Paul Miller looks at why vultures should be watched closely.
RECENTLY, I went away to Norfolk and... watched birds.
I have spent plenty of happy hours at Carsington, too.
Please carry on reading because this isn’t a column about birds per se – it’s about the countryside, vultures, climate change and politics.
Birders all dream of finding a bird that has never been seen in Britain before.
You can spend a lifetime birding and never find a really scarce bird. In most years, only one or two bird species are added to the British List, which now totals more than 550.
Imagine the excitement in 1927 when Britain’s only griffon vultures (two enormous scavenging birds of prey that look a little like flying doors) were seen above Ashbourne. To this day, the next nearest confirmed sighting is in Holland.
In those days, nature observation was a privilege of the well-off and ‘‘conservation’’ meant taxidermy or cuisine.
The vultures were seen by Kathleen Hollick with her father Hubert. They went to Dr Sadler’s house and watched them for 20 minutes from around 100 yards. Mr Hollick was familiar with the species from his time in South Africa. If it happened today we would be besieged by hordes of twitchers. So why did Hubert and Kathleen decide they had seen Griffon vultures rather than something more common? Birding is as much about experience as it is about science.
I am certain that, even if I was lucky enough to see a first for Britain, I wouldn’t be confident enough to identify it – and I am guessing this is why the Hollicks sought confirmation with Dr Sadler. Conclusive identification is the everyday challenge for all birders.
Although the shotgun is no longer part of the kitbag you may think that, with all today’s guidebooks, powerful optics and communications, identification should be straightforward. You would be wrong. It is astonishing how challenging foliage, light and weather can be. The birds themselves don’t help – while the griffon vulture is enormous most birds are small, remarkably mobile and shy, which means you only get a glimpse once in a while.
Some birders record rarities, first arrivals and last departures, numbers and breeding pairs. This is how we know that there are subtle changes in the British birding population year on year and season by season.
Some of this can be attributed to changing habitats but the growing numbers of egrets, spoonbills and ibises in Britain – all of which are common on the warmer lagoons of the southern Mediterranean – is noteworthy. These movements are a matter of record thanks to the thousands of amateur eyes watching.
Although naturalists would suggest this is absolute proof of climate change, the interpretation of this data is still just opinion.
Governments wanting to avoid spending cash, landowners wanting to install turbines, villagers opposed to the same, environmentalists seeking support, big business wanting to build energy plants and scientists squaring up would do well to recognise that they all just have opinion at this stage. All opinion is fair game for being challenged and the debate enriches us... which brings me back to the strange case of Ashbourne’s griffon vultures.
In 1962, the journal of the British birding world – British Birds – published a paper which shook ornithology to its core. It established, through statistical analysis and by examining bird skins, that all was not as it seemed. A number of British records and the people who found them were called into question.
Using their contemporary knowledge of bird migration and behaviour the authors realised that some of the ‘‘finds’’ just weren’t in the right place at the right time to be credible. These oddities, which subsequently became known as the Hastings Rarities, were declared a hoax and six species and several rarity sightings were removed from the British List. At the time they were found, bird specimens changed hands for good money and, the rarer the specimen, the greater the pay day. Birds which are common elsewhere in Europe could be ‘‘relabelled’’ and then sold to willing or unsuspecting collectors as shot in Britain.
Lack of contradictory knowledge and the reputations of the people involved meant that discoveries were accepted without question. Effectively, through one paper, the burden of proof switched to the finder.
For the unavoidable reasons given above some birds go unidentified... it’s not just me. Despite massed ranks of telescopes and camera lenses befitting a Royal Wedding, some birds have to be referred to a committee of experts before they are officially identified. Even if I miraculously managed to identify a bird, it is very unlikely to be accepted unless I photographed it from all angles stood in front of this week’s copy of the Stunner.
In 1999, 72 years later and without the opportunity for the Hollicks to reply, the Ashbourne griffon vultures were removed from the British List – not through any suspicion of a hoax but because the necessary identification features weren’t definitively established. Today in birding, as in life, the level of scrutiny is so much higher.
We are surrounded by other metaphorical vultures – planning decisions, the wind turbine debate, the conduct of our representatives and developers. In the absence of facts, we have to rely on opinion and we may never know whether it is correct. The worst decision is to dither. I’d rather believe that there was a pair of griffon vultures circling Ashbourne and trust the Hollicks than to effectively doubt their word.
In the same way, I’d rather err on the side of assuming we do face damaging climate change and do something about it for future generations. I’d rather concentrate on designing better looking turbines and locating them in the right place. And I’d rather discuss and address the challenges Ashbourne faces than put my head in the sand.
Most importantly, the lesson is to take the time to look a little harder to establish the truth.