Watch the birdie, and pay for the privilege

Nature tourism is a multi-million-pound business. Nicholas Roe thinks that may leave us all poorer
A strangely sad little scene will take place at 2pm every afternoon this winter on a small, damp farm near Rhayader in mid-Wales. Mr Eithel Powell will walk down to his fields to feed some wild birds - and a group of eager tourists will pay pounds 2 a head to watch.

Near Milford Haven trippers are paying pounds 5 each to look at seals on the beach; in Devon they are handing over pounds 22.50 to camp in a wood and watch owls; in Sussex, enthusiasts are parting with pounds 160 to photograph badgers; in Cardigan, they are paying pounds l.50 for a glimpse of otters. And off Scotland's west coast they are spending up to pounds 665 to see whales swimming in the sea.

It would have stunned countryfolk a mere generation ago, but creatures that were once enjoyed for free suddenly have a price on their head. Wildlife has become big business, offering considerable benefits to the environment - but lurking dangers too. The problem is, the dangers may take time to spot.

The theory behind this fast-growing trend is simple. If people will cheerfully pay to see wildlife in the raw (and they will), that helps the countryside in three ways. It spreads the "green" word; it pays for more conservation; and it funnels new cash into hard-pressed rural areas. All highly laudable.

It's working, too. Take Mr Powell's wild birds. In truth, he's a minor cog in a much bigger green machine, because the creatures he feeds are not just any old birds. They are red kites, so rare in Britain that Spanish imports were recently released in the Midlands as a re-stocking measure.

In mid-Wales the birds have a better talon-hold on life, with local protection schemes ensuring that over 300 red kites have survived to swoop over the valleys, to the delight of anyone lucky enough to spot them. Except it's not down to luck any more. A brilliantly imaginative scheme dreamt up between the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and local authorities has taken chance out of the equation. For this purpose, mid-Wales has been renamed `Kite Country'.

On Mr Powell's farm, and elsewhere in the region, you can watch the birds being fed from buckets of raw meat paid for by local butchers. Then you can walk a farm trail, visit a kite centre in a converted barn, and so on. Nearby visitor centres offer glossy kite-facts and closed-circuit TV images of nesting birds. "Hotels and businesses here love it," enthuses Mr Powell. "It'll be one of the best things to have happened to Rhayader."

Indeed. The RSPB estimates that 40,500 visitors to six kite centres between January and July this year put pounds 863,000 into the local economy. "It is something the people want, and when you are striving to interest people in conservation you have to make them visible," says the RSPB's Chris Harbard. "I see the potential of wildlife tourism being exploited more and more in this country. I don't think we can ignore the possibilities."

The financial benefits are clear. Visitors to the RSPB's 130 nature reserves spent an estimated pounds 7.7m back in 1989, and the figure has grown considerably since then. In the Scilly Isles, bird-watching is credited with extending the tourist season by several weeks as twitchers flood in in the autumn. In Scotland, research indicates that 1,200 jobs have been created by wildlife tourism.

It isn't just money, either. Touch a tourist's imagination, and you have a supporter, maybe a member, certainly a political force whenever green issues are raised back home. The people of mid-Wales may even be more inclined to protect kites if they are worth cash (elsewhere the birds have fallen victim to egg-thieves and vandals). Cynics would call it privatisation of the countryside; conservationists would reply that entertainment is a weapon they would be stupid to ignore.

"If you can't beat 'em, join 'em," says Colin Preston, director of the Shropshire Wildlife Trust, which recently joined the rush by launching a new "tourism initiative". For pounds 35 a head, local hotel-owners are fed information that helps them direct guests to the trust's 30 nature reserves. There the guests may glimpse badgers, foxes, birds or wildflowers... and perhaps become members.

Other wildlife trusts are taking similar steps. In Devon, one is charging pounds 22.50 a head for "Wild Nights Out" - camping in woods with an eye to spotting wildlife. Dyfed Wildlife Trust recently began promoting its nature reserve on Skomer Island, west of Milford Haven: see birds, see seals, pay a pounds 5 landing fee. Near Cardigan, the stunning Welsh Wildlife Centre runs all kinds of courses and tours, including a chance to see otters for pounds l.50.

It's happening in Scotland, too. On the Isle of Mull a charity called Sea Life Surveys will take you boating to see minke whales and more, charging pounds 21 for a four-hour trip or pounds 665 for six days. On the north-east coast half a dozen companies will show you dolphins.

In East Sussex and elsewhere, photographer David Hemmings is running wildlife photography courses for pounds 160 a weekend including accommodation, with badger-snapping as the central lure. "One gentleman will fly over from Germany to take part, which amazes me," he says.

All over Britain, then, tourists are touching the countryside in new ways that allow them to take something away (understanding) but also leave something behind (their cash). So what's the problem? All of the organisations listed above go out of their way to take care of their assets. All sorts of codes of conduct have been drawn up to keep a decent distance between timorous wildlife and leering tripper.

The problem has nothing to do with individual enterprises: it is the implications of the trend that are worrying. First of all, rural areas have seized this promotional opportunity so eagerly - the Wales Tourist Board, for instance, is helping to fund the kite project - because they have little else with which to sustain small communities. Rural Britain has been stripped of its economic strength, so for many areas it's kites or nothing. A pessimist might also point out that Britain makes tourist attractions of anything it is about to lose: heavy industry, grand houses, mining...

Secondly, the fact that it's now worth paying to see wildlife merits a moment of regret. Mr Powell's bird-feeding performance will be seen by an estimated 10,000 visitors over the next 12 months, which must say something depressing about wildlife's rarity value.

And what does this suggest about the future? Wildlife tourism can be useful only up to a certain point, beyond which it may actually destroy everything it seeks to conserve, despite the best intentions of those pushing things along at present.

It's not just the presence of the animals themselves that make viewing birds, badgers, otters and so on such a vivid pleasure; it is the whole, complete context of landscape, wildlife and isolation. So watch out. If we all end up plodding round otter trails led by an expert with a ranger's hat on, we may succumb to the illusion that this is wilderness. And it won't be. We will have lost that, too.