Our Conference returned to Carno Community Centre, near Caersws, Powys, this year, on 7 November 2015. The theme was Inspiring the Next Generation, and we were delighted to provide some practical support for this by funding six free places for 16-25 year olds. The programme was a mix of talks about how organisations are encouraging a greater connection with nature, and presentations by young naturalists. From a look around the hall, around 20% of delegates were age under 30, very different from most bird conferences.
After the AGM, at which Mick Green was elected Chair of WOS and four new trustees were voted onto Council, our President Iolo Williams presented a Lifetime Achievement Award to Dr Stephanie Tyler with a good deal of irreverent humour (Steph was Iolo’s first boss at the RSPB). Steph has done a huge amount of work for ornithology and conservation in her adopted county of Gwent, and pioneered the study of Dippers and Grey Wagtails in Wales’ upland rivers. She has also been a trustee of WOS for eight years, editing our journal Birds in Wales throughout that time. Read her citation.
Iolo also presented a cheque for £200 to Emma Coles (studying zoology at Swansea University) who won the Derek Moore Student Research Award for her work on Honey-buzzards in south Wales. Emma is also a BTO Cymru student ambassador and helped Swansea win the AFON competition for the most number of birds seen on any Uni campus for two years running.
Iolo started the Conference proper with his annual round-up of bird news. Among the highlights were the 11 young Ospreys fledged by four pairs; a good year for terns in North Wales with 2,650 pairs of Sandwich Terns at Cemlyn lagoon, 600 Common tern chicks fledged at Shotton and 135 pairs of Little Terns at Gronant, with a pair also at RSPB Point of Ayr; 21,000 Manx Shearwater burrows were occupied on Bardsey, a big increase on the 2009 count; 36,000 pairs of Gannets on RSPB Grassholm is the most accurate aerial survey ever; a pair of Long-eared Owls that has reared six young for the third consecutive year.
Emma Coles co-presented the first talk with Lucy McRobert, Nature Matters campaign manager for The Wildlife Trusts, and creative director of A Focus on Nature. Lucy explained how AFON has created a network of young people enthusiastic about nature conservation, and the role it plays in supporting and mentoring members in their careers and personal lives – in 2015, some teenagers are still bullied for their interest in birds, though Lucy said that was the case for teens with any hobby that doesn’t fit the ‘norm’. She also revealed that AFON members will next year publish their Vision for Nature, of what they hope the UK’s approach to wildlife will be in 2050. Emma’s plea to more experienced birders was simple: invite a young birder out with you when you’re doing BBS, WeBS, ringing or pretty much anything else involving birds. They want you to share your experience – and I saw several students nodding in support of that statement.
Holly Kirk from the Navigation Group at Oxford University gave us an excellent Insight from seven years of seabird-tracking in Wales. Focusing on Manx Shearwaters, she showed how a range of technologies was revealing more about their behaviour, crucial to their conservation, including observations from Shearwater Cam. Among the insights revealed is that adult and immature Manxies forage in different parts of the Irish Sea; all UK birds winter off the Rio del Plata and although the population takes a variety of routes home between Argentina and Wales, each individual follows the same path each year. Perhaps most surprising was that Manx Shearwaters from all the UK colonies studied feed in one small area of the Irish Sea between the Isle of Man and Dublin Bay – not a place for a windfarm, remarked Holly. Building on her teaching of GCSE, A-level and undergraduate students, she made the telling observation that curricula are teaching good science, but not fieldwork – “how can you learn biology or ecology without going outside,” she asked?
Continuing the seabird theme, the BTO’s Viola Ross-Smith urged delegates to care about gulls, which have had a beating in the popular media this summer, but are in big trouble: both Herring and Lesser Black-backed Gulls are in steep decline; the Lesser colony on Flat Holm is smaller than a few years ago, and the Orford Ness (Suffolk) colony has collapsed from 20,000 pairs to a few hundred in less than 20 years. She outlined how the fortunes of both are linked to human behaviour, including changing fishing practices (fewer discards), reduced landfill and – in a fascinating Dutch study – from the time that fishing boats spend in port; gull chicks lose weight at the weekends! Viola also showed how the BTO is using trackers to see where gulls are flying in relation to wind turbine blades, and to show that roof-nesting gulls are not necessarily the ones nicking chips and pasties in the street – in St Ives, the town’s nesting birds were flying out to the fields or the sea to feed.
After lunch, Dan Jenkins-Jones (RSPB Cymru) and Kelvin Jones (BTO Cymru) provided an update on each organisation’s work. The RSPB’s reedbed restoration work on Anglesey resulted in the first booming Bittern and first nesting attempt by Marsh Harrier for decades. Lapwings are also doing well on the RSPB’s Anglesey reserves, while the Wales Black Grouse counts in 2015 found 420 lekking males, of which a remarkable 320 on Wynnstay Estate’s Ruabon Moor. Picking up on Iolo’s earlier comments about Natural Resources Wales, Dan said that the RSPB’s message to Assembly Members is that NRW has some good people but is not standing up for biodversity in the way that people in Wales expect.
Kelvin announced that 354 Breeding Bird Survey squares were completed in Wales in 2015, the best yet. He also encouraged delegates to vote for their favourite view from a BBS in Wales, which he initiated this year and will run again in 2016. The UK Peregrine Survey had shown a decline in their numbers, by 12%, in Wales in the last decade, and Kelvin noted there have been several incidents of illegal destruction in North Wales. There was good take-up of the House Martin and Winter Thrush surveys in Wales; the Woodcock Survey found roding birds in only 5% of suitable squares sampled in Wales; Kelvin explained how the latest Cuckoo satellite-tagged in Wales got its name ‘Disco Tony’ (you had to be there…); and he also explained how the BTO had been all set to undertake research on Goosanders and fisheries – to answer questions that WOS has been raising – earlier this year, but Natural Resources Wales had failed to come up with the funding.
RSPB Cymru’s Carolyn Robertson talked about Lighting Sparks in Cardiff, where a major educational initiative is underway to promote Giving Nature A Home among the city’s schools, and in local parks in conjunction with Cardiff City Council. This is a response to research that shows 8-12 year olds in Wales have a lower connection with nature than in any part of the UK, including London. Carolyn pondered whether Scotland’s education curriculum – which embeds nature across all subjects – is the reason that Scotland’s score is the best of any home nation. Through schools outreach and public art, Giving Nature a Home in Cardiff is trying to counter this at a large scale: 48,000 people who don’t “do” nature visited TAPE in Bute Park over the summer, for example. The initiative is now being rolled out in 15 cities, including Swansea, funded by the carrier bag levy from supermarket Aldi.
Cardiff University’s James Vafidis explained nature’s winners and losers from the Cardiff Bay Barrage – the winners are species that have moved into new mitigation habitats created, but the losers were the mudflat waders whose habitat was not replicated. He also reminded us that 98,000 wetland birds rely on the Severn estuary, where a mix of new lagoon and barrage proposals could affect 98% of the feeding habitat. His reedbed studies in Cardiff Bay have shown why Reed Warblers are probably benefiting from a warming climate in Britain and are more resilient to the changing climate in sub-Saharan Africa than the similar Sedge Warbler. James also provided an update on the Cardiff University Swift Project, supported by WOS through its small grant scheme in 2014, and also emphasised the important role that a couple of supportive people had played in his development as an ornithologist.
WOS President and tv naturalist, Iolo Williams, finished with a few words about the role that we can all play in Spreading the Gospel, weaving together his own personal experiences, from his five-year old self with his Taid who started his discoveries, to diving off Pembrokeshire, and a young girl who discovered a poplar hawk moth caterpillar and became the centre of her schoolfriend’s world. His parting message was that, yes, organisations – schools, NGOs, community groups – need to be doing more to engage young people, but the most effective means of carrying on our own work, is to leave that legacy ourselves. Every single one of us.
The Conference was widely shared on Twitter, using the hashtag #wos15 to reach out to almost 200,000 people – thanks to all those who live-tweeted from the venue and the many people who engaged with the debate on social media.
Thanks also to delegates who gave us feedback on the event through an online survey. Click here for a summary of the results.