by Mark Avery
...it’s a triumph, and if you have any real interest in the job of saving species and their habitats then it’s a tremendously rewarding ‘must read’.
Devoted to birds and wildlife since childhood, Mark’s early scientific research at Oxford, Aberdeen and the RSPB provided a solid background for his management, ambassadorial, and political lobbying activities which were to follow – and his larger than life, yet quietly humane personality has provided the final tools in his own, unique, nature conservationists’ toolbox.
In this book, Mark mixes a great many stories from his professional life at the RSPB with personal anecdotes and passionate arguments on past and present issues in bird and nature conservation. He shows us something of the many scientists whose work paves the way for conservation action, places domestic conservation into an international context, takes us behind the scenes to glimpse the politicians who have worked with him, or against him, along the way. Mark leaves us armed with practical tips and a guiding philosophy to take wildlife conservation though the troubled years that lie ahead.
A personal, philosophical and political history of 25 years of bird conservation, this book provides an instructive and amusing read for all those who would like a glimpse into the birds and wildlife conservation world – what the issues are, what must be done, how it can be done, and the challenges, highs and lows involved.
About the author
Mark Avery is a scientist by training and a naturalist by inclination. He writes about and comments on environmental issues.
‘wildlife guru‘ – The Guardian newspaper
‘you b***ard blogger‘ – a prominent farmer
Mark worked for the RSPB for 25 years until standing down in April 2011 to go freelance. He was the RSPB’s Conservation Director for nearly 13 years.
Mark lives in rural Northamptonshire and is a member of Cheltenham Racecourse, the RSPB, the Wildlife Trusts, the National Trust, Buglife, Plantlife, Butterfly Conservation, Pond Conservation, the BTO, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and the Labour Party.
Mark Avery's blog: Standing up for Nature
birdwatchers, conservationists, ecologists, wildlife enthusiasts, policy-makers
birds, orntihology, conservation, RSPB, nature reserves, ecology
Foreword by Chris Packham
List of Abbreviations
1. Early years
2. Flow Country days
3. In the pink – roseate terns
4. Counting, cubes and curves
5. Is it ever right to be nasty to birds?
6. Special places
7. Hope for farmland birds
8. Reintroductions: putting something back
9. Nature reserves
11. The raptor haters
12. Trying to change the world
13. Advocacy in practice
15. Whither the RSPB?
16. The tangled bank
17. What we need to do to win
"Mark Avery worked for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds for about 25 years, starting as a research scientist and leaving, in April 2011, as Director of Conservation. As such he was at the forefront of many of the major then-current conservation issues facing birds, and indeed other wildlife, and was often called upon by the media, policy makers and many others for comments and to make decisions which affected conservationists generally and the RSPB in particular. Many of these decisions will continue to have effects for many years to
His views on some of the issues have been aired on his blog (www.markavery.info/blog) since 2009, but only since he left the employment of the RSPB has he been able to be completely frank and not necessarily follow the RSPB line. Fighting for Birds follows on from this and sets out to clarify and summarize many of these major issues, to put forward Avery’s own take on them, and to note how far some of them are from being resolved.
He states early on that the book is not an autobiography but you would be forgiven for disagreeing when reading the first four chapters. These describe his formative years and how he got into birdwatching and natural history and then became a professional ecologist, studying bats (Chiroptera) as well as birds and working
with several leading scientists in the process. However, this is really just setting the scene for the other 13 chapters which are the meat of the book, and should be required reading for anyone with aspirations to be an advocate for conservation, and especially for anyone who has any influence on environmental policy. Also of
course, anyone interested in conservation and the environment will get a lot of information and some forthright views both on the issues themselves and on how they should be tackled in the corridors of power where it matters.
Chapters labelled such as ‘Is it right ever to be nasty to birds?’, ‘The raptor haters’, ‘Trying to change the world’, ‘What we need to do to win’ and ‘Climate’ show that he tackles some of the main issues facing bird conservation and indeed the worldwide environment. We get a personal view which at times can be very hardhitting and critical of both people and organizations, many of whom purport to be ‘doing good’. Many ordinary birdwatchers and conservationists will certainly not agree with him at times but, with such cases as the Hen Harrier Circus cyaneus controversy in the Southern Uplands of Scotland, he clearly states the various opposing views, accepting for example that Hen Harriers do eat quite a lot of grouse and that therefore there is a major issue to be tackled. Compromises have to be made at times, though in this case his own stance is clear: he is opposed to driven grouse shooting.
Not all is polemic though. There are chapters on the role of nature reserves and special places, on reintroductions, on advocacy (how and how not to do it!) and on farmland birds, and he does not flinch from the RSPB with a chapter entitled ‘Whither the RSPB?’ which describes both its current state and what are his hopes for its future – he is a life member. There are tensions and conflicts, both within and between organizations and often with those seemingly on the same side. The trick for all of them, having weighed up the evidence, is to come out at the end with a clear direction. I suspect nobody will agree with everything he says, but there is a lot of common sense here as well as what amounts to a history of the conservation movement over the last 25 years or so. Some of the major issues have a separate chapter – see above – but several bits which did not quite fit into any other chapter are collected together in Chapter 14 as ‘Snippets’.
There are one or two minor errors, but they do not detract from what is a mighty good read. Chris Packham in his Foreword says he read it in one go and I know he is not alone in that. However, reading it like this is not essential and indeed dipping into specific chapters on particular topics usually produces a useful summary of a major issue, spiced with Mark’s general good humour and interesting and often amusing anecdotes."
– Peter Lack, IBIS, April 2013
"In Fighting for Birds author Mark Avery draws upon his 25 years at the RSPB (most recently as conservation director) to illustrate some of the challenges facing conservation.
He takes a down-to-earth approach on some controversial topics, including the culling of ruddy ducks to protect white-headed ducks, and whether it would ever be justified to control the numbers of birds of prey. He is not afraid to criticise or name and shame, and questions in particular game keepers and shooting sports.
Fighting for Birds is informative about the life of a conservationist, and about the legal and social context in which environmental organisations work. For example, he puts into context terms such as Species Protection Area, which previously existed as isolated phrases floating in my head. He also discusses individual examples of birds he has studied or worked with, such as roseate terns and red kites, plus everything from managing a nature reserve to influencing Government.
Avery’s passion comes through very strongly, and it is hard not to feel motivated about conservation after reading the book. If you know an aspiring young conservationist, this book will be a perfect present."
– Rebecca Nesbit, The Biologist Vol 60 No 2
"This is a book everyone should read, be they already an ardent conservationist or, equally, perhaps more importantly, if they have no particular sympathies with wildlife or environmentalism. There are a number of reasons why I personally enjoyed it so much. I worked for the RSPB for much of the period within which the narrative takes place, I admit to sharing the same opinions presented within the book and I also know the author!! Such being the case I suppose it's hardly likely I would find fault with its contents ( I don't! ), indeed it's slightly embarrassing to admit I agree with virtually all which is said in its 300 or so pages. I'd actually go a step further and suggest that its title should be a necessary reference source within every current academic conservation and environmental course due to its pragmatic style and up to date treatment. Additionally it would behove many whose managerial duties and responsibilities touch on the above subject areas to read it, indeed,and in particular, it could be considered a compulsory text for those within Government, DEFRA and Planning Authority staff and many within the agricultural industry!!
So why such unqualified support?
The reader will soon find that the pragmatic and logical approach taken towards some pretty hefty issues is consistent and is combined with a writing style that is light and entertaining, educational and presents summarized information which leads the reader to a better understanding of the various subjects under examination. I certainly appreciated certain matters better than I had done previously and I'd worked within "the industry"! Such success is not an easy one to achieve within a "factual book", but is something the author repeats with admirable ease.
Much of this is accomplished by the issues being set out in a personal context that ensures the "journey", which also embraces the beginnings of the author's interest in natural history, coupled with his more critical involvements in later years, is recounted in a very direct way. There's humour too. The stories linked to the Reverend Gilbert White's research on bats and the observed activities, by the author, of biologically enthusiastic Bee-eaters on the Camargue are just two amongst many which made me smile. But there is much, much more which is equally as entertaining within the book. Aspects of contemporary conservation "history", cameo stories of personalities who themselves have played major parts within both research and policy advocation undertaken over the years and explanations related to the outcomes of various practical initiatives applied to different conservation challenges are all presented in an informative and engaging way.
In short this is a book that must be read as widely as possible. As an extremely well constructed foundation dealing with the challenges confronting conservation, and the choices and approaches we might apply to them, this is a "blueprint" that should steer our thoughts and actions for some time to come.
On a more light hearted note I have also to mention the following!! I purchased my copy of the book last year, but then had two-three months with eye trouble within which time I did little or no serious reading. Throughout that time I had left the book out on a table as a reminder that I must return to it at an early stage. As you can see the book's cover carries a superimposed photograph of Mark Avery himself. During the whole of that time I was conscious of a gaze which followed me when passing, as if in mild rebuke for being ignored, but it served as an additional reminder that I should read it at the earliest opportunity!! Well, it's been worth the wait and I've also every intention of reading it again at some point such is the overwhelming value of its contents. A real pleasure, a great read and something I have no compunction in recommending to everyone, particularly birders. The various subjects presented in separate chapters, themselves replete with endless examples relevant to the case being considered, serve to illustrate why we should all find time to "Fight for birds", a mission that the book more than successfully achieves."
– John S. Armitage, A Birding Odyssey, 8.2.2013
"This is an in-depth book that explores how the conservation world works and explains just how difficult it can be to save bird species. Avery worked for the RSPB for 25 years and became their Conservation Director, so he is in a pretty good position to talk about saving species. The book starts off with a tour of Mark’s formative early years getting into the world of birds but this is not an autobiography. It is about thoughts, opinions and ideas on how to work with, protect and keep species and special places alive and well. One gets the feeling that to truly express his views Mark could only do so once he had left the RSPB.
“We are often told that nature conservation is a luxury we cannot afford when it stands in the way of economic progress…”
Fighting For Birds is a book that lays out how NGO’s work, how politicians support or don’t support projects, who to speak to, how to speak to them and what to speak about once in a position to do so. It is a political business looking after our natural world with meeting after meeting, a watching of p’s and q’s, talk and counter talk and the smoothing of feathers between various parties. Avery’s views are opinionated and I like this. His thoughts on hunting and suggestions of how to stop the continual murder of birds of prey in the UK appeal to my sensibilities. The persecution of raptors is a disgusting sideshow that accompanies events like grouse shoots and the cultivation of grouse moors at the expense of all other creatures and habitat is genuinely sickening, although grouse moor managers will tell you a different story as to how their work actually helps biodiversity. Avery sets out many different options for the situation and ultimately indicates that the banning of grouse shoots may be the only way to save so many of our birds of prey, particularly the Hen Harrier, which is now down to the last breeding pair in England. He is probably right.
Fighting for Birds is an extraordinary work. It explains most aspects of conservation in a succinct, intelligible way that makes one want to pick up the gauntlet and do what one can to join the fight for birds. Inspirational and enlightening it may be but most of all it shows exactly where we are in our race to save our wildlife and urges us all to do more. You want to be a conservationist? Then read this book."
– Ceri Levy, Bird Effect Diary, 25.1.2013
"Did you see the Black-winged Pratincole at Cley in 1974? No, me neither, but Mark Avery was one of the three finders. Not many people know that! But I think most people know that he spent 25 years working for the RSPB, much of it as Conservation Director, where he was instrumental in shaping the way the Society protected birds. In fact there are 17,000 internet references to his work there - an indication that he had a lot to say. And so he should – the last two decades have seen major changes in the way our countryside has been managed and the way that those in authority have responded to the implications.
Often a controversial figure in the media, he could always see both sides to an argument but he did not let that weaken his position. Having observed him in action during my own time on the RSPB Council I would say he had a rare knack of being prepared to say what everyone in the room was thinking, particularly when they were lost for words. That last attribute can be a strength or a weakness, and one rarely displayed by those whose first interest is in their career path. Perhaps that is why he decided to change his own career path last year to become a freelance writer and consultant?
In this book we learn about his early interest in birds and wildlife, followed by research at Oxford and Aberdeen and his early days at the RSPB. But for me the most interesting chapters are those that outline his views on some the key issues in bird conservation – namely hunting, loss of protected areas, agricultural intensification, reintroductions, establishing nature reserves, climate change, persecution of raptors, understanding the infrastructure of conservation and lobbying those in power. He also gives his view about the future of the RSPB. There are a great many stories in each chapter, with personal anecdotes from interactions with various organisations including the Royal Family, and I know for sure that Mark could have written at least as many again, although perhaps his lawyers advised him not to!
When you read a chapter entitled “Is it ever right to be nasty to birds?” you immediately sense that those who carry a gun in preference to binoculars are likely to find themselves under unfriendly fire in this book. Indeed Mark states clearly “A person goes down in my estimation a little if they derive pleasure from killing things unnecessarily”. On the other hand he is in favour of Ruddy Duck control because there does not seem to be an alternative solution to the conservation problem that they pose. Hunters would describe that as double standards, although to me it makes sense if you can really justify the conservation threat.
He is worried about our protected areas as often these are paid for by wildlife NGOs who receive money not only from the public but also from agri-environment schemes that come and go with political changes. In these tough economic times both sources of income are under threat, and so too our treasured sites. With so many “conservation” organisations in the UK it is hard to make progress without stepping on toes. Mark thinks there is a need for fewer organisations and more resources to come to their aid. On the whole issue of farmland he says that the declines in bird numbers are real and the most striking sign of ecological change that we have seen in the UK in recent decades – the cause being changes in farm practices. His solution is to overhaul the current payment systems and find ways of working with farmers who are warm to wildlife and working with decision-makers to make the whole system more wildlife-friendly. Meanwhile on reintroductions he is quite positive although recognises that we need time to see whether some will work – but he is dead against deliberate or accidental introductions of non-native wildlife. He thinks that big nature reserves are better than small ones and gives his own views on some of the RSPB’s prime sites – and he is very worried about climate change, as left unchanged it will ruin much that we value in the natural world.
I suspect many people will turn first to the chapter entitled “The raptor haters”. A précis of this might be that too many raptors are killed by gamekeepers who are under huge pressure to maintain ridiculously high numbers of grouse on driven moors for shooters to aim at every August. You can count the number of Hen Harrier breeding pairs in England on one hand when you should really need dozens of hands. The only solution is to ban driven grouse shooting. (This is where lines of beaters flush the grouse towards the guns, rather than shooters taking a pot at the odd grouse as it flies past. It could be described as the shooting equivalent of factory farming). This chapter will once again divide readers into two camps.
I was particularly interested in Mark’s views of the RSPB. He thinks that it should do more to canvass the opinions of its members concerning its work, and he wonders if most of them would wish to retain the benefit of a Royal patron – and indeed it might be renamed. As always he is controversial, and in that way I suspect he will find life as an independent commentator much to his liking. If you care about conservation you should read this book. I found myself agreeing with about 80% of his views, but regardless I learned a lot from his experiences."
– Keith Betton, Birding World, 25: 2012
"This book's cover says it all - Mark Avery is in your face, explaining his view of how to look after Briain's birds, and our countryside, largely through a series of battles. Let me be clear, I'm reviewing the book, not Mark's approach.
Chris Packham read it from start to finish without stopping - I took only two or three sittings. It's a compelling read. A book of this nature, at its best, should inform, entertain, provoke thought, and even move the reader, and Mark managed all of these with me. He successfully transfers onto the page his passion for birds, for wildlife, for science, and for some people. He sets out, very clearly, the art and science of nature conservation, and explains the practicalities in a way that will improve understanding for any reader at any level. This is a personal perspective, with Mark's contribution as an RSPB Director writ very large. Its combative feel will make new enemies, as well as further polarise those with strong views, either way, on his approach.
Mark's story shares remarkably similar experiences to mine. Schoolboy mentors, early birding memories (do we all remember meeting Richard Richardson on Cley's East Bank?), scientific research, upland fieldwork, all leading to a long career in nature conservation. As a professional I learnt a lot from this book - how and why the RSPB picked issues for advocacy, ideas on mitigating climate change, and that Swifts nest in Abernethy's pines - I have to see that sometime! I laughed out loud, mostly when Mark was poking fun at himself and, yes, I was moved because his passion to do better for our planet and the life it sustains shines through - we all should take on at least some of his bullet-point manifesto for the future of a better world. Whether you are enemy or friend, reading this account of a particular life in conservation will be time well spent."
– Andy Clements, BTO News, November 2012
"This book might be described as an analytical autobiography. It is intensely personal, presenting many details of the author’s life but woven around a discussion of the development of RSPB policy on conservation of birds where the author played a central role, and drawing lessons for policy from personal experience. Each chapter finishes with a summary of the main points made; not what one would normally expect in a personal history and making the book more like a text on conservation policy. In the author’s mind I think the book is both these and other things besides. It is simultaneously didactic and messianic – the final chapter is entitled `What we need to do to win’. There is evidence that the work was originally intended to be a more conventional autobiography. Thus witness a chapter with the title `Snippets’ containing stories and anecdotes that couldn’t be fitted in the main text. Samuel Becket had something similar in his novel Watt; words and phrases thought of but not used. In that case however they were included as an addendum.
But to say that this book is idiosyncratic is in no way to condemn it. I couldn’t put it down. It is a damned good read packed with interesting information and insider insights into some of the classic conservation battles of the period. All students of conservation should read it. I would particularly recommend some of the case studies in chapter 13 (although not that on the Peatlands Campaign where I seem to recall RSPB wasn’t centrally involved) the chapter appropriately titled ` The raptor haters’ and his assessments in chapter 16 of the conservation industry.
The author spent 25 years working for RSPB and remains deeply committed to it as the ideal model for a conservation NGO containing the optimum mix of advocacy, political pressure, direct action and scientific analysis. In his view all other conservation bodies fall short of the ideal. The Wildlife Trusts have lost their way, placing too much emphasis on people and too little on wildlife (the reviewer is sympathetic on this one).Greenpeace and FOE have other concerns, certainly no less important than wildlife conservation but to a degree in conflict with them at least in terms of resource allocation. The nearest to the RSPB perfection are recent specialist bodies: Plantlife; Butterfly Conservation and Buglife; but these bodies are too small, lacking the membership and therefore the clout of RSPB and the last chapters speculate as to whether RSPB should extend its remit to take over their territory or otherwise help to strengthen them and how far it should become a multi-national extending the RSPB experience overseas. Undoubtedly RSPB is the largest and most successful wildlife NGO in Europe with a reach now extending outside of the continent. It is to be congratulated on its success and Mark Avery to be thanked for the pivotal role he has played in it. However it falls to the reviewer to pour a touch of cold water on the author’s enthusiasm.
From its inception, and written into its charter, the RSPB has been restrained from attacking the interests of the landed gentry; most obviously preventing any challenge to the upper class obsession with killing animals and birds, categorised as hunting or vermin control. These constraints remain and Avery confesses to wanting to launch a campaign against grouse shooting but knowing that within RSPB he could not do so. But the interests of the landed classes extend beyond the slaughter of innocent raptors, game-birds and Mustelids; they are reflected in received understanding, or lack of it, of the economics of farming and forestry. While regarding the NFU as part of the enemy, Avery none-the-less subscribes to the hoary old lie that intensification with its resulting monocultures is the consequence of economic pressures facing farmers. It isn’t. It is the result of the reduction and distortion of risk brought about by agricultural support and protection. If this support were wholly withdrawn the farming community would perforce shift back to crop rotations, lower intensity of cultivation and mixed farming as a rational strategy to minimise financial risk. Ricardo demonstrated this in the nineteenth century; that in adversity agriculture would retreat on both the intensive and extensive margins. But you don’t have to be an historian of economic thought to understand it. It was explained to the conservation community in the late 1960s and in the 1970s and 80s I was explaining it to the RSPB. I’m afraid that I failed; the message was well understood in what was then known as Conservation Planning but the constraints on the organisation meant that it was never acted on. The reasons are obvious. Agricultural support does not benefit tenant farmers who simply face rising rents and land prices; it enriches their landlords. But the principal social cost of our obsession with looking after farmers and wealthy landlords is the destruction of wildlife habitat and the decimation of birds and other taxa. Any realistic programme to reverse these trends has to start from there.
The economics of forestry is subject to a similar fallacy and this one too has been repeatedly demonstrated. It is not economic to grow trees for commercial purposes in the UK – which is not to say that we should not maintain and manage semi-natural woodlands. Commercial forestry exists to supply tax concessions to the wealthy and increasingly to multi-national companies with a by-product of providing shelter for pheasant rearing. What Mark Avery saw in the Flow Country where the trees would often not even properly grow is equally true in the lowlands. The starting and finishing point therefore of any forestry policy as with agricultural policy therefore is the interest of those who pay the piper.
But despite the constraints facing RSPB it has come a long way and has done a lot at least to mitigate the environmental consequences of land-holding. Avery’s book explains and celebrates this progress The hope for Buglife and the other conservation bodies that Avery admires is that their power base is urban not rural. Let us hope it remains that way. Meanwhile I look forward to meeting him on the picket line on August 12th.
– John Bowers, ECOS, December 2012
"There are some websites I try to look at every day. One that is always worth reading is Mark Avery’s blog ‘Standing up for Nature’. A former Director of Conservation with the RSPB, his articles are written with passion and humour, so I was curious to see if he could he sustain his usual quality over 300 pages or more.
The tone is set by the title. This isn’t ‘Managing for Birds’ or ‘Caring for Birds’ or ‘Working-in-Partnership-with-Stakeholders-for-Birds’, although Avery does plenty of all three. It’s ‘Fighting for Birds’. It’s ‘in yer face’ nature conservation. It’s assertive, uncompromising and outspoken. Few prisoners are taken.
It starts slowly with chapters describing Avery’s youth, and his entry into the RSPB. I warmed to this, if only because his memories of ‘Peterson, Mountford and Hollom’, ‘The Selfish Gene’ and ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ are mine also. There are chapters on early experiences in the Flow Country and working with roseate terns. You could be forgiven for thinking this is one of those rather worthy ‘my life with birds’ books.
But it gathers pace with a chapter on the vital importance of sound data for bird conservation, before moving on to nature reserves, climate science, farmland birds and the value of reintroductions. Avery provokes the reader at every turn. Was it right to shoot ruddy ducks? How would a reintroduced white-tailed eagle fair in Norfolk? What was Prince Harry really up to, that evening two hen harriers were shot at Sandringham? Do egg collectors suffer from sexual inadequacy? There’s a lot to ponder.
But despite the combative tone, it’s Avery’s candour that makes him so persuasive. Nobody in nature conservation really thought hen harriers could affect grouse populations. But Avery readily acknowledges that the science is undeniable: they do. As a Labour Party member, he praises Michael Meacher, but also has warm words for John Gummer. The RSPB’s experiment with farming has been a qualified success, but far from plain sailing. At every turn he emphasises being honest with ourselves. In an age when, from climate change to badgers, opinion drives evidence rather than vice versa, this attitude is so refreshing it could make you cry.
It would be hard to make any criticism, but the reintroduction chapter makes no mention of the osprey project 20 miles from Avery’s home which, incidentally, led to the species breeding again in Wales. The section on politics is also a bit thin. It’s so much more complicated than a simple left/right question. What of differing shades, from one-nation Tory to neoliberal Thatcherite? What of the Liberal Democrats, UKIP, the Greens, Plaid Cymru, the SNP, and Northern Ireland parties? Maybe that is another book.
After a delightful ‘light relief’ chapter of anecdotes (my favourite: the opening “Unleash hell!” scene from the film Gladiator was filmed next to the RSPB reserve at Farnham Heath) the book comes to its conclusion on the future. Whether you agree with Avery’s views on a ‘super NGO’ or not, it’s inspiring stuff. His message, that you don’t have to be a victim, that if we choose to be passive then we collude in the environment’s degradation, is compelling.
If you are a young person, maybe starting out on a career in nature conservation, ‘Fighting for Birds’ should be in your induction pack. No one, perhaps except Peter Marren, writes better. But anyone who cares about the future of wildlife in Britain should read this book. And if you enjoy it – and I bet you will – there’s more at markavery.info/blog.
– Andrew Lucas, Natur Cymru, November 2012
"This is a terrific book, and a great read – an account of Mark’s years working with the RSPB but more than just the tale of one man’s work and interests. This is a clear appraisal of many of the conservation issues of recent years and will be invaluable for anyone interested in wildlife, ecology or conservation. Mark is an engaging writer and tells many amusing anecdotes along the way – as a regular reader of his excellent blog I knew that I would enjoy his book, but I was genuinely and pleasantly surprised by the sheer scope of the issues covered here.
The book looks back at conservation work from the last 25 years, but also looks forward to the possible future of organisations such as the RSPB. I found this section particularly interesting, (as an RSPB member), and I feel that I shall be awaiting – and perhaps helping to influence – this future with a much better informed viewpoint than before. Anyone who cares about the future of wildlife conservation in the UK should give this book a try – I will be dipping back into many of the chapters regularly.
I would thoroughly recommend it to everyone, and will be singing its praises at work too – my ecology students would find it very useful! Hopefully I can influence our college library to stock a few copies…."
– Localheroblog, October 2012
"Larger than life, loud, pugnacious and deeply committed to the cause, Mark Avery spent a quarter of a century and almost half his lifetime working tirelessly on behalf of birds for the RSPB. Now, having left that excellent organisation, he is free to speak his mind. And he certainly does that.
Fighting for Birds is part memoir, part history of this crucial period for Britain’s birdlife, part manifesto for the future of bird conservation – and all great fun to read.
It begins with a whistle-stop tour through the author’s early years: schoolboy birding adventures around Avon and Somerset, university expeditions to far-flung places, and frequent visits to his other love, the racecourse. For anyone who hasn’t met the author, this helps them to understand his forthright but deceptively complex character.
But the real meat of the book comes once he has embarked, in his late 20s, on his career at the RSPB. In each chapter he takes a single topic – farmland birds, reintroductions, nature reserves and so on – and burrows deep into the subject. Arguments are laid out, facts and figures are marshalled and colourful anecdotes are told with great enthusiasm.
The result is far more enlightening than a straight chronological approach could provide. Avery also understands that other people may hold different opinions, and is scrupulously fair in giving room to their arguments, though by the end of each chapter you are always well aware of his own deeply held beliefs.
Having read the book, I gained a far greater understanding of the difficult issues facing bird conservationists today: from wind farms to the effects of climate change, and the labyrinthine maze of our political system to the perennial conflict over Hen Harriers and grouse moors – for which, incidentally, he offers an eminently sensible solution which both sides could potentially be happy with.
What also marks this book out is Avery’s eye for a telling phrase to describe a key moment in his life, whether the unusual sight of a Bald Ibis feeding on the corpse of a dog in Morocco, or his silent face-off with Prince Philip – something to do with the mysterious shooting of Hen Harriers at Sandringham, perhaps.
Fighting for Birds is a must read for anyone who cares about the future of birds on this crowded island - a future that, had Mark Avery not pursued a career in conservation, would have looked far bleaker than it does today. For that, he deserves our gratitude."
– Stephen Moss, Birdwatch Magazine, November 2012