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Fighting for Birds

By: Stephen Moss
Posted on: 29 Oct 2012First Published: November 2012 issue of Birdwatch magazine

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.

         Fighting for Birds by Mark Avery (Pelagic Publishing, Exeter, 2012)

         336 pages

         ISBN 9781907807299. Pbk, £12.99.Birdwatch Bookshop from £11.99

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