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Wanted: £1m to map Britain's birds

Friday 17 August 2007

Our countryside commentator John Sheard applauds a sponsorship appeal which will create the biggest ever bird atlas of the UK - and could be instrumental in helping some of our rarer species survive

I AM a bit of a sucker for sponsorship deals. Over the years, I have helped support breast cancer research, old people, the disabled, the blind, the deaf and the dumb, and the sufferers of many other afflictions by paying lots of people to climb mountains, ride bikes a long way, or swim lots and lots of lengths in the local baths.

Of these, I am perhaps proudest of paying the bus fare of a bright young African lad so that he could go to university, the first ever student from his tiny village school out in the bush to get into further education. A charity paid his fees - but his parents couldn't afford the bus fare to send him!

PR with a purpose: Protecting the Kingfisher
Photo: John Harding/BTO

That, until this week, was by far the most satisfying charity I have ever supported. Then a brochure came through my front door with a picture of a bird on the cover: my favourite bird, the kingfisher, whose ups and downs I have witnessed for half a century and which has brought me much rare joy on an unproductive day on the river bank.

Who cares about an empty creel after a be-jewelled shaft of lightning has lit up the sky? Even better, I have on even rarer occasion packed up fishing myself to sit and watch this multi-coloured marvel show me how its done, diving headlong into rushing waters and coming up with a minnow or a stickleback almost ever time.

The kingfisher, like many other water-loving birds, has suffered terribly from the arrival of mink on these shores, escaped or deliberately released from fur farms by so-called "animal rights" protestors. Mink, you see, can wriggle into a kingfisher's burrow and eat eggs or even chicks.

There are other perils, too. Huge floods in recent years have washed away hundreds of miles of river bank where kingfishers nested. Sometimes these floods have drowned the nestlings and driven the parents away. And then there have been periodic outbreaks of pollution, killing of the fry on which the birds feed.

Despite all these dangers, the kingfisher has survived and, if my personal observations are correct, might even be prospering in its own small way in parts of the Yorkshire Dales, thanks perhaps due to cleaner rivers. I certainly see them more than I did, say, 20 years ago. But these are just my personal guesses. I don't actually know!

And that's where the kingfisher in my post comes in. It marked the launch of a remarkable new venture by one of my favourite charities, the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), which wants to map the birdlife of Britain, all 250 species of them, in the biggest wildlife census ever carried out.

It wants to know how many birds there are, where they live, what they feed on and how successfully they breed. The work will take place between now and 2011 and will be helped by no fewer than 50,000 volunteers going out and about to collect the necessary data.

This is not just a fun exercise. Strange things are happening to British birds from, arguably, global warming or, more easy to prove, large scale development for housing, roads and industry. Of those 250 species, 40 are "red-listed" as being in dangerous decline. And without the data the survey will collect, BTO scientists cannot suggest ways of coming to the aid of threatened species to conserve them for the future.

This is PR with a purpose and that's rarer than the kingfisher these days

Despite the massive input by volunteers, this project will cost money - more than £1 million. So the trust has launched its national bird atlas appeal to persuade businesses to send in bids to adopt a bird at a cost of anything from £2,000 for a Dunnock or £10,000 for a kingfisher, depending on the highest bid received (the BTO admits that some birds are "sexier" than others are therefore more likely to attract higher bids).

Patron of the appeal is Prince Philip who, like me, is interested in the BTO because "it deals exclusively in facts," as he writes in a letter of support. Unlike some single-interest pressure groups, the BTO deals in hard science, not in emotive appeals, and that science is put to use to save some of the gems of English country life.

I Wish I could afford £10,000 to sponsor the kingfisher but I have my African student to think of. Is there any company out there interested? This is PR with a purpose and that's rarer than the kingfisher these days!

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