My Twitter timeline has seen a lot more activity under the banner of "low carbon birding" recently. I have debated getting involved, a few tweets here and there but so far nothing substantial. It is very hard to know what to say, what to do. Before I expand please know that I have the utmost respect for all those who are trying their best to spread the message of low carbon birding. The science is undeniable and the message is critical. Forget Brexit, forget COVID, forget the rise of fraudulent right wing sheisters who seem to have taken over the asylum, the state of the planet trumps all of this. This is not a personal attack on any low carbon birders, especially those few who have been courageous enough to stand up to be counted, so please forgive me in advance if it comes across like that. I have tried my best but inevitably it will appear to reflect on them. Neither do I want to be castigated or dismissed as an unbeliever. I have simply been doing a lot of cogitating and feel compelled to point out what I think are a few home truths that I think have not yet seen sufficient light of day and that deserve more consideration when thinking about how to embrace low carbon birding. Largely this is about practicality and a diminished experience. My main point is that for a large majority of the population low carbon birding means expensive, inconvenient and unaffordable birding. It means birding that is incompatible with regular employment and annual leave. Or it means limited birding, never see a wader birding, boring birding. And in some circumstances it has the potential to mean no birding at all.
There is a lot to talk about. Before we even get to the spectre of international birding travel I want to start with the UK. In this country lots of people live in cities. Generally my belief is that for many city dwellers there will be at least some green space within walking distance, and certainly within cycling distance. The quality of that green space will vary wildly, and with it the type and quality of birding that you can legitimately say is on your doorstep. Low carbon birding influencers would do well to remember that. You may get very good at Starlings and Corvids and little else, or you may luck out with habitat that is more interesting and thus get a decent selection of migrants during spring and autumn, but wherever your urban patch sits on the scale of good to bad large elements of the UK birding experience simply don't happen in cities. Spectacles of mass wildfowl and waders, large flocks of things like Linnet and Snow Bunting, or farmland birds like Corn Bunting and Yellowhammer. If you live in London like I do there are two obvious places where you will be able to expand the range of birds and habitats that your regular urban patch does not have - Rainham Marshes RSPB on the east side and the WWT Wetland Centre at Barnes on the west. They're good, a most welcome change if your regular option is a local park where a Wigeon is a rarity. If I want to go to Rainham it's a 27 minute journey by car. If I take public transport it is 1hr 10m which is not too bad, and if I want to risk my life cycling the A13 it will also be 1hr 10m. But as good as these places are in a local context they're not what I would call representative of the finest of UK birding. Don't misunderstand me - birding can be very rewarding close to home, even in cities. Common birds take on new meaning, and if you have the mentality and stamina for it then you may be perfectly content to wander the urban patch for day after day. That feeling of elation when the one and only Kittiwake I've seen where I live flew over was pretty intense. I know this and I enjoy it, I have reached a stage in my birding journey where the local patch is a special place and where I am pretty content. But it is not for everyone and I also know, having sampled it, that I am missing out on a much larger and richer birding experience. Thousands of Kittiwakes. And indeed some proponents of low carbon birding insist that I should miss out. Bad luck, stay local. But if you find the constant reports of fabulous birding from the coast too much to bear and you feel that you want a slice of the action even if briefly, then you are going to need to go to the birds as they are not coming to you. How can you do so whilst still following the ethos of low carbon birding? Here are two examples.
Note that in order for this blog post to be even vaguely readable I have put the supporting information into appendices which need not be read if time is not on your side. So Example 1 matches with Appendix 1 etc. Same with the post I have planned on birding abroad.
Example 1 - London to Norfolk day trip
The north Norfolk coast is not the easiest place to get to, but I think it is a realistic example as many quality birding sites are a bit out of the way. A sample low carbon journey for me to get to and from sites on the north Norfolk coast will take me 11 hours on 4 tubes, 6 trains and 4 buses, cost £69.10 before I have bought a sandwich, and I won't get there until mid morning or arrive home before midnight. I don't find that an attractive proposition, but if it was a choice of that or slogging round my local park seeing nothing again then maybe I would. I can't see that it would ever be much quicker so the inconvenience tag is here to stay, but the cost is bordering on prohibitive and that needs to change. That is the purview of Governments and this blog post is not about that. It is about the here and now of changing how you go birding, and the bottom line is that if I want a classic UK birding day out then there is no getting around it being an expensive slog.
Example 2 - A weekend at Spurn
What about a weekend of rarity hunting? Or pre-emptive twitching if you want to call it that. Where better than Spurn and that amazing section of the Yorkshire coast? I want to experience the potential magic and excitement of a classic fall weekend on the east coast, the weather charts look incredible, why should I be denied and just have to read about it vicariously online? I'll go I think, I deserve it. The low carbon way to get to Spurn using trains and buses costs £162.80 and requires time spent in transit of 29 hours. If time was more important to me than money I could reduce this to about 11 hours at a cost of £272.80. The carbon footprint is the same. Again, should public transport be this expensive? Of course not, but it is. If a city dweller wants a weekend at a brilliant migration hotspot for as little carbon as possible then this is an example of the cost today. It's not one I am prepared to pay so I'll stay home and see nothing on my inland patch again.
My point here is not that cars are cheap and convenient and that trains and buses are expensive and less convenient. Everyone already knows that, even if they don't know the actual numbers. I hardly ever drive anywhere these days, our car sits on the driveway for the vast majority of the time. My point is more that if you don't live somewhere inherently birdy, no matter how much local exploration you undertake and how many wonderful wildlife discoveries you make close to your home, you are going to be missing out on a richness of birding and habitats that will blow your blinkered urban mind. And it seems to me that a lot of the low carbon birding articles I have been reading lately don't focus on that enough. In a sense that is right - don't focus on what you can't have, or at least not without a massive hassle. Focus instead on what you can have, on easy sustainable alternatives. But so many of these pieces are written by people who have for many years experienced the sublime magic of these places, or indeed now live within striking distance of them, that in a way I find it quite selfish to hear that people who may not ever have done so, or whose local birding experience is so vastly different should be told to look elsewhere for their wildlife thrills. An advocacy of self-denial from those who have not in the past denied themselves and more importantly don't need to now. Living in a city and reading a coastal birder extolling the virtues of local birding is a bit of a kick in the teeth. So many people can't ever have that. Empathy in the context of a lecture is not an easy thing to do, and whilst some of what I have read is very balanced and extremely self aware, some of it feels downright hypocritical. I will freely admit I couldn't pull it off.
There are no easy answers here. I think we all know that if we all continue tearing around the country every weekend to go birding then we are contributing to the decline of the birds we profess to love. Twitching in particular comes in for a lot of stick, with a focus on the pointless nature of competitive listing - unfortunately I think it is so engrained within the UK birding culture (of old) that I don't see it stopping any time soon. So does year-listing which is just a different version of the same thing, with repeated journeys just to see that annual Redstart or Wryneck or whatever. I have in the past done both of course. But what about people for whom there is almost no chance of quality birding where they live, and who enjoy the thrill of rare birds or of migration more generally? Are they to be denied this pleasure? And moreover to be told how awful they are by somebody who lives on the east coast and has a wealth of opportunity five minutes from their doorstep? It could be that I am missing the point. In fact I think I might be. The message is don't try and replicate what has been done in the past, that era is over, what's done is done and PS sorry you missed it. The message is that if you truly love wildlife then you have no choice in the matter, you need to forget about any historic birding life you may or may not have had and instead embrace a new way of birding that does not involve frivolous journeys on carbon intensive modes of transport. And here are some of those alternatives that actually are not that bad after all from a few of us that have tried them. Yes, maybe it is as simple as that.
I have made many changes to my lifestyle that I have already written about, all of them intended to reduce consumption, including the type of birding that I do. None of it was very hard, albeit that 2020 has made at least some of it a lot easier for me than it might otherwise have been. Almost all of my birding is local and on foot, and has been for a while now. But I have a high amount of travel under my belt over the last four years, and I was quite taken with UK listing for about eight years before that. So either I am exactly the right person to advocate change, or I am precisely the wrong person. The reason I am undecided is that the low carbon birding movement has a tendency to rub me up the wrong way and my concern is that despite broadly agreeing with the message no matter how hard I tried I would basically do exactly the same thing.
Anyway, the above musings largely cover my current feelings on the UK birding low carbon birding debate. It needs to be talked about. It needs to be acted upon. For my own part I am more-or-less able to cope with the limits that a low UK carbon footprint necessarily imposes on me, but the only reasons I can are because my patch just about sustains me in what I need from birding, and also it's not like I have never drunk from the blessed cups of places like the north Norfolk coast and Spurn (and a lot more besides). My gripes are that there are large sections of the UK population who are going to be miles away from even my relatively slim-pickings geographical location or who have never experienced the glory of the birding meccas, or perhaps both, and that their birding well-being and horizons are not being adequately considered. And when this is frequently coupled with a low carbon birding lectern occupied by converts for whom the sacrifice of giving up travelling to see birds does not appear to mean remotely the same thing as it does for many other people, I think that this dilutes and weakens the message that so badly needs to get through. You could just say I'm jealous.
Up next - and I have to say is dependent on the reaction to this post, if I just get a load of 'denier' abuse then forget it - will be my feelings on birding abroad in a low carbon manner, which in many cases and based on some basic research I have done will mean not birding abroad at all, which then takes me right back here.
Appendix 1: London to Norfolk
In a car it will take a couple of hours and the fuel will cost around £30 - pretty cheap, especially if you can find a few like-minded people to share the cost (masks on!), and whilst it is not the most carbon efficient way to get there it is probably not that bad. However it is generally accepted that trains have the lowest carbon emissions of all the traditional forms of public transport, so let's look at that as it is likely perfectly possible albeit will take longer and will probably be more expensive. How much longer and how much more expensive I didn't actually know, so in the spirit of wanting to be factual I have found out. I'll need to leave the house at around 0445, so probably not dissimilar to when I would leave by car. It is the weekend so night tubes are running (or they would be without COVID), and I need to take two to get to the station at a cost of £2.80. Leaving from Kings Cross at 0542 I get to Ely at 0700. I leave Ely at 0707 and arrive at Norwich at 0813. At 0821 I get the train to Sheringham which arrives at 0922, and from there I get the Coasthopper bus which will take me right past Cley arriving at 1004. The total journey time is 4h 23m, so roughly double the car journey. What about cost? Well, an off-peak return is £59.50 (standard tickets are £58.50 each way on the day, although I did find a much cheaper return leg that was only £17), and the Coasthopper costs £2 each way. Assuming I book that off-peak return then the cost of a day on the coast is just under £70. That's over double the cost of driving, even driving by yourself (car ownership costs not withstanding), but it is not as prohibitively expensive as I thought it would be. Equally I struggle to call it cheap, but as a carbon friendly option the premium over and above the cost of driving is not awful. As a special treat and to get in some birding that a city dweller simply can't get locally it might be worth it. You have to accept that you won't be there for first light, but it is still possible to have a day on the coast and fill your boots with waders and so on. 11 hours on public transport and you get back home at 12.30am, but possible. BTW, a young person with a railcard for whom public transport is the only option might find this perfectly OK and for them the cost is 'only' £49.
Appendix 2: London to Spurn
London to Spurn takes about 4 hours in a car. Double the time and nearly double the cost of a trip to Norfolk, at £55. The closest you can get to it by train is Hull, followed by two local buses. Making a weekend of it by train realistically means leaving on Friday night rather than Saturday morning, but for city dweller for whom this is the only option let's assume I'm fine with that - another night in the B&B adds to the cost but what is £30? An anytime return is absurd at £248, but luckily there are cheaper options with single tickets. The cheapest Kings Cross train leaves at 1933 on Friday evening and gets me to Hull at 2213 for £31. There are no buses at this time of day, so I'll have to hole up in Hull for the night and get the first bus the following morning which leaves at 0646, has one change, and gets me to Easington at 0855, a 2hr 8m journey. This costs £19.20 return, and I need to be back on it at 1805 on Sunday to make the train. This is prohibitively expensive at £124, but gets me home on Sunday evening - I leave Hull at 2029, and travel via Goole and Doncaster arriving at Kings Cross at 0014. If that is too expensive there is an option for me to leave on Monday morning at 0530 which arrives back in London at 0830 for £47, plus a second £30 overnight stay. I would have to go straight to work but it is doable. So the cheapest and most low carbon option will have set me back £102.80 plus two nights extra accommodation for £60. This includes the two tube tickets I also need to buy, and the time spent on public transport is about 11 and a half hours, so not actually that dissimilar to the trip to Norfolk. However the actual travel time is more like 29 hours due to the two overnight stays required. Note this is the cost directly associated with travel, the Saturday night stay that either method requires is not included. Fancy it? Didn't think so.