Patch-work Quilt

Countryside near White Horse hill, Oxfordshire. In need of patch champions?

Birding a local patch. It’s the in thing. In an age when good environmentalists like us suffer from ever increasing carbon footprint angst, it’s hard to justify petrol-fueled listing mania. Nurturing a patch is like tending a garden, too, or so I’m told – over time, your relationship with it will grow, and it may reward you with untold wonders. Perhaps you’ll find a mega rarity, and the kingdom, the power, and the glory will be yours. For five minutes or so. The ‘Urban Birder’ David Lindo is pretty evangelical about the subject, probably because his patch, Wormwood Scrubs in west London, has hosted 138 species since 1980, including little and Ortolan buntings, a Richard’s pipit which I believe he found himself, and such London oddities as oystercatcher, whimbrel and white-fronted goose. Not too shabby. I suppose birds in that part of the country have few other places to go, so that does make things somewhat easier.

I’ve moved around rather too often in the last few years to develop a patch of my own that sizzles with excitement in quite the same way, but in North Hampshire I think I’ve hit a little gold mine. I haven’t been around here for long, but my patch list already boasts rough-legged buzzard, long-eared owl, red kite, stone curlew, quail, wheatear, yellow wagtail, lapwing and golden plover. I cheated a little bit by adopting it after seeing those first two rather fantastic birds, but it is only a few miles away, so I think I’m justified in claiming it. My even more local patch just outside the village has healthy populations of linnets, yellowhammers and house sparrows, and red kites are again frequent visitors. We’ve seen barn owls, hares, bats and stoats around the village and lanes. In other words, wildlife here can be pretty brilliant, and I’d be surprised if any random part of the country didn’t host something worth looking at.
This might seem irrelevant for a moment, but bear with me. Each year, the UK government subsidizes the manufacture and export of arms to the tune of around £700 million. That’s not the most incredible sum of money, believe it or not, in government spending terms; the NHS budget is at least £100 billion a year. And it’s only £12 per UK resident per year. But compare that to the sorts of new funding for nature conservation announced in this year’s government white paper on the environment – for example, £7.5 million over three years for new ‘nature improvement areas’ – and it begins to look somewhat larger.

You may disagree with me comprehensively, but I’m quite convinced of the arguments against government-sponsored international arms trading. I won’t rehearse them here. But imagine for a moment that £700 million was reallocated to poor old underfunded conservation. For every square kilometer of Britain, that would be roughly £3000. Let’s say that Natural England had decided to use this sudden windfall to fund a nationwide network of nature protection officers, each given responsibility for, I don’t know, 15 square kilometers. That’s about ten Whiteknights campuses. They’d campaign for wildlife locally, working with NGOs where necessary, but taking a more ground-up, small-is-beautiful approach. A band of cuddly but well-trained conservation scientists, singing the praises of their patch and keeping a professional eye on its non-human residents, advising landowners, enthusing local human residents to engage with and value the nature around them. I don’t see why ministers shouldn’t go for it – seems to me to tick a lot of fashionable localism boxes.

Of course, what I’ve outlined is probably unworkable, poorly targeted, and generally ill thought through (though I wouldn’t object to the sudden creation of 16,240 jobs. Perhaps my maths has gone awry somewhere!) But as a country, thinking outside of the conservation box has to be necessary – nature conservation often seems hotchpotch, full of internal contradictions, and often, on the face of it, ineffective. Perhaps the conflicting motivations of each and every individual involved in conservation, and by extension the organisations they work for, makes this inevitable. And in fairness, the sheer weight of numbers in the RSPB, for example, gives them impressive clout when speaking up for nature, which they do, in my humble opinion, very well and with increasing impact – and in collaboration with others, like Butterfly Conservation. Anyway, you should read Mark Avery’s recent blog instead, plus the comments, for an interesting debate on the state of UK conservation NGOs, so I’ll move on.

What I was attempting to say here, and I thank you, dear readers, for sticking with me (it’s OK, I’ll go back to recounting tales of birding derring-do next time and leave out the politics), is that perhaps there is a lesson in the ‘patch’ birding approach for conservation. Sometimes I wonder if we aren’t so busy doing whatever is the conservation equivalent of twitching a Baird’s sandpiper that we miss what’s under our noses – that at its most basic wildlife conservation is about people going outside, engaging with wildlife, thinking it is fantastic, and because they think it’s fantastic, coming back and doing something about it. So why not do that? Why not enlist a whole load of those enthusiasts to look after wildlife on behalf of everybody else? Considering where I’d like to get the money from, I’ll call them the wildlife army. Throw in a ‘red’, as it’s probably a very socialist approach. Chris’ Wildlife Red Army – CWRA – recruiting soon in a poorly allocated 15 square kilometer tetrad near you.

For me, even as I’m out and about pretending to twitch sandpipers in order to see wrynecks, looking for my 200th UK species of the year, or whatever, I do wonder whether I wouldn’t find proper immersion in the fantastic wildlife on my doorstep more fulfilling, less frustrating, and in the long run, a more important contribution to scientific knowledge. Even the most diehard of twitchers probably feels the same way sometimes – as fascinating and thrilling as it is to chase all the nearctic goodies descending on us in the wake of a few autumn storms. So I’ll add my voice to the chorus: find a patch, love it, cherish it, defend it, and let people like the BTO know what lives there. And if the government could see their way to make my Chris’ army dream a reality, that would be nice. I quite fancy being Major Chris. Who knows: perhaps I’ll even earn enough to have spare change for the odd long-range birding expedition at the weekend. You know. Just as a hobby.

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