By Nick Acheson
Life is all about irony; nowhere more so than in our relationship with nature. In the UK we cast ourselves as nature-lovers when — demonstrably, if we would only stop to look — we have harried nature so successfully from the landscape that she cowers only in forgotten corners. There’s a double irony to being a naturalist and, more particularly, a birder: sometimes the very act of watching the birds we love is destructive.
My own story with birds is one of extraordinary good fortune. I grew up in North Norfolk, went to school in Holt and was taken under the wing of a wonderful biology teacher (still among my best friends) with whom we would make the short journey to Cley each week. Ours was a school birdwatching club for which semipalmated and broad-billed sandpipers, tawny pipit, Leach’s storm-petrel, golden oriole, red-footed falcon and Montagu’s harrier were perfectly normal birds to see on a Saturday morning. In the third year of my undergraduate degree I moved to southern France, between the Camargue and Crau, where I fell deeply for pin-tailed sandgrouse, little bustard and southern grey shrike. At the end of my M.Sc. I moved to Bolivia where for a decade I worked on a range of projects related to wildlife and conservation.
It was only by accident that I began to lead wildlife holidays. I worked in remote northeast Bolivia, in a little-explored national park, where I saw my first jaguar, giant anteater, giant armadillo, maned wolf, pink river dolphin, and countless birds of Amazonia and the Brazilian Shield. Because I spoke Spanish and English, and happened to know the wildlife, I was asked by park authorities to lead a visiting group of donors. I did; and then I was asked to lead more. Next I was asked by overseas companies to lead their birding groups round Bolivia. When I left Bolivia I was asked to lead elsewhere, so I suggested India, which I knew well. This went wonderfully and soon I was working right around the world, on seven continents, sharing wildlife with people.
Though leading bird tours wholly cured me of listing, I saw a huge chunk of the world’s landscapes, seascapes, mammals and birds, and I felt richly privileged. I also amassed a vast carbon footprint.
Arguments in favour of wildlife tourism are presented — and comprehensively countered — elsewhere on this website. My aim is not to defend the fact that for years I roamed all over the globe and — in return for looking after sometimes very demanding clients — I had an absurdly privileged relationship with the world’s wildlife. I often fretted over my heinous carbon debt, but persuaded myself I was doing the right thing, with all the usual arguments rehearsed in favour of wildlife tourism. I wanted more to be achieved for wildlife by my tours and shifted to a company I saw as greener and more ethical, asking that my tours should directly raise money for conservation. I excused myself too with the — true, but self-deluding — fact that, as a ruthlessly minimalist vegan, my environmental impacts were limited when compared to many westerners’.
I need to say here that I have decent, ethical friends who still believe that wildlife tourism is a tool in the preservation of nature, a significant contributor to the economic defence of wild spaces and wild species, including some friends who have devoted their entire careers to conservation.
I can see their point. However, the weight of my actions came to crush me more heavily with every tour. I would sit on yet another long-haul flight, watching hundreds of people tearing into plastic packaging, using disposable items for mere seconds, while collectively we pumped literal tons of carbon into the atmosphere. We would then stay in temples of consumerism, often wildly at odds with the poverty of a nation’s people. We would casually board internal flights to reach remote — allegedly pristine — wilderness, in order to see, to experience, to persuade ourselves we were alive.
I broke at last when I began to read more seriously about the climate crisis. Naive as it sounds, I’ve always tried to align my actions with my ethics. I declared as a child I would be vegetarian. I later became vegan. I’ve volunteered and worked for wildlife NGOs since my teens. And here I was presented with the blunt, brutal fact that we were hurtling at ever greater speed towards a climate crisis, to which I was contributing, which would — inarguably — tip our world into famine, extreme weather, unrest, desertification, mass migration, habitat destruction and species loss on a scale we have barely begun to conceive. The facts are clear, the scientific models speak in unison: unless we drastically and immediately cut our greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity as we know it is done for, and human life will be immeasurably crueller, especially for those who are already vulnerable.
It is always the redeemed convert who is the most irritatingly zealous. In the space of a year I gave up leading overseas tours. I could no longer bring myself even to drive the short distance to the coast to watch wildlife. Then — among the many ironies of 2020 — lockdown came. It kept me forcibly in one place, on foot, for months, during which I witnessed a miraculous spring. Though ten miles inland, for two weeks I saw ring ouzels every day. I sat late at night listening to teal, wigeon and common scoter migrating over my garden. I walked in the dark, hearing tawny owls, barn owls, little owls and woodcock. One of Roy Dennis’ white-tailed eagles flew over my house with a buzzard up its tail. One of Pensthorpe’s corncrakes settled in a meadow nearby and could be heard from my bed. All ten of my local-breeding warblers brought their voices back to my little Norfolk valley. When strict lockdown ended, I had my mum’s forty-year-old bike repaired and began to roam a little farther.
Despite close family shielding from COVID, despite being entirely alone for months, despite worries over work and income: for the first time in many years I was truly home. Home among the birds and other wildlife with which I grew up.
Strangely though, of all my comings out — gay, vegan, tree hugger, rescuer of hopeless animals — the one about which I most often feel judged — as woke, virtue-signalling, holier than thou — is giving up flying, giving up driving to see birds. Because it poses, I suppose, the biggest cognitive threat to a deeply entrenched way we have of loving wildlife: of acquiring ever wilder fixes of birds and wildlife.
Yet if we continue to love wildlife in this way we will facilitate the death of biodiversity. If ever there was a time of reckoning — a time to accept that the act of watching wildlife does not itself equate to doing good for wildlife — it is now. It is beyond time that we lovers of the wild became witnesses of the climate crisis and acted in accordance. And that we brought our birding home.