Earths inheritance

The word legacy is a very evocative. It means not only a bequest after death, but relates to any lasting effect of a person, state, situation. The legacy of, for example, environmental pollution of the Sea Empress oil spill, Darwin’s legacy of evolutionary understanding, the violent legacy of northern Ireland, the Hendrix legacy, while “Books are the legacy great genius leaves to mankind” (1711 Addison). In general the legacy of humans to the natural world has been devastating. Sasha Norris writes to persuade us to remember the RSPB in our will, to give life….

As each generation replaces the next, not only is the environment damaged, but the knowledge of how it once was is lost. Imagine arriving with the early humans who crossed the Bering straits into the Americas 11,500 years ago, to find giant ground sloth, the woolly mammoth, and sabre-toothed cats, all gone now, driven extinct by those prehistoric people. Our forebears heard wolves howl in the forests which covered Britain coast to coast. Now the wolf and the European bear, have gone from our land, and most people are unaware they were ever here. As a five year old child I gazed at fields of monoculture wheat around our house with no notion of the wildflowers which once bathed the British countryside with light and colour. Within a decade, those same fields were under tarmac and brick of housing development. Professor Chris Perrins saw thousands of sparrows at Wytham, Oxford, where in 1993, I counted 300 in total, and where now, RSPB researcher Dave Hole counts only around 30. Even the beauty of the natural world we now experience will be lost to the people of the future who will know it only if they seek out relicts in museums or science books.

Give Life

Only conservation is capable of adding to the beauty of the natural world, by restoring habitats, returning locally extinct creatures back to the wild, protecting what is already lovely. Every year the RSPB receive £15 million from the legacies people leave in their wills. This money is used, like all donations to the RSPB, to undo some of that harm of the past and prevent future destruction. It is a legacy of regeneration, of life itself. The money you give to the RSPB quite literally creates life where there was none before, creates homes for animals which would otherwise not exist.

Within the last few months, Otmoor RSPB reserve in Oxfordshire has turned from a mud bath of disturbed soil, into a living breathing home for water birds. Just a few months before that it was farm land. On the Arne peninsula, my Dad dragged my school friend and me on an RSPB walk to see one of the only 12 pairs of Dartford warblers then alive in the country. Now thanks to RSPB heathland restoration work, Arne boasts 20 pairs. In the mountains north of Los Angeles, in 1998, I have seen the phoenix flying over the desertified mountains – California condor extinct in wild as recently as 1990 now, returned by human endevour, make golden eagles look like sparrows as they ride the thermals together. This weekend I have been sitting in a beer garden on the Oxfordshire-Buckinghamshire border in the company of red kites another creature emblematic of the best and worst in human nature. We drove them extinct with mindless use of the shot gun, but the RSPB together with English Nature brought them back again by reintroducing them to the wild, a project where every inch was carefully planned, lovingly arranged.

Every pound in its place

While we are alive, we live in a certain way, have certain beliefs, try to influence the world for better as we see it. Once we are dead, any resources we have managed to accrue during our lives will be passed on and used by somebody for something. Ivan Whitmore, legacies adviser at the RSPB is careful to emphasise, that loved ones and relatives must be taken care of first. Perhaps, the nephews and nieces will go on holiday, or perhaps someone you love will be able to buy that longed for dress or baby cot or even house. But once these things are cared for, then the RSPB can always put the money to good work doing what you appreciated them doing during your lifetime.

One lady left all her worldly goods to the RSPB which, when totted up, amounted to a handsome £2.5million. The money will be used to fund reserve acquisition which means that every bird that flies over the new reserves free of harassment is flying there thanks to that lady. As a memorial to her penchant for a particular breed of rare sheep, the RSPB have purchased a flock for grazing management! Most of the people currently leaving money to the RSPB are nowhere near as wealthy as this lady, but legacies of all sizes are valuable. A recent bequest of £16,000 went to fund reserve wardening at 4 different reserves in Scotland, while Dungeness restoration has been funded by a legacy of £12,000 so that smews, gadwall and some of South East England’s most important colonies of terns and gulls can flourish. Two hundred and fifty pounds has gone to fund kid’s educational visits to the reserves at Loch Winnoch, while £500 left specifically ‘for use in the county of Dorset’ is helping maintain Wareham Meadows Nature Reserve, and Hen Harriers in Orkney are a bit better off thanks to £300 left by a raptor loving benefactor. Any amount, large or small can be put to good use

One RSPB legacy leaver is John Davis, who quotes the return of the avocet as a crucial source of inspiration in his growing admiration of birds and the RSPB throughout his life. John has no kids and most of his estate, which being a frugal man has mounted up during his lifetime as a scientists, will be left to charities, of which the RSPB is one. Like the many volunteers I interviewed for the WHICH edition of Birds, John gets fulfilment and joy out of his involvement with birds and the RSPB. When he heard at the AGM how many members left legacies to the RSPB John stood up to protest. ‘Its not enough’ he says emphatically. ‘With a million members, more of us should be making pledges’. And John it appears is right: There are around a 12 deaths per 1000 population annually which means that if we RSPB members are the same as everyone else, (and not drinking the elixir of life), then 12,000 of us pop our clogs each year. However, only around 1000 legacies are left to the RSPB each year, half from non-members. Imagine if all we all left money to the RSPB, the amount of conservation work carried out would be 25 times greater, the income from legacies could go up to £300 million per year!

Sometimes, people make the RSPB executors of their wills, which brings with it many responsibilities. One job is to ensure that any pets are properly cared for, such as when one lady was survived by her pet donkey and Ivan Whitmore, legacies advisor, homed with its favourite donkey friend. A tortoise has been put under the direct care of the RSPB should its loving owner die. Ivan is to ensure that should the house be sold in winter, the tortoise will be removed carefully from his regular hibernating spot in the garden and found a good home. Although Ivan stresses that that the RSPB undertakes these tasks as part of their legacies department when dealing with bequests, not as part of their regular charitable work!

If you are fortunate enough to be leaving more than £242,000 to your beneficiaries, then inheritance tax is relevant to you. Any amount you bequeath above this amount, the ‘nil rate band’ will have inheritance tax deducted from it by the government at a rate of 40%. For all you maths-rejects out there (among whom I rank), that means that for every £100 you leave, the government gets £40 and your kids get £60. Charities however, are exempt from inheritance tax, so leaving money to the RSPB means that the charity benefits from every penny. You don’t have to leave everything to the RSPB in order for them to benefit in this way. |Any amount left to them will be exempt from inheritance tax. Leaving a legacy to the RSPB means that you choose how your money is spent.

Birds are perfect epitaphs

In the poem, ‘Do not stand at my grave and weep’ the anonymous author urges us not to mourn, for he is not lying is his grave, but instead has become part of the natural world and is still here, all around us: “I am the swift uplifting rush of quiet birds in circled flight”. The poem ends ‘Do not stand by my grave and weep, I am not there, I did not die”. Thus, birds are perfect epitaphs. Birds, in probably the oldest poem in the English language, herald in the summer in: ‘Sumer is i-cumen in Lhude sing, cucce’.They bring hope where there was none before: In Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘The Darkling Thrush’, the birds brings ‘joy illimited’ to the ‘winter’s dregs’. In Sassoon’s poem ‘Everyone sang’, written during the first world war, birds symbolise freedom and again, hope: ‘Everyone suddenly burst out singing and I was filled with such delight as prisoned birds must find in freedom, winging wildly’. Gerard Manley Hopkins refers to God as a brooding over the Earth with bright wings, like a bird on a nest. The song of a nightingale, as Keats points out, was heard ‘in ancient days by emporer or clown’, even by the biblical Ruth. The lark, according to Shakespeare, at ‘heaven’s gate sings’.

For your own lasting memorial you could have a work of art created in your name, or a bench under a tree in a park. Why not instead, protect the living world, the very source of inspiration for artists, or plant the tree under which the bench sits. In his poem ‘Ozymandias’, Shelley describes how he came across a statue of a once great man. On the foot of the now eroded and destroyed statue, read the words “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings, Look on my works yea mighty and despair” Yet, the man’s kingdom is destroyed eroded by wind and weather, so that nothing is left except the creeping desert. Leaving a legacy to the RSPB is about as permanent an epitaph as you can get. That is because nature, if protected from man’s destructive influence, is ever renewing, the spring always comes and with it, brings beauty and new life, even as individual creatures within the system fade and die. William Shakespeares wrote in his most famous of sonnets:’So long as men can breath and eyes can see, so long lives this and this gives life to thee.’ If there is no great bard to write everlasting poems about you, why not let the birds sing in praise of your life, for ever and ever.

For information on how to make a bequest in your will to the RSPB, contact Ivan Whitmore at The Lodge on 01767 680551.

“You see, the thing is, heaven is for people who like the sort of things that go on in heaven,. Like well, singing, talking to God, watering potplants. While Hell, on the other hand is for people who prefer well, you know, the other sort of things”. The Black Adder, The Archbishop.