Of bird watching, flyways and climate change: reflections on the Global Bird Fair 

The Global Bird Fair

A very long time ago – 1996 to be exact- I had just finished my PhD and was facing the abyss that most newly minted PhDs face: no academic job to go to. I needed to pay the bills, so straight after my PhD I got a job doing data entry for a local newspaper in Morecambe. The work itself was not particularly interesting but I really liked the people I was working with; several of them were keen bird watchers, and they spoke enthusiastically about Morecambe Bay as a brilliant birding site. Before too long I found myself stuffing binoculars and sandwiches into my bag in order to spend my lunch hour watching sanderlings racing up and down the shoreline, or huge flocks of knot speeding across the water, perilously close to the waves.

Then earlier this month, on Friday 15th July, I found myself once again surrounded by committed bird enthusiasts at the Global Bird Fair in its new home, the Rutland Show Ground (more on that later). It was a happy atmosphere, and as the attendees were milling about I overheard more than one exhibitor say to another that they were so glad to be back at the fair to meet in person. Looking around, the Global Bird Fair was part trade show, part festival, part conference and part reunion. 

The Global BirdFair as conference

I immersed myself in talks from a vast range of people and organisations, all trying in different ways to conserve the birds they loved. The talks were held in darkened marquees – so when they finished I would blunder out in a blinding sunshine to find the next venue. There were some great highlights. Roger Safford from Birdlife International set out why finding lost species was important. If a certain type of bird is thought to be extinct because it has not been observed in the wild, why should we continue to look for them? Lost species matter because every species matters in its own right. He made the important but overlooked point that international expeditions to find lost birds were not really needed, instead expertise on the ground was so good that it was more effective to ask local birding clubs and people who live near bird habitats if they had heard or seen a particular bird.  

Wenceslas Gatarbirwa from RSPB presented his work on the East Atlantic Flyway, emphasising that conserving specific sites was helpful but not enough. Instead he pointed out the importance of connectivity between sites for highly migratory species like curlew sandpiper and  black tailed godwit, which move annually between breeding grounds in the Arctic and wintering grounds from Southern Europe to the southern tip of Africa. 

Carles Carboneras from RSPB talked about the impact of the contentious turtle dove hunting ban in Europe. Researchers are still trying to understand why the population of turtle doves in Europe declined rapidly in 2007. Unsustainable and/or illegal hunting were part of the explanation but the biggest driver of ongoing declines has been habitat loss, including intensification of agriculture. The hunting moratorium has allowed turtle dove numbers to stabilise across most of Europe, but they continue to decline in the UK. Therefore, conservation efforts need to address these complex and underlying reasons for declines, including the ways that some forms of agriculture are practised.

I admit I left Nigel Marvin’s talk after 10 minutes, the patronising tone about people living with wildlife in Guatemala coupled with a completely unnecessary entry on to stage with his pet snake was just too much for me. The less said the better. 

The Global BirdFair as trade show

There was an astonishing amount of stuff to buy. There was a whole marquee dedicated to bird art, which ranged from wire sculptures to stunning paintings to wood carvings. An even bigger marquee contained the optics section – a bewildering array of binoculars, digiscopes, monoculars and tripods. People were trying them out, looking across the fields of Leicestershire to test their effectiveness. NGOs like WWF, Wildlife and Wetlands Trust and Birdlife International (amongst others) were there to show case their work and gain memberships. But it was the presence of the travel industry which was most noticeable. The official tourism organisations of the Falklands, Costa Rica, Montenegro, Ecuador and Peru had large stalls with staff encouraging birders to explore what they had to offer as tourist destinations. There were also several nature-based or ecotourism operators, many of them offering very high end and bespoke tours for bird watching; potential customers were greeted with billboards, brochures and videos advertising packages to appeal to those interested in wildlife: exhortations to see birds and bears, explore rainforests or experience safaris with birding and the Big 5. Different kinds of tours were on offer, including ones that sought to reassure prospective travellers that they could watch from comfortable hides and stay in luxury accommodation. It was clear that there were a lot of high end tour operators there. 

But this raises a fundamental issue at the heart of global nature-based tourism. It is promoted by operators and tourism agencies as a means of conserving wildlife – by ensuring nature protection ‘pays its way’. I have written about the problems with this market-based approach to conservation in the past, so I won’t rehearse the arguments here. There is no getting away from the issue that this high end birding is a form of nature-based tourism which is underpinned by a reliance on long haul flights, at a time when many conservation organisations and climate campaigners (including bird conservationists) are also encouraging us all to fly less (or not at all). The Global Bird Fair coincided with the week that the UK sweltered in an unprecedented heatwave, registering a new record temperature of 40.3°C (smashing the 2019 record of 38.7°C). Climate change was referred to in several of the talks as a driver of bird losses, and was a key theme in talks by Kieran Lawrence and Ceri Levy.  And yet, a carbon-intensive tourism industry was central to the Global Bird Fair. For me this conjured up an image of the proverbial killing of the goose that lays a golden egg (and a bird proverb seems especially apt). The reliance of carbon intensive tourism was raised by the previous hosts, the Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust, which ended its association with the (then) Bird Fair in 2021 citing the climate crisis and the high carbon footprint of the fair as one of several reasons for the decision. Hence it was reborn as Global Birdfair this year, with the Rutland Showground as its new home. 

The possibilities for, and importance of, low carbon birding is the subject of an upcoming book edited by Dr Javier Caletrío. Anyone interested in wildlife watching has to confront the carbon footprint at the heart of some forms of international nature-based tourism, birders included. It is even more important for the companies themselves, for wildlife conservation and bird NGOs and for organisers of big events to do more to ensure they address the impacts of their business model on wildlife. More locally based birding, and tours that use more sustainable forms of ground transportation, can address this. Thinking back to those days when I sat on Morecambe Bay in my lunch hour, I was freezing but still determined. Little did I realise I was practising low carbon birding, and the sight of the spectacular winter migrations will stay with me forever.