For birds, for people, forever a day in the life of the RSPB


My brief was to write a day in the life of the RSPB by gathering together stories from staff members about their working days. There are over 1000 staff at the RSPB. They, like migrating birds, have spread out over the country settling in all areas of interest to set up reserves, offices or scientific study sites. The HQ is the Lodge at Sandy where every office you wander into is buzzing with life from marketing to education. Choosing which staff to include and who to leave out would have been very hard, so mostly I left it up to chance: who answered the phone; who was in when I arrived in the office; who was doing something interesting that afternoon; who wondered in from next door.

Still there was more information than I could ever have included. From there I visited reserves, went out with scientists or phoned wardens to find out how they spent their days. The diversity of activities I found myself party to was staggering: chopping pines in Arne, catching sparrows in Oxford, counting capercallie in Abernethy, communication by email with parliamentry offices, writing scientific mathematical models on ‘the value of life’. One thing which was genuinely consistent was the energy and passion and yet seriousness of the staff. To tackle this immense subject I have tried to give the feel of a soap opera in the workplace, (without the sex I’m afraid as it wasn’t Spring). Unlike Eastenders though, I did not come across even a corner of apathy.

Cast List – RSPB Staff

1. Sarah Fowler Parliamentry Officer 2. Mark Avery 3. Graham Wynne (meeting with Mark Avery plus lunch with Mike and the council members) 4. Julian Hughes (answering an article in The Telegraph) 5. Bob Proctor (doing capercaillie count – mention) 6. John Selby, Grant his volunteer – his boss and co workers (working on reserve – have pics) 7. Tony Morris (bird watching in the name of research) 8. Anne and Maggie on front desk (answering the phone) 9. Guy Anderson and Dave Hole (catching sparrows – have pics) 10. Mike Hodgson, Sarah Brennan, Rob Hume, Kate Lowe, Julian Sergeant(having a meeting to discuss RSPB brand mention) 11. Chris Fancy + Sarah Niemann (standing in garden chatting about robin – mention) 12. Neil Barton (speaking to a lady who’s cancelled her memberhsip) 13. Elaine (legacies – speaking to bereaved father making a donation to Minsmere) 14. Elizabeth Frost (taking a silly enquiry) 15. Ed Battams (fixing the email server) 16. Roger Buisson (trying to send an email) 17. Joe in the shop (inscribing in memoriam book), with Linda and Pat (looking after shop mention) 18. Anne, Sally and David in education (having a discussion – mention) 19. Kate Lowe and Derek Nieman (playing with YOC kids mention) 20. Glen Tyler (radiotracking bitterns) 21. Clive Mellon and Matthew Tickner (at Lough Foyle looking at plans for new runway from airport)

Morning

“Good morning RSPB – yes, I’ll just put you through”. Its 8.30am, and its Anne’s turn on reception. She turns to Maggie her supervisor and, with her bright smiling eyes and her grey bun perched on her jolly head, asks “how are the grandkids?” Maggie opens her mouth to reply. The phone rings. She presses a button and…”Good Morning RSPB, he’s not in this morning but he’ll be here after 2pm. No problem.

Goodbye. They’re great. Tim’s enjoying his first term at school – how about your Mum’s back pain? Oh, she was saying the other day Good Morning RSPB…”. And so the conversation goes on, broken up by the 1500 or so calls they take every day from everyone from heads of state to schoolkids. This team are the frontline for the web of people with hugely diverse jobs which makes up the RSPB. They link wardens on Orkney with economists in offices at the lodge with conservation scientists at Oxford University with volunteer managers in Belfast.

But the RSBP day does not begin when the phones fire up. It begin several hours before and goes on long after the 5:30pm shut down. Graham Wynne, chief executive, and Mark Avery, director of conservation, have been in since 7:45. They are trying negotiating the setting up of a nature reserve at Rainham Marshes in London and have a crucial meeting with the Port of London tomorrow. Both are very excited about this project which will turn 1000 acres of waste land, littered with the debris of years of neglect, into an inner city natural nirvana and they are working on all fronts to get these discussions right. But even these two are late starters. We must go back in time to find the real early birds of the RSPB. It is 1999, it is November, and dawn is late coming.

6 am: A grainy, grey light peeps optimistically over the horizon into a misty night. A robin untucks her head from her shoulder and ruffles her feathers, gently throwing off the doziness. Sarah’s hand is reaching out of her duvet into the nippy air of her bedroom to turn off the painful beeping of her alarm. She is due at The Houses of Parliament in two and a half hours. She is going to a morning seminar on Blue-Green approach to the environment, which William Haigh is opening. First she must pick up a fax from the office. There will be no lie-in this morning. Ten minutes later Sarah is dressed in a suit, having ironed her brilliant white shirt, and she’s pouring Cafe direct coffee down her throat while brushing her hair. She was working late last night in preparation for this meeting. In the office, the fax lies reassuringly in the tray. She reads the quote from John Prescott supporting the new green energy scheme the RSPB has just launched. ‘It gives every individual the opportunity to do their bit and help face up to this challenge”. She’s pleased, but has no time to dwell. Her train leaves from Sandy at 7:03am. She must not miss it. Running down the corridor, she passes a tall figure photocopying in the silent hall. “Hi Julian – you OK?” “Um, Its the Telegraph”. “Oh not again” Sarah grimaces, “gotta dash – sorry – bye”.

Julian looks down at the paper in his hand. He’d rather be getting on with his job making the Highlands a good place for wildlife, but he’s tied to answering this damn article. His fingers hit the keyboard, hard. “Please could The Telegraph check its b***dy facts before going to print…” He backspaces over this and starts again. “The RSPB is assessing the impact of predation on capercaillies at our Abernethy Forest Nature Reserve through an experiment, supported by the Game Conservancy Trust…”The words appear on his computer screen and as they do he thinks of Abernethy and the peace to be found there amid the pine trees. Even now, Bob, warden of Abernethy, is experiencing that peace in the early morning, but also the thorns of bramble and the sinking heather as he wades through the deep undergrowth on his capercaillie count.

Arne Peninsula, Dorset; 450 miles south of Abernethy

John’s Suzuki is playing up a bit this morning. The Indian summer is long since over, and the damp weather has probably upset her a little. The mounted rider, clad head-to-toe in black gore-tex, makes a mental note to check the engine after work. But he needs the hours of daylight on the reserve and on the third attempt the machine gives her characteristic roar and is raring to go. John pulls out of the drive and heads to the Arne reserve past the ruins of Corfe Castle jutting out of the mist like a rocks on a Hebridean beach head.

Past the limpid pool of Poole Harbour, John arrives at the reserve where for the second time that day he attempts to start a potentially lethal machine. Orange gloves, orange braces, orange boots and reinforced leggings equip him for chainsawing. He clambors across a muddy stream and sets to a bunch of gorse and bramble. Piles of horizontal stems of green grow up behind him and in front a small pool become visible. A yellow flower tumbles from its thorny stem as he attacks the base of a gorse bush. This is nature conservation. Making way for a rare plant, a sedge called diandra, he removes the commoner species. Today the sun is shining and, for John, the work is easy. He spends every working day outside – sometimes making board walks for visitor access, sometimes setting fences to keep the RSPB cows in. The weather has become irrelevent in his work-planning, but the winter is tough, especially when the wind won’t let a fence post stay upright long enough for him to hammer in the nail, and his hands are almost frostbitten. The weather has lined his face with deep texture, but he is glowing with the vitality of a man 30 years his junior. John is 62, as tough as mountain hare and has a wicked sense of humour.

Back at the Ranch

Someone who’s sense of humour has temporarily deserted him is Neil. He sits at his desk leaning his forehead on his hand, worriedly. A member has written cancelling her membership. According to the short, curt letter, Mrs Smith had not received her free bird feeder when she renewed her membership this year. Decisively Neil picks up the phone. “Hello, Mrs Smith. Yes, my name’s Neil, I’m calling from the RSPB…..Mrs Smith is reticent. Neil takes a deep breath. You see, Mr Smith, we like to look after our members, our entire organisation depends on you, and we can’t do our work without you. if there’s anything we can do to rectify this situation we would like to know. If you would still like the bird feeder, we can get one to you in the next post. Mrs Smith agrees it would be nice, and goes on to say she has recently lost her husband and was perhaps feeling a little lower than usual that day and……Neil listens. At the end of 45 minutes, he offers his sympathy and gently suggests that she might reconsider. I will, she says. And thanks him for phoning. It’s been a difficult day, but when Neil worked in banking, a bad day was just a bad day, here its a bad day for a good cause.

Elaine in legacies knows exactly how Neil feels right now. She deals with the bereaved every day. She has the phone to her ear, and the quavering voice coming through is that of a man whose nine year old son Sam was killed last week in a car crash. Their last summer together was spent at Minsmere and he wants to make a donation to the reserve there, especially the bittern project. Sam was a keen budding birdwatcher and a member of the YOC. After she hangs up Elaine needs to gather her thoughts. She picks up the new pages for the in memoriam book which holds the personal messages from families for their loved ones and walks over to the shop. The sun is shining through the remnant yellowing leaves of the trees which line the driveway up to the main house. A little way off, standing in a clearing in the wood, a mother and her two kids all have binoculars pointed skyward trying to spot the little birds making the high pitched eedle-eedle-eedle in the tops of the tall pines.

The shop is characteristically busy. A group of school kids are buying luminous green ice lollies despite the nip in the air, and their teacher is trying to ask over the din, about RSPB information which can be used in the classroom. Joe the shop manager points her in the direction of the teaching department. ‘Hi Elaine, how are you doing?”. Leaving the shop floor in the capable hands of the Linda and Pat, Joe goes with Elaine to the tea room to talk over the new messages which will be inscribed in the book. Joe is a budding calligrapher and takes special pride in doing this part of her job. As Elaine wanders back, Joe sits down to her work. A shaft of sunlight falls across the desk as she starts to inscribe in black ink “in loving memory of my little boy Sam, Happy summers spent at Minsmere…”.

Minsmere, 70 miles east of Sandy

Up to his thighs in muddy water, Glen points his radio antenna at the clump of reeds just ahead of him. His eyes have a slightly wild look about them and his hair is ruffled by the wind. He clasps the cold metal of the antenna and his heart warms slightly despite the oncoming 60 mph wind, as he hears the familiar beeping of the radio collar of one of his male bitterns. The bird, mimicking a reed, much stiller than the reeds in this weather, is out of sight and silent. But Glen knows where he is and is comforted that the bird’s still here.

Lough Foyle, Northern Ireland, 400 miles north-west of Minsmere

Two men knee deep in water on entirely the other side of the country are Clive and Matthew, standing in Lough Foyle, Northern Ireland. Clive holds a plastic coated map of plans from the airport authority for a new runway which bisects their reserve. They are surrounded by mudflats awash with waders and in the distance, the whistling of widgeon and the trumpeting of whooper swans. As Clive opens his mouth to say something, a flock of Brent geese take off, and deafen them both with the guttural clamour of geese-speak. “They can’t really think they can build a run-way here?” his melted-chocolate, Belfast-born voice is questioning, incredulous. The boundary of Northern Ireland and Eire also bisects this lake. They have the support of An Taisce the republic’s equivalent of the RSPB along with the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust, and Friends of Ireland’s Environment in fighting this application to develop this area which was recently officially recognised as internationally important for conservation. The two men have a meeting later that afternoon with Derry City Council. “Come on, lets go and get some lunch in the Fleece and Firkin, then we’ll talk business”.

Lunch

John joins his fellow workers on the back of 4-by-4 truck for lunch. From a distance, and ignoring the vehicle, the scene looks like a Turner painting and it could be 200 years earlier. Through the bright air the men’s chatter gathers force. Grant is a volunteer. He comes every week “so our children’s children’s children will say “that’s lovely”. It is certainly lovely today. An osprey flies over head and they all put their eyes to the skies. They eat pasties and sandwiches and John spreads Arne honey, the colour of the African bush and smelling of heaven. As they eats, he entertains the guys with impressions of Jimmy Durante singing “The Lost Chord”. Miles north, Bob is also sat in a 4-by-4 eating sandwiches overlooking a purple and green Scottish hillside where black grouse males are dancing their precious and ludicrous autumn display. Geographically in between, at Sandy, Graham and Mike Hodgson immaculate in suits and ties, are taking lunch in the function room of the Avocet building with the new council members, chatting politely and informatively about the energy efficient design of the building.Sarah, in London, has missed lunch altogether. She’ll have to catch up later. As Sarah leaves the houses of parliament, she’s feeling positive. The meeting has gone well. If Graham Wynne had one wish, it would be that senior politicians take conservation seriously and make it central to their decision-making. Sarah feels that maybe today has hinted at that wish becoming a reality. A flurry of pigeons flies up around her, the clicking of their grey wings echoing the clicking of her heels on the grey flagstones.

Afternoon

“Good afternoon, RSPB”. “Its about my pet pigeon, Cyril”. “Yes”, says Elizabeth. “We found him as a young bird almost bare of feathers and raised him. I’ve had him since last summer, and now he’s fine, but I’m worried that my dog will eat him as he’s taken to sitting on the back of the dog when he’s sleeping, which the dog doesn’t like. But Cyril’s been puffing out his chest, strutting round and cooing at the dog constantly. I’m very worried. He’s a German shepherd, you see, and very tempermental.” “Well…” Elizabeth doesn’t get a word in before “and I’ve been feeding my sparrows a mixture of bacon rind and peanuts, do you think thats appropriate?” Meanwhile, Cliff has answered a call from someone wanting to know where all the house sparrows have gone. That is something the RSPB really can help with.

Oxfordshire, 50 miles south-west of Sandy

A gust blows up, creating a whirlwind of black specks as Guy empties the sack onto the ground. He is feeding the birds, but this time its really serious. He’s a scientist and this is his job. He ambles back to the car, puts down the sack and goes to check the mist nets. There are three sparrows hanging in the fine netting, like insects spun in spider silk in a web. He calls to the other guys. Dave and Phil come over and they each gently extricate a bird, feet first because they are the tricky bit, their claws tightly clenching the netting; then the net comes over the wings and the head and they are free. Guy takes his sparrow, her head between his first two fingers, so she cannot escape and he looks at her: a female, with soft buff feathers. “They’re so pretty aren’t they” he says involuntarily. “Give a good nip too” says Dave as he tugs his fingertip out of the hard beak, designed to crack open seed pods.

This bird, nestled in his hand, is a symbol. An ancient history with man, spreading out of Africa with cereal cropping and across the world, has not prepared it for modern intensive agriculture. Echoing the loss of other farmland species, it has declined by eighty per cent in Britain in just 15 years. For every sparrow now, there were five just a few years back. Guy wants to find our whether it is lack of winter food which is causing problems for our songbirds, so he feeds them and monitors their progress compared to birds on farms where extra food is not provided. He measures her wing length, weighs her, puts a set of colour rings on her tarsi and sets her free. She joins a flock of birds in a nearby maple tree, its magenta leaves being lost at every exhalation of the wind. Her future may be uncertain, but it will be monitored and how she fares may give Guy, and the RSPB in general, some clues to help others of her kind.

Sandy, Bedfordshire

Guy is wearing wellies, combat trousers and moth-eaten jumper. His attire could not be more in contrast to the neat group gathered in one of the meeting rooms at the Lodge. They look sleek and professional. It could be a meeting of managers at a stockbroking firm. All (except Rob!!) are wearing suits, all take the issue of RSPB presentation very seriously. Sarah Brennan, project coordinator, Mike, head of publicity, Rob Hume, editor of Birds and Kate Lowe, designer of Wingbeat, are discussing the RSPB ‘brand’. The 15,000 publications produced every year from classroom packs to policy maker briefings, to scientific reports to the mag from the under eights must be informative, clear and attractive to their particular audience.

Also present is Julian Sergeant – financial controller, who makes sure the others aren’t spending too much money. Julian takes great pride in his job. He refers to his arrival at the RSPB as the conversion of St Paul. He knows almost nothing about birds, used to work in nuclear power and then in oil. but now he feels that every day he is doing something truly constructive for the planet. Mike, on the other hand, was born with binoculars in his hand. Because he can’t help it, his attention is distracted by a robin on the windowsill teasing out the nourishment from an RSPB sunflower seed. She’s a lucky to have chosen this as her home and will probably survive the winter. Elsewhere, birds may not be so lucky.

Somewhere in the British Countryside

Tony is taking stock. He bends down and runs his hand through the seed-head of a dried dock plant. Its all but withered, but the tiny seeds inside the russet pods are crucial food for overwintering British birds. The field around him is covered in a messy matt of weeds. The farmer has left it fallow, sympathetic to the needs of birds, and to Tony’s research on the effects of pesticides on wild bird populations. In the far corner a mixed flock of bright chaffinches and brighter yellowhammers are feeding. He puts his binoculars to his eyes and the birds fly up into the hedge and there shine like yellow apples and red pears on the branches. But the harvest is long since in, and in fields all over Britain, winter-wheat has been planted and is already coming up. The birds seem to find little to eat on the cleanly ploughed fields among the tiny green spearlike shoot.s. None-the-less, Tony is glad to be outside on such a day and away from the abnormality of modern society.

Back at the Ranch

All hell has broken loose in the IS department. In the last five minutes the phones have become red hot. One of the email servers is down, so no-one at the Lodge can communicate with each other or the outside world. Suddenly no-one can do anything. Roger, blissfully unaware, triumphantly presses the send button, to liberate into the ether the email and document he has been preparing all afternoon. Mark Avery, his boss, is expecting it this afternoon, as are several people in the Land Agency Office. Its a document explaining the details of a farm the RSPB has just purchased, to interested parties such as Farming Unions. An error message glows insidiously on his screen…The server is not responding…. He clenches his fists. As Mark is only upstairs, its not too much of a problem. He decides to print the document out and take it up there. The first few pages come out crisp, but on the third page the paper misfeeds and arrives totally destroyed. It does this several times until Roger changes tactic. He grabs a clean floppy disc from his drawer and inserts it into the drive. The computer whirrs for a while, then a while longer – too long – and then Roger can’t move the cursor with the mouse. The machine doesn’t even have the courtesy to tell him its crashed.

Ed Battams however, the man responsible for getting the RSPB back on line, is a cool as a cucumber. In the server room out of bounds to all other staff, this lithe blonde 20-year-old kid with not a flicker of interest in birds of the feathered kind, but a deep commitment to all things electronic, carefully re-programmes the computer. He is the RSPB wizard of OZ, ensuring the smooth flow of electronic communications from the floe country to Falmouth. As he presses enter, the green lights start flashing on the bottom-most grey box. The system is live again. This prevents the gathering of further sweat on the Roger’s forehead. Luckily, Roger had the foresight to save all his work. Now, with email open again, Mark can see the document in plenty of time. Roger sends the email, waits for Mark to say he’s got it, and goes to the canteen for his first cup of tea of he day. As he walks out into the garden, he sees John O’Sullivan hurrying past the large yew towards International Office, a piece of paper buffeted by the breeze in his hand. Roger passes Sarah Niemann and Chris Fancy (who had gotten fed up with waiting for a mail from Roger) listening to a robin singing in the gathering gloom. Isn’t it amazing that they sing like that on such a cold night says Sarah. Makes it all worth it replies Chris.

Evening

On Arne a robin sings its’ vivid, evening refrain above John’s head as he kits up for his journey home. Once there, his wife feeds him his dinner and tells him that his son-in-law needs a door hanging tonight. John, looking forward to a night in front of the telly, grumbles a little. “But that’s what families are all about”, says Deana as he’s leaving. John mumbles something indistinguishable and heads out. Still in London, Sarah Fowler is stuck on the central line.

Back at the Ranch

John O’Sullivan walks past the education office. The lit window creates a rectangular glow in the darkened garden. Anne, Sally and David are working long after hometime discussing how the best ways to bring conservation into the National Curriculum. Words such as ‘biodiversity’ and sustainability’ ring in the air. Graham Wynne’s light is still on. John is also working late tonight. He’s off to South Africa to join a delegation of 13 BirdLife International reps at XXX meeting. He places the paper on one of the neat piles on his neat desk and sits down to write an agenda of meetings for the delagates. The conference will be tough and tiring with non-stop meetings and talking and the frustration of never getting enough issues debated. His team must be efficient and focused. He is working on that. He’s full of optimism for the aquatic warbler being accepted as a bird of conservation importance by the global community. He’s determined to help make it happen. He didn’t sleep well last night, and won’t tonight, but it’s worth it. John has been at the RSPB 25 years. He’s not the only one. Many staff have been here 20-30 years. These people take the slogan “For birds – For people – For ever”, very much to heart.

This is the RSPB at the end of the twentieth century, at the end of the second millenium. Busy, energetic, profoundly aware of its responsibilities, passionate, diverse, looking in many directions to tackle the problems of humanity, yet tightly focused too on those issues which it has identified as most important. Working as a team, yet full to the brim with individuals, each suited to their own task. Like a healthy hybrid of the best multination and a close knit family, the RSPB is a bee hive, the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. The queen bee, Graham, is carefully checking a paper on GM crops, the stickiest issue in his agenda.

Mark Avery is on the phone to a Lolo Williams in Wales discussing how best to protect peregrine nests from egg collectors next spring. One of the many workers bees, Julian Hughes is happy writing the Bird Club Newsletter; another, Neil, is playing squash; and Kate and Derek are making teal and mallard mosaics out of old copies of Birds magazine, with a bunch of kids from the Sandy Young Ornithologists Club. Anne and Maggie on front desk have long since gone home to mother and grandkids respectively. John Selby has the door on its hinges but he’s not sure its hanging straight. Sarah, somewhere in the Bedfordshire countryside is stuck on a stationary train with leaves on the line, drinking a cappucino and eating an egg and bacon roll. With the lights still on in the windows of the RSPB offices, a robin in the grand Yew in the beautiful gardens tucks her head into her shoulder and with a full belly falls fast asleep, blissfully unaware of what all the fuss is about.