To work in wildlife conservation is to grieve. Faced by the unrelenting tide of bad news about our wildlife, its habitats and our environment, it is hard not to be paralysed by despair. If, like me, you are given to despair, I invite you to drink of the wisdom of the peerlessly brilliant Simon Barnes, now resident in Norfolk and an indomitable friend to Norfolk Wildlife Trust. In my favourite of his books, his irreverent, unfettered How to Be a Bad Birdwatcher, he writes, ‘But there is a worse crime than crass destruction, and it is crass despair. It is giving up. For there is an answer to despair, and it is out there hanging upside down on your bird-feeder.’
Simon, and his tits, are right. As conservationists, as lovers of wild, the worst thing we can do is wrap ourselves in the heavy blanket of despair. What we need — to find the energy to act, to forge partnerships, to save habitat and create new space for wildlife — are hope and joy in equal measure. And joy, joy is to be found wherever there is wild. So here, in the fickle month of April, are reasons to be joyful, and being joyful to redouble our efforts to be fierce and strong for wildlife and for wild landscape.
Kites. Kites are a reason for joy. As a boy I never dreamed for one moment I would see a kite in Norfolk. They were secret things of Welsh valleys and well-thumbed books. Now I see a kite almost every time I venture outdoors. Buzzards too. Hounded to extinction here by Victorian attitudes, I saw just one buzzard in my Norfolk childhood. Brimming with excitement, I ran to the biology department at school to tell my teachers of this wondrous thing. Now buzzards are common. Spoonbills. After hundreds of years of absence they are back as a Norfolk breeding bird, trotting leggily across our marshes, their shaggy crests bouncing behind them.
Willow tits. Here’s the rub. Willow tits have declined catastrophically in Norfolk and across southern England. Where I used to hear them in the clouds of grey willow along the Stiffkey River in the village of my grandfather’s birth, they have long since gone. So where’s the joy? In a Breckland village, one Norfolk man, a knower and lover of birds without equal, is quietly putting up dozens of carefully designed boxes for willow tits, to save perhaps Norfolk’s last population. He will not let them go.
This! This is what Simon Barnes means and this is what we all must be and do for wildlife. As Simon continues, ‘Liking birds is not just a nice thing to do. To look at a bird and feel good about it is a violent revolutionary act. To put out peanuts is an act of insurrection. It is an act that demands a revolution in political thought, for it is quite obvious that conservation is far, far too low on the political agenda.’
When the legendary bird conservationist Carl Jones was sent to Mauritius in the 1970s and, finding the Mauritius kestrel on the brink of extinction, was instructed to give up and come home, he told his employers he would do no such thing. Through sheer bloodymindedness, he saved the kestrel and went on to save the pink pigeon and echo parakeet, all of which now number in the hundreds. Sheer bloodymindedness is what we need, inspired by joy in the natural world. This April, watch kites looping in lazy circles, their russet tails splitting the spring sun. Hear the soulful shriek of buzzards circling on the weak thermals of spring. Think of a lone man fixing nest boxes to Breckland trees. And feel joy, feel defiant joy and the gritty determination to change with us the future for Norfolk’s wildlife. For, as the strange, wonderful Emily Dickinson said, ‘Hope, is the thing with feathers.’