The Hayes Conference Centre in Swanwick, Derbyshire, was this weekend transformed into a delectable mishmash of innovative ideas, dynamic discussion and inspirational individuals, all brought together in the BTO 79th Annual Conference. The talks were interesting and informative, the company was witty and intellectual (I exclude myself here – I was slurred to say the least), the wine was fine and the whisky flowing in copious quantities.
I was asked several times over the weekend by a variety of individuals young, old and somewhere in the middle: “Why was I interested in the BTO Conference?” There was no blame or resentment in their tone, only curiosity, and even a little confusion. After all, I am far from being a scientist; my background lies firmly in the historical and the creative, within culture and society. I am not a bird ringer, and have little involvement with practical hands-on conservation.
The short response would have been: “Because I like birds (duh?)”, but even for me this felt a little dry. In actuality, the real answer is far more complex and lies within the fact that the nature of the British conservation movement is changing very so subtly, and the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) is at the forefront of this shift.
I have been informed by many friends that in the past, scientific organisations such as the BTO were largely inaccessible to those of a creative turn; this was by no means a criticism, but merely that the science was not always communicated in a user-friendly manner. And why should it have been? The research was (and is) carried out to inform government policy and feed into other organisations, not for personalised campaigns. Being both a blessing and a curse at once, the BTO’s impartiality has always made it a unique NGO within British nature conservation; however, consequently can be left behind in the fundraising stakes.
In recent years, however, the BTO has undergone a bit of a Trinny-&-Susannah-style makeover. The new logo is downright gorgeous in my opinion, demonstrating a snazzy mix of style, intellect and thoughtfulness, and has been just one of many steps taken to incorporate a wider network of support. The website is attractive and easy to use, and you can’t help but feel included by the many volunteer surveys and citizen science projects that they have on offer. With Andy Clements (the “silver fox” – thank you, Ieuan!) as Director, it is little wonder that even under the current economic climate, BTO membership has grown by 7%.
The talks themselves reflect the changes perfectly. The theme of this year’s conference, Putting Birds on the Map, was based around the forthcoming Bird Atlas 2007-11, and although I shan’t go into detail, certain speakers must be mentioned to illustrate this point. Mike Toms’ What Can We Map Next? was an informative and humourous look at wider British ecosystems that ventured far beyond the realms of avifauna, and consequently was of much interest to a mammal-gal like myself. Andy Musgrove’s The Next Atlas Starts in 15 years left several members of the audience incapable for several minutes as they struggled with fits of giggles, and Dawn Balmer provided an inspiring example of an individual thoroughly committed to the completion of what must have been a daunting task. All were cheerful, dedicated and engaging. I must also confess a soft spot for Stuart Newson’s Mapping Norfolk’s Bats.
So back to my original question: “Why was I interested…?” The BTO is an example of an NGO working to accommodate new audiences. Their science is accessible, and I am well aware that by understanding their work I can improve my own. There is another element as well, involving their attitude towards younger members, but more of that tomorrow. They are dynamic in their attitudes towards other NGOs, as demonstrated by Debbie Pain’s Friday evening talk, Saving the Spoon-billed Sandpiper, which highlighted the partnership between many organisations. There is something a little bit sexy as well about the BTO; when you approach their stand at Birdfair, you feel as if you are being welcomed as a long lost friend, and it is a great credit to any Director who stands alongside his staff and volunteers in the same poloshirt, ready and willing to talk to as many different people as possible.
Oh, and also, I like birds (duh?).