Wednesday, 11 December 2013

The life of birds: BTO Annual Conference

I’m pretty sure that someone mentioned something about a book…

Nope. Can’t remember what it was called – I’ll have to come back to that. Luckily, there’s plenty to tell you whilst I try and remember what on earth it was…

First off, Steve Roberts – the Rhod Gilbert of ornithology, being Welsh and hilarious – gave an ‘up close and personal’ view of Honey Buzzards on the Friday night, opening the conference with a bang – including one getting blown out of a tree, and a chick getting chewed up by a Goshawk. Having never seen either bird, this presented a somewhat conflicting idea for me. Nature red in tooth and claw, indeed.

Eimear Rooney (“there’s crap all mammals”) and Lianne Concannon (“geriatric Pink Pigeons”) followed on the first session of the Saturday, doing something that I didn't think was possible. I was a bit nervous about listening to sessions purely on single-species science and feeling out of my depth - I’ve always preferred bigger-picture ideas addressing broader issues – but these women not only really knew their stuff, but made it funny, relevant and completely accessible, relating species to wider issues that even I could get a handle on.Pip Gullett and David Norman’s respective talks on Long-tailed Tits and Sand Martins built on this theme, giving a different perspective on two species that I have adored since I took up birding. Fab stuff and I’m sure they all mentioned something about that book, too...

Moving on.

Skipping through some of the sessions, not to undermine how eloquent and interesting they were, I want to spend a moment considering the brilliance of the BTO President Baroness Barbara Young. Whenever people ask me about my role models, people I truly admire, she’s always the first person I mention. Not only does she have a rare skill for turning an AGM from something rather tedious into an absolute riot, she has the enviable skill of being to calmly mediate any argument, whilst still putting her point across firmly and clearly. Self-deprecating and modest, she commands the attention of the whole room and is possibly one of the most widely known and respected active figures in British nature conservation.

It’s her last year as President, which I think is a great shame. Luckily, the nomination for her replacement, although somewhat controversial, is in my opinion a brilliant and inspired choice who will do the organisation proud – despite the grumblings of a few sceptical members, I truly hope it comes to pass! It’ll be a well-timed shake-up for the organisation judging by some of the negative comments, and falls much in line with the dynamic BTO that seems to only be growing in stature, presence and membership.
A few themes developed this year throughout the Conference, fostered in the debate on Sunday morning. Interesting enough to wake up even the most bleary-eyed amongst us, it was great to have a Question Time with panellists who actually answered the queries of the audience, and gave real, personal reflections. The question posed at the beginning: “What are the big conservation questions for the BTO in the next ten years?” was immediately challenged: “Does the BTO see itself as a conservation organisation?”

Overwhelmingly, the answer seemed to be that the BTO was not inherently a 'conservation organisation', but was undoubtedly an integral part of the wider conservation movement that brought validity, evidence and clear-thinking to complement the more campaigning organisations. That is one of the great challenges, of course, for an organisation such as the BTO. Think just how difficult it is to fundraise without an emotive motivation? So many people are happy to Save the Tiger, or protect a nature reserve, or sign a petition, but the evidence that supports many of those campaigns comes from organisations such as the BTO, who have to maintain their scientific integrity. One member highlighted the international reputation of the Trust for thorough and relevant science, and that is something that their members should be proud to be a part of. 

There were other great questions raised: the validity of bird ringing as a science in this modern world, the possibility of expanding into other taxa, and the attitude of the BTO to engaging new, younger members. I crimsoned up dramatically when A Focus On Nature got a nifty little mention on the stage from Andy C, and we’re looking forward to working with the BTO in the future on new projects that communicate BTO science to younger audiences with other groups, too (hopefully NGB!). I also love the way that the staff and many people in the audience, communicate (seemingly every five minutes) the issues being discussed on stage via social media; it stops the proceedings from becoming exclusive and narrow, and allows others to get involved.

And still, there was this book that everyone kept going on about. It’s quite big (well, you wouldn’t want to drop one on your foot), and represents the biggest citizen science project ever undertaken in this country. An impressive achievement by any standard, let alone an organisation with c.100 staff. Luckily, as it turns out, there's a few volunteers who got stuck in, as well.

But I’ve gone on enough, though. I’ll have to come back it to another day.

-Lucy McRobert
Lucy McRobert is a 23-year-old environmental journalist, nature writer and freelance Researcher for the Wildlife Trusts, working with Tony Juniper on his forthcoming publication. She has set up the network for young nature conservationists in the UK, A Focus On Nature, which she is expanding with the help of several generous sponsors and mentors, to include projects in 2014 such as University Birdwatch Challenge, in partnership with BirdTrack. She firmly believes in promoting birding and natural history to younger generations, and can be found often on the North Norfolk coast, at Rutland Water or on the Isles of Scilly with binoculars firmly in hand.

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