us? Just pondering?

There are other models available too. I would probably pay twice as much to get into the Bird Fair – would you? But I’d quite like more say in where the money goes. To repeat myself, I’d be very interested to see the results of a system a bit like in Waitrose where you are given a plastic token at the tills to allocate to your favourite of three good causes as you exit – what impact would that have on the disbursement of funds, I wonder?

But it is bizarre, if you stand back from your long experience of what the Bird Fair is like, that BirdLife International, the Wildlife Trusts and the RSPB are so low-profile at the event.

Is this a festival? imagine that this event were called the Nature Festival – what would change? What would be the difference between a festival and a fair? Perhaps even more attention to the ‘acts’ and their popularity – and pricing accordingly? How would you market it? What might the attendees look like? How many of the regular attendees would still come? Is Bird Fair quite a long way down the road to being a Nature Festival but hasn’t qute realised it and hasn’t told many people? One to ponder?

The Bird Fair – I love it. The trouble with 2020 is that it is a leap year and so there is an extra day to wait until Bird Fair 2020.

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18 Replies to “Bird Fair slower thoughts”

  1. No, keep the emphasis on birds!

    I still haven’t quite forgiven the RSPB for changing the name of their mag to Nature’s Home.

    I’m all in favour of someone setting up a separate Festival of Nature/ Wildlife - it would be an addition to the calendar and could be particularly attractive to families and young people.

    But Birdfair needs to retain both its existing name (presumably it is an increasingly valuable ‘brand’) and its primarily ornithological flavour.

    I like the existing Butlin’s-type business model. Who wants to get their purse/wallet out every time they attend a 20-minute talk? It would surely reduce attendances .

    I think the organisers have got it about right. Basically the same format each year with a little bit of tweaking here and there.

    1. James - I think you are fooling yourself if you think it is a Bird Fair, and remember it has already changed from a Birdwatching Fair. All those holiday companies - are they selling bird-only holidays? Not at all. Do they sell the come to Iceland and ignore the Arctic Foxes and whales holidays? Not that I've noticed. Are Butterfly Conservation banned from the Bird Fair because of their complete disregard for birds? No, they've been a fixture for years. Do the Wildlife Trusts claim that their only interest is birds? Not likely. Do the children's events get young people to peer at a distant Wood Sand or a close-by insect?

      And you say that Bird Fair needs to keep a focus on birds - well I thinkit would retain a focus on birds for many years whatever the name. but it needs to evolve and I think the writing is already on the wall suggesting faster change would be a good idea. But I'll still be there, with you, whether bird Fair changes or not - it's just that I'd like there to be more people with us.

    1. Richard - well spottd. You've got me looking for palindromes but you are way ahead of me on prime ones!

  2. If renaming is actually necessary what about simply calling it 'The Wildlife Fair' to incorporate birds, mammals and plants...

  3. I'm with James. Keep "Bird Fair". I left the RSPB when it, in my opinion, dumbed down to include 'nature'. I know birds need the natural habitat and other fauna and flora to survive but, again in my opinion, that's where Wildlife Trusts come in.
    By all means welcome everyone in but please let them keep a bird focus. I think the larger holiday companies still send there bird experts to staff their stands.
    Oh and please don't advise charging small amounts all day long. Charge me (but not too much) to come in and I'll stay all day spending money!

    1. Hilary - I don't think the RSPB switch to all nature was well-handled. It takes more than a change of name of the magazine! Some would say that concentrating on birds is, in itself, dumbing down of the worst type. And the Wildlife trusts are, as a whole, rather toothless so leaving the whole of the natural world to them would not be wise - the RSPB have teeth it's just that they rarely bite anyone these days because they are so busy biting their lips.

  4. I’m afraid Bird Fair is what it is – a commercial enterprise. Gone are the days as with most trade shows of innovations and product launches. Dominating proceedings are the holiday companies that have a surprising number of burgeoning logo branded white-toothed individuals trying to ingratiate themselves to an army of little old dears to flog them overpriced holidays.

    The Fair is a mixture of old tat and exquisite artworks way beyond my credit card limit. That analogy applies equally to the speakers, we get the ideological, self opinioned ranting’s of individuals who think that anybody outside the tent doesn’t know anything about conservation, to the seemingly endless conveyor belt of rewilding authors, who’s 10 point plan will save us all – unfortunately these people don’t have faintest idea on the basic costs of such a project. But they both have something in common – they’re trying to flog you something.

    The Fair can be described like the weather, – a wet Glastonbury mud pile or an unbearable scorcher with health warnings, visit any tent and risk a hazardous whiff of toxic personal BO, infused with cheap deodorant.

    People watching is the highlight of any day, why people must feel they have to conform to type and dress up in camouflage is beyond me? Equally wearing ill-fitting poster slogan T-shirts, it’s not cool, especially if you are carrying extra pounds. But we are not alone – at game fairs, the dry-cleaned tweed brigade are everywhere, must be something to do with peer pressure.

    Whether the fair gives value for money is debatable, the cost of travel is of necessary consideration, but, I will admit one year on the final day close to shutting I did very well on an optics stand.

    1. "dress up in camouflage"

      I occasionally see the hairy chap from TimeTeam in Salisbury Waitrose. Often dressed in camo, and the most conspicuous person in the store. Perhaps on his way home from work, where he has to creep up on archaeology lest it runs away.

  5. Why is the RSPB unwilling to ‘bite’?

    Is it because it’s in hock to special interest groups? Is it because it’s constrained by its Royal charter? Is it because its leadership is weak?

    Or what?

  6. Almost no mention of climate change.

    Lots of high-carbon holidays.

    And at an event centred on conservation.

    This simply has to change. And quickly.

  7. The Bird Fair is an ornithological who's who, love in and reunion all rolled into one, with everybody getting a year older. I missed it last year due to a family holiday but went on Saturday this year with for the first time my 9 year old daughter Georgia in tow. Sadly I didn't make many of the talks (a 9 year old has an attention span of about 9 minutes) but she went around hoovering up all the freebies, talking to people about wildlife and wallowing in the mud. So Georgia really enjoyed herself which was a real bonus as it had been quite a long car journey (lots of are we there yet Daddy on route). Nick Baker was brilliant doing his pond dipping under the microscope in the Zeiss tent. He was looking at snail eggs. He asked anybody if they had water snails at home. Georgia piped up that we have them in our downstairs toilet which made everyone laugh (that is where our small aquarium is, fantastic viewing while you're on the job). I also got my bins realigned for free by Zeiss which made my day as I was expecting to have to send them off. We also took time out to visit the nature reserve down the road and see the Ospreys which again she enjoyed. I did briefly see you Mark and called out hello but by then you'd passed on by. My main recommendation would be to get more really inspiring kids like Findlay Wilde speaking next year and to bring in the crowds put in a request for Greta Thunberg now.

    1. Another great Birdfair, though I only had one day so missed meeting up with some friend, contacts and talks.
      I would pay more, £25 would be fine (especially if it subsidises smaller charities to attend) with reductions for multiple days, but for couples £50 may be a stretch. I am not keen on extra fees for regular talks, who carries around lots of change these days?
      As for changing the name of the Fair; maybe the Bird and Wildlife Fair or Festival? It may then attract a broader range of visitors and lower the average age, possibly. Greta Thunberg would certainly be a great attraction for all. There should be no need to dumb down generally although; I was quite dismayed when the RSPB changed from 'Birds' to 'Natures Home' and got rid of most serious magazine content, apparently believing that most members are lightweight beginners? Please don't forget the birders and conservationists.
      The three talks I managed to get to were all outstanding; 'Bringing Back the Beaver' by Mark Elliot of the Devon Wildlife Trust - who knew there were so many populations around the UK and 400 in the Tay catchment? 'Re-introducing the Oriental White Stork to Japan' a case study in community and political engagement and restoring rice paddy ecosystems; and third Mary Colwell on the fate of the curlew.
      Next year I will spend at least 2 full days and am looking forwards to it already.

  8. I found it odd that when I signed this petition, it was a number of days before I got the follow up link to confirm my signature, not the 24 hours stated. I suppose I could have overlooked the the link. I wonder if any other people had the same issue.

  9. Greta Thunberg would never attend BirdFair due to its promotion of high carbon holidays. If she did, she'd tell attendees things they didn't want to hear. Still, they'd probably clap, say how wonderful she is for caring and then go and buy their high-carbon holiday.

    Things have to change. BirdFair could grasp the nettle and be at the heart of these changes, or it can plough on regardless and be increasingly seen as adding to the problem


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