New directions


In the concluding part of his mini-series, Peter Alfrey looks at how
we’re all responsible for protecting the environment, how to make
birding into a career and what it means to be a well-rounded naturalist.



t’s possible to make a difference in any profession, so
you can be a ‘professional’ birder no matter your actual
occupation. If you’re a postman you can bird on the
round; a company owner can manage the business in a way
that is sustainable and good for wildlife. Being a naturalist is a
mindset that can permeate anything and everything.
For those who want to turn their interest in nature into a
full-time career, there are also plenty of options. You could
become a bird guide or set up a tour company. There’s

36 Birdwatch•February 2016 


a whole range of career opportunities for ecologically
minded people, including being a reserve warden, working
for an environmental accreditation scheme, working in
the environmental department of a company or running
your own green space management or wildlife gardening
There are all kinds of jobs in which you can promote
the well-being of birds and nature. You could work for
conservation NGOs and help them do their bit for the
For me, ‘everyday birding’ is what it’s all about: the
recognition of how important the individual is in the battle
to save birds and get more people engaged in nature. It’s not
(just) about signing up to a conservation NGO or getting
behind one of the many campaigns: we must also look
at ourselves and think about how our own behaviour
contributes to the big picture.
Everyone knows about the importance of ethically
purchasing and supporting producers and suppliers
who are working in an environmentally sound
way. However, a grasp of the big picture is
essential: buying ethically is cancelled out if
you work for a company that is engaged

Corn Bunting used to be numerous in
Britain but a dramatic population decline
has resulted in its being Red Listed as a
Species of Conservation Concern – we all
must take responsibility for this loss.

This photo: the London Wetland Centre in Barnes is great for birds, but it is an
engineered ecosystem managed for wildlife.
Left: leading tour groups is one way to turn your birding interest into a career.


What happens when you’ve achieved a good standard in
various different areas of birding? Fear not, there’s always more
you can do. Specialisation in any one subject means there is a
huge, detailed rabbit hole down which you can disappear. A
problem with such specialisation, however, is that the further
you go, the less relevant it becomes to real life. Years of research
might end up as a single line spoken by Chris Packham on
Springwatch. I’m pretty sure I’ve written specialist papers on
bird identification that were only read by the people in the
acknowledgements. I spent five years and about £10,000 in
personal research that ended up in one short line in Handbook of
the Birds of the World, and have yet to finish something I started
10 years ago which might, if I’m lucky, remove some brackets
in the scientific name of a gull.
Instead of specialising, there’s
diversifying. The

digital revolution has meant it’s never been easier to plug into the
collective knowledge of those willing to share. There are a huge
number of Facebook pages and Twitter accounts covering all
aspects of wildlife – bees, hoverflies, butterflies, wildflowers, fungi
and just about everything you can think of. With so much help
from the wider community, you can quickly learn all about new
groups. Birds are your ‘gateway drug’ into natural history – once
tried, it’s time to move on.
Some online resources are better than others, of
course. UK Hoverflies (
groups/609272232450940) is the flagship model of
the ultimate natural history Facebook group. However, the
administrators are getting exhausted – they spend up to 15
hours a day helping people with their syrphid ID. Sorting out
these groups so that they have sufficient administrators of
varying degrees of expertise to spread the workload is critical
to the sustainability of these vital resources. Fundamentally,
an interest in nature and resources to encourage engagement
and build communities is what will preserve biodiversity.
A lot of people switch off when things start getting multidisciplinary. Some might just concentrate on one thing to
contribute to addressing biodiversity loss, perhaps focusing
on diet and being vegan. This is great, but it’s also perilous to
take a linear approach. Unless you cover all the bases, you’ll
be cancelling out any good you do on one by defaulting on
another. If someone is interested in listing, then unless they
support the wider birding community, there won’t be any
birds left to list.
I would advocate two paradoxical approaches to being
a well-rounded naturalist: specialisation and
diversification. It’s a bit



in unethical practices. We should support those businesses
that are ecologically ethical, which to me is a green light to
go travelling round the world supporting all the lodges and
nature reserves on the planet.
One thing that would help everyone would be more
convenience in making the right consumer choices – for
example, websites where customers can order food in the
knowledge that they’re supporting the right people and
producers. Connecting ethically minded consumers with
ethical producers is critical for the success of the emergence
of a sustainable, nature-centric society.


Below: creating a wildlife garden can make a real difference to biodiversity in
your local area, and is one way in which you can actually contribute to conservation. Birdwatch•February 2016



Eurasian Curlew is another
Red-listed bird. It is only
by instilling in the public
a sense of the value of
nature that such species
will be protected.

like Mastermind – you need a specialist subject, but you
also require a good grounding in general knowledge. I
think to develop a nature-centric lifestyle in order to build
sustainable communities requires this kind of approach.
After all, the point is to find meaning and purpose, and I
believe that is achieved by working as a collective, bringing
all the strands of effort together and building friendships,
communities and connections. All this effort can then be
dedicated to the enjoyment of the natural world and to its
protection and evolution for the purpose of sustaining it for
the future.
I often think that conservation is a misleading word, an
oversimplification of a multi-faceted and complex subject. If
we are talking about the management of the environment,
it’s not just about preserving ‘museum habitats’ and clinging
onto some arbitrary point in time. Protecting biodiversity is
also about dynamics, perception, adaptation and creation.
Anyone working in conservation will be aware that there’s
very little that is natural about, for example, the London
Wetland Centre in Barnes, which is in fact a high-tech, highmaintenance engineered system. The same is true of any
nature reserve where the land management models, water
level controls and so on are complex and highly managed.
Conservation is a lot bigger than those organisations that do
it. Environmentally conscious landowners, farmers, landscape
gardeners and contractors look after a lot of wildlife. The Duke
of Norfolk, for example, manages large areas of the South



Downs, creating some of my favourite birding habitat in the
South-East. Most of the areas in which I go birding are not
owned by conservation organisations, but instead by water
boards, councils, the mining industry and so on.
Conservation is also about instilling the public with a sense of
the value of nature, so that this value is projected into all their
decisions, including making ethical consumer decisions that
support environmentally conscious businesses and initiatives.
Supporting a conservation organisation by becoming a
member is the minimum that we can do; it’s also probably the
least interesting option. We are all responsible for protecting
biodiversity, and just doing some wildlife gardening can make
Left: improve your knowledge online by joining some of the many wildlife
Facebook groups.


Below: much of the South Downs, East Sussex, is managed by the Duke
of Norfolk; it provides excellent habitat for birds and other wildlife.

38 Birdwatch•February 2016


Above: it’s good to get
involved with campaigns
such as the protests against
the Badger cull, but we also
need to look at how our own
behaviour affects wildlife.

an immediate and
tangible difference.
The future of our
wildlife depends
on us all – we can’t
rely on politicians or
career ecologists. We
must all take responsibility
for the 60 per cent of species
in decline in the UK; one tenth
of our species are actually at risk of
becoming extirpated.


Left: many listers enjoyed
the Crag Martin at
Chesterfield, Derbyshire,
last year, but without
wider conservation
effort there won’t be
any birds left to list.

The success of conservation will result from popular support
and action for nature. Conservation organisations are often more
concerned with bringing members into their institutions – which,
like old mansions, are very expensive and time consuming to
maintain – rather than empowering the masses; instead, they
encourage the public to sub-contract their responsibility to people
who get paid for maintaining that dependency.
These organisations would do a lot better by amalgamating
into one body, clearing out all the dead wood and ending the
duplication of effort, while supporting those communities,
businesses and individuals who are trying to protect the
We need a radical overhaul of our approach to conservation
because it is not fit for purpose. The fundamental flaw has
been the attempt by NGOs to ape the structures of business
to manage the ecological environment. This involves the
processing of nature and labour into material for human
consumption, rather than valuing it in its own right. A
more decentralised and democratic approach is needed, in
which conservation is able to permeate every part of society.
Individuals need to take ownership of conservation.
By the same token, greater democracy is needed in our
political system if power is not to be retained by a small
number of people. A multi-party system, with proportional
representation that is more emblematic of a wider spectrum
of democracy, would mean that more than a minority of
individual votes and opinions (for example, the 36.9 per cent
of the turn-out that won the election for the nature-hating
Conservative Party) could make a difference – if backed up
with everything else that goes into the big picture. It’s good to
vote with nature in mind, but it’s also good to remember that’s
not going to make enough of a difference on its own.
The time is right for a new way. Nature is under attack
from a socio-political system that is anti-biodiversity in its
human-centric approach. The best defence is to build a more
connected, more cohesive system, and that means joining things
up, concentrating on the big picture and moving forward –
helping take birding in a new direction for all of us. ■
• Read more about being an ‘all-round birder’ on Peter Alfrey’s
blog at Birdwatch•February 2016