Friday 11 September 2020

The limits of low carbon birding in the UK

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.


  1. You're highlighting the dilemma that we should all be struggling with and finding our own answers. Some thoughts in no particular order. We need to change. we need to change fast. We need to change faster than most of us want to change. Most of us are resistant to change. Longer term we need to reverse habitat declines and green cities and urban areas to improve the diversity of birds we can see locally. The last point presents a huge challenge that we are a million miles from grasping currently. Politically we need to see cheaper public transport, massively cheaper. We need lower carbon alternatives to enable personal travel.
    Personally I've almost stopped twitching outside my home county, two birds only this year, both combined with other journeys, eg kid playing football away and a day's walking with the squeeze. I've flown twice in 4 years, both short haul, neither specifically for birding, though like any diligent birder, I've seen birds whilst at the destinations.
    We need to have these conversations, recognise the challenges and issues and look for solutions, alternatives, different options, better ways of doing what we enjoy. It isn't going to be easy and as has happened with Covid some of the changes that happen will come about as consequences of other events/changes/consequences.

    1. Thanks Alan, good to hear from you. There is so much to do, so much to change. I do worry that all our small changes are utterly inconsequential, but that writ large from thousands up thousands of us it could add up to be meaningful. Ultimately there needs to global contrition and global affirmative action. Unfortunately I don't see that happening as short term gain appears to outweigh everything.

  2. As ever, Jonathan, an articulate and well-reasoned post. As bland and boring as it may sound, I think it's a question of balance. Tearing around the country every weekend to add ticks to a list should probably be discouraged. As should flying to Hawaii or Florida for a couple of days' birding/photography. But if someone spends most of their time locally and tries, as your family has done, to reduce their carbon footprint as much as possible, then I don't see the problem in that person deciding to have the occasional day out somewhere new, or a weekend in North Norfolk or Spurn, or an autumn week on Shetland. And I don't think anyone has the right to deny a young birder just starting out the chance to experience the thrill and magic of those places. But, of course, as Alan has pointed out, this debate needs to take place within a much wider discussion of how we live and how we find more sustainable ways of achieving economic progress.

    1. Engagement is crucial. Talking about this is crucial. Ignoring it cannot go on. The whole systems seems to me to be broken. My fear is that it has to break catastophically (even more so that it already has) for things to actually change.

      And re my short long distance trips, yes I am embarrassed by them. They were great fun and I enjoyed them hugely, but in the cold light of day versus minimal future carbon "budgets" they don't seem that clever.

  3. Sorry to wade in but - as someone who has become pretty keen on "low carbon birding" in recent months - I hope my two cents worth are vaguely helpful. I think everything here is totally reasonable. I think it's a shame that the perception of low carbon birding is that you are only doing it "properly" if you only ever stay local. I don't think that's really what it's about and it's not what Javier advocates on his website: I guess it's a consequence of a militantly local approach adopted by some low-carbon birders on twitter. For me, low carbon birding is only going to work if people who might not be die-hard "low carbon birders" are prepared to think seriously about reducing their carbon footprint, as is the case in this post. But I don't think this requires a total cessation of twitching, listing, or travelling. It's mostly about trying to cultivate a birding culture where these are not quite so central. I could say more but I'm just rambling. The point is: I think the sentiment of the post is totally reasonable and, in my view at least, I don't think there's much if any difference between your position, and a low-carbon birding ethos (at least as far as I understand it!).

    1. Jonathan I am delighted that you have waded in. Everyone should be talking about this. In fact I find it shocking that of 213 people who have read this post only THREE have felt strongly enough about it to wade in. Most people who read this are likely birders, that close to 99% of them are just going to read it and move on to the next thing probably tells you all you need to know about where we are headed.

      Anyhow, I have only read a few things by Javier, but the one that stuck most in my head was the one about flying, inequality of carbon use, and ecotourism. Clearly I need to read more, so perhaps it is just that the most vocal members of the low carbon birding movement that I tend to come across are those militantly local people that you refer to that happen to live in nice places to go birding (not that this is by chance I am sure, but still).

      Thanks very much for your comment. I don't wish to sound contrite but when people think about what they are doing before they do it, that would seem to be half the battle. But as Alan says, the sand ran out some time ago.

    2. And a couple on Twitter as well, so call it 2%.

  4. I've always been a gloomy so-and-so, but your statistic that out of 213 views only three felt motivated to comment on what was such a well-written and important post seems to support my view that, no matter what positive noises are made, people will, ultimately, do what they want. Basically, everyone agrees we must take steps to save the planet, but don't bother me now, I have to work out how I'm going to see that Siberian Rubythroat. It's only 300 miles away. Gerald Durrell once said that the way we treat the Earth is like a man in a tree sawing through through the branch he is sitting on. Once you reach a certain point, it's too late to stop. I know scientists tell us there is time for us to change, but I think we'll just keep on sawing. I'm sixty, so I don't worry for myself, but for my children and, my God, their children. – Malcolm

    1. 474 - 4 here, 8 Twitter. 2.5%. Blogging is dead/dying, we all know that, but on this hot topic I was more optimistic.

  5. Nicely put, Jono. I am sure that if every birder in the world cut their fossil fuel consumption by 90% tomorrow, it would still amount to less than the proverbial drop in the ocean. However, on a personal basis I feel a responsibility to make some kind of effort. And that about sums it up.

    I live on the coast. It isn't North Norfolk or Spurn, but it is enviably beautiful, and the birding gives me pretty much all I need from the hobby. Not rushing all over the country to see rare and scarce birds is no sacrifice for me. Not travelling abroad for exotic birding holidays is no sacrifice for me. So, suggesting that others consider these measures is asking to be labelled a hypocrite. Ah well. Still needs saying though.

    1. I just watched the Attenborough program and have given up all hope that there is a sustainable future. I could live in a cave and eat rocks and nothing would change what is going to happen.

  6. I appreciate your sincere desire to limit your birding-based carbon consumption. I also totally agree that the context of the radicals advocating zero carbon needs to be made clear, and if they have what they need on their doorstep without making any sacrifice whatsoever, then their "piety" has significantly less weight since it can't be universally applied.

    Given the previous comments I looked up the Low Carbon Birding website

    "Low-carbon birding is about making a reasonable effort to reduce emissions while considering personal circumstances—not everyone lives near good birding places or has access to low-carbon transport".

    The key word for me was "reasonable", which does not necessarily preclude the sort of trips you talk about, or even a family holiday abroad.

    For me this means ensuring the fuel you burn delivers the maximum bang for buck - e.g. filling the car with mates/family rather than driving solo to Spurn or Portland. Four in the car could well have a lower carbon footprint than the public transport option, especially when early morning trains and buses are not full, not direct, and just a few people share the full carbon budget of the bus/train trip. Taking a two week trip overseas instead of five three day trips offers similarly obvious mathematical efficiencies.

    All of these are "reasonable" rather than radical reductions.

    I would also consider it reasonable to assess the percentage of the household carbon budget that birding takes up. Target-setting is an excellent driver of behavioural change. Setting a carbon budget for birding could drive some interesting decision-making about more uk trips vs fewer overseas trips or vice versa. It may be that other options for household carbon reduction are actually more material, and that extra UK trip or overseas family holiday can be "earned" by finding efficiencies elsewhere. I'm not sure if its possible in the UK to do a single household purchase of "low carbon (wind/solar/nuclear) electricity", but I do notice that the UK grid is reducing its dependence on coal/fossil fuels.

    I would add the option (especially but not necessarily exclusively) for flights to buy carbon credits, which either sequester carbon through reforestation or other means, or replace fossil fuel consumption by financing renewable alternatives, could be an alternative approach to covering any emissions. The best credits provide a range of social and environmental benefits in addition to carbon and need not suffer the risks of reforestation in unstable parts of the world.

    I very much hope this does not come across as preachy, or that I am teaching granny to suck eggs. My real intent is to suggest practical alternative mindsets that can both reduce emissions and enable a positive approach to off-patch recreational birding.

    1. Many thanks for this detailed reply. I had not read the "about" part of the website, I had only read individual articles, many of which seemed to be slightly radical and perhaps on the easy-to-be-pious side as you suggest. But having just used a carbon calculator I am terrified at my family's current carbon consumption, even as very low meat-eaters. Without flying anywhere we would be at 3.2t per person. That's with a veg heavy diet, making lots of our own clothes, being quite luddite re new technology and hardly ever upgrading stuff and so on. And with flying for holidays we are way over the average UK household, at least historically, with trips to HK, California and so on. It seems you basically cannot do trips of that length and stay within the 4t budget. And that's radical.

  7. Well this is excellent. Perfectly articulates what I have felt for some time now and I rather wish I’d read it before wading into arguments about this in the past. These arguments have been with those advocating self-denial who either:

    • don’t need to practice it, because they live somewhere good
    • or advocate it now, having not practiced it in a past life.

    On the former, in a discussion with one fairly high-profile Twitterer, who argued that it is “no coincidence” they chose to live somewhere good, my irritation was with their constant tweeting of how good their area is, interspersed with the anti-twitch, anti-travel stuff. My issue is the hypocrisy of being part of the problem, of saying how great rare birds are and thereby contributing to the net desire to travelling to see them, while simultaneously saying “yeah, but don’t come and see them”. I think I lost the argument – I am, after all, not really clever enough to win such – but have not lost the nagging feeling I was right to be irritated by this. Your post has helped, thank you.

    On the latter, thinking again I don’t think I have a problem with it. Things were different back then. Twitching was ok, travelling was great, if you could afford it. But if a birder is able to see how we need to change, and still give up what they once had and enjoyed, while still having the means to achieve and enjoy it? I don’t see the hypocrisy here, I see an acknowledging of an issue and an attempt to address it at the cost of personal enjoyment. I don’t think it undermines the argument, potentially quite the opposite, but it might mean they need to reframe the argument and to recognise the relative birding privilege once enjoyed.

    (Don’t get me started on the pricks who never had the means to travel widely to go birding, who then “give it up” as if it were difficult thing for them to lose, as if it were a thing to be applauded. Those guys are the worst.)

    So where are we left? Birding, or “naturalising”, locally? The difficulty here for the “experienced” birder is that unless you live at Spurn or Cley or wherever there’s often nothing left to see or be enthused about. The hobby is pretty dead for those people who don’t have what it takes to flog an unrewarding local park again and again and be gratified by the meagre results. Much as I’d like to be, I am just not that guy, many aren’t, and I am regularly impressed by the commitment of patchers everywhere. I am lucky that I pass decent birding sites on the way to and from work, or the shops, because otherwise it’s just woodpigeons, corvids or linnets, if I’m lucky.

    I think the benefits to mental health from occasional travel, within reasonable distance, and as responsibly as is reasonably possible, still outweigh the carbon benefits of staying put. After all, one of the only ways we will see any effective long-term stewardship of the natural environment is through engaging people with it, inspiring a life-long love of nature in children and young people, and getting them to want to care for it. And we can’t do that if we are unenthused or relentlessly negative about what little remains near to us. I guess I feel that travel is, on some level, still necessary.


    Mr Positive on Twitter.

    1. I think it comes down to irritation displacing the message that I really ought to be hearing. Which is why I think that the messaging needs to be amended, or least the framing of the message. Maybe even the people broadcasting it. Then again at the top end of the scale, the celebrity climate and nature activists, a great many of them travel constantly all over the world and thereby also completely undermine the message. There has to be happy medium, ie get more low carbon birding representation from #shitpatch birders who are better able to tell it like it is, with a bit more empathy.