The RSPB 50 years on

February 3, 2022

One day this week I reached a personal milestone, and the following day I reached another. On 31 January, after...

One day this week I reached a personal milestone, and the following day I reached another. On 31 January, after 14,014 days, or 2,002 weeks, or 38 years 128 days, I retired from the RSPB. By sheer fluke, the very next day marked 18,263 days – exactly 50 years – since I signed up as an RSPB member. The fluke was due to the fact that I was supposed to have retired a year ago, but Covid-19 intervened. Back from the Brink, the species recovery partnership programme I had been working on since 2016, was extended by a year, and I decided (instantly) to stay on.

Unlike at No. 10 Downing Street, RSPB leaving dos are currently on-line. I hadn’t prepared a speech, but I had prepared a visual aid: a copy of Birds – as the (bimonthly) RSPB magazine was called in those days – dated January/February 1972. Reading it the first time round was a life-changing experience. These days, for any reasonably bright 14 year-old to be as ignorant about conservation as I was seems inconceivable. As a keen naturalist I probably knew more about the subject than most of my peers, but I don’t recall it featuring at any point during my state school education.

RSPB Birds magazine January and February 1972

Reading the 1972 magazine again for the first time in decades was to bring back vivid memories of an eye-opening two hours during which I decided that there was only one career for me. At the back of the magazine were three classified job adverts. The National Trust wanted Assistant Male Wardens for the Farne Islands, while the RSPB was looking for an Editor (setting out what “he or she” was expected to do) and an Assistant Education Officer to “carry out an investigation … to determine how the Society can best make an effective impact at secondary school level.” For me, it dispelled my wondering whether conservationists actually get paid, and also suggested that I was to be among the last teenagers to have grown up so ignorant of the plight of our natural world.

Chemical contamination and estuary airports – then and now

After seven pages of adverts (Barbour jackets £12.80 plus 29p P&P; 3 weeks guided safari in Zambia and Botswana £475), RSPB Director Peter Conder’s Comment calls for a statutory ban on DDT and other organochlorines. He condemns the lack of interest from government and the “back-sliding, foot-dragging and counter-lobbying” of the industry. Fast forward 50 years: last week Cardiff University reported the accumulation of what they called “toxic forever chemicals” in otters, specially perfluoroakyl substances or PFASs, used in a wide range of domestic products including non-stick utensils and food packaging. In an exact repeat of 50 years earlier, limited voluntary restrictions are in place but, unlike several other European countries, the UK has no statutory restrictions.

Elsewhere in the same issue of Birds there was correspondence about the plan to build a third London airport on the outer Thames estuary at Foulness Island. This was not one of the various Boris Island airport proposals of the early 2000s, but they all serve as a reminder that grandiose vanity schemes will always trump wildlife considerations if the RSPB and other organisations don’t keep up their decades of continuous vigilance.

Reporting on the AGM that had taken place the previous September, Birds quotes the outgoing Chairman of Council, Stanley Cramp. ‘Since I have been Chairman,’ Cramp announced after six years in the role, ‘membership has risen from 31,000 to 71,000. It can and it will, I believe, reach 100,000 very soon.’

He was right. The sixth and final Birds of that year was a special edition with twice as many pages, many of them in colour. It had been brought out to mark the passing of that milestone. Stanley Cramp’s AGM speech had in fact ended with the even more optimistic view that ‘many of us think a quarter of a million is not impossible.’

Eleven years and 230 days after reading those words, I arrived for my first day at the RSPB’s Sandy, Bedfordshire HQ, by which time membership had reached 390,000 and has more than trebled since.

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