Letter: Why bird-watchers must feather their own nests

Sir: Malcolm Smith ('After 200 years, we still need you, Rev White', 21 June) reports Professor Bob May's suggestion that too much effort in wildlife recording is devoted to birds, to the detriment of other animals and plants. While, as a snail enthusiast, I have some sympathy with that view, it must be pointed out that the conclusion of the seminar that Professor May was addressing was that the extremely limited resources available should not be spread more thinly.

Information gathered about birds provides cost-effective indicators of the general state of the nation's wildlife and its environment. For example, the British Trust for Ornithology's Common Birds Census and its New Atlas of Breeding Birds show comprehensive declines in farmland bird populations and contraction in their distributions over the past two decades.

These indicate, more clearly than any other work, that farmland continues to deteriorate as a wildlife habitat.

This information is obtained at minimal cost, partly because the statutory conservation agencies only provide part of the professional costs of running the surveys and partly because each professional man-hour supports about 20 man-hours from unpaid volunteers. This huge volunteer input available for bird-based studies cannot be matched for other animals or plants.

Another reason for not deflecting resources away from birds is that the value of monitoring data depends largely on its continuity. The decades of information that we have amassed on the numbers, distribution, breeding output and survival rates of British birds are what enable the current and future monitoring of birds - and their uses as indices for wildlife more generally - to be so effective. Any break in that continuity would be tragic. Conservationists in those many countries around the world that envy the British programme for monitoring birds would rightly conclude that those responsible had taken leave of their senses.

Finally, what of democracy? Would the million supporters of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds be pleased if monies essential for continued proper monitoring of birds were diverted into my other interest, the snails? They would not.

The problem, in short, is not that birds get too big a slice of the cake but that the cake is too small. John Major has signed the Biodiversity Convention.

I believe he should put our money where his mouth is.

Yours faithfully,



British Trust for




21 June

(Photograph omitted)