Fighting for birds with Dr Mark Avery
Mark is the former RSPB Conservation Director and has been called Britain’s premier wildlife blogger. He worked for the RSPB for 25 years – and spent 13 years as their Conservation Director. Mark’s knowledge about nature conservation in the UK is without par, and he cares deeply about the sustainability of wildlife in the modern world.
The RSPB speaks out for birds and wildlife, tackling the problems that threaten our environment. They’re goliaths in the conservation world, and have:
- Over a million members, including over 195,000 youth members.
- A staff of over 1,300 people and almost 18,000 volunteers.
- A budget of £100 million.
- 200 nature reserves covering almost 130,000 hectares, home to 80% of our rarest or most threatened bird species.
- A UK headquarters, three national offices and nine regional offices.
- A local network of 175 local groups and more than 110 youth groups.
- At least 9 volunteers for every paid member of staff.
WHY DO YOU WORK IN CONSERVATION?
I’ve always loved nature, but I got into nature conservation largely by accident. I started life as a scientist, but I didn’t think the science I was doing at the time – studying optimal foraging in Great Tits – was of any use to anyone. It was interesting to do, and I found nature amazing, but I was simply looking at a rather detailed bit of it.
I fell into working for the RSPB by accident. Actually, I found a mistake in a paper which hadn’t yet been published by a senior member of the RSPB staff (Colin Bibby), I phoned him up and he invited me over to discuss it which we did. He agreed with my views and promptly offered me a job!
I accepted the role, but only with a view initially of staying for a few years. When Colin moved to work for BirdLife International, I became the new Head of the Science Department at RSPB. I did that for seven years, and then the opportunity came up to be Conservation Director, which I was lucky enough to get.
WHAT WAS INVOLVED IN BEING CONSERVATION DIRECTOR FOR THE RSPB?
Firstly, it was enormous fun! I have never really felt like I have worked, because I’ve always enjoyed what I was doing so much.
It was partly a managerial job. I had an annual budget of 15 million quid, and I had to ensure we spent it all. I was involved in all aspects of recruiting staff, and, occasionally, sacking people. Being part of an NGO we had to ensure we kept our Trustees – our Council – happy by providing reports and strategy papers. So there was quite a lot of what you could call bureaucracy, but it was actually planning of nature conservation and getting people’s buy-in and approval to do it, so it didn’t feel like bureaucracy. Internally, there was also the mentoring staff and checking up regularly on what was happening.
There was also an external bit, which is what people see, but it’s not what you spend most of your time on. There was making sure that journalists quoted the RSPB in the papers, going on the Today Programme (BBC Radio 4) which I did about 60 times, giving evidence to select committees, going along to the UK House of Commons or House of Lords, having meetings with Government Ministers, and going into Downing Street and speaking with the Prime Minister’s environment advisors. It was all stuff like that, which was good fun.
The RSPB and the team really made a difference. One person can rarely say that they did something in isolation that made a change. However, sometimes you can see that a thing you said or did made a difference, and it was often because you were there in the right forum, you were informed enough, and were brave enough to say something that made the difference. Don’t be shy – speak up!
WHAT WAS THE BEST PART OF THE JOB?
I was quite well paid, which is not to be sniffed at. I also worked with fantastic people, which is important. I suspect I could have been ever better paid doing other things outside of nature conservation, but the people you meet in conservation are fantastic. Being part of a team that is motivated by largely the same thing is really exciting. And we know that we made a real difference to conservation on the ground – that’s very satisfying.
WHAT WAS THE WORST PART OF THE JOB?
Sometimes things don’t work. But I’m an optimist by outlook. Even when we didn’t get what we wanted, I regarded it as a victory postponed. And you have to be like that; the RSPB has been involved in some issues forever.
When I was working at the RSPB, the EU ban on the trade of wild birds came into being. That was something that BirdLife and the RSPB worked together on since the 70’s, and there was a moment where we used the opportunity presented by Bird Flu, and especially a parrot dying of it in captivity in Essex, to advocate for better European restrictions on the trade of birds. This had been our long term advocacy target and we stuck to it. If we’d given up long ago we wouldn’t have been prepared when the opportunity presented itself.
Provided I felt that I, and everyone with whom I was working, had given it our best shot, then I usually went home fairly happy.
WHAT KEY STEPS HAVE YOU TAKEN IN YOUR CONSERVATION CAREER?
They’ve all been flukes really!
When I was an undergraduate at The University of Cambridge, although I was a bird watcher and keen on nature, the most exciting thing was biochemistry and molecular chemistry. I was receiving lectures by Nobel Prize winners and people still talked about the time when Crick and Watson were figuring out the structure of DNA.
But then I met, in a pub, a person who asked me to work on a Red Deer project on the island of Rum in Scotland. I accepted, and it was such an amazing experience, studying the behaviour and ecology of wild Red Deer. Being with a group of people who were really good evolutionary biologists, and realising that you could look at animal behaviour in an evolutionary way, made ecology really fascinating. Dawkin’s book ‘The Selfish Gene’ had just been published too. In my second year I changed all my options from biochemistry and molecular chemistry, to behaviour and ecology. So, I’d recommend going to pubs more. It worked for me!
More generally, I’ve never had a plan, and always followed what seems to be the most fun thing to do, and the most important thing to do, during each step of my career. You spend an awful lot of your life at work, if you do things that you don’t enjoy at work, just to earn the money so that in the other bits of time you can do what you enjoy, that seems a bit of a shame. I’m very lucky that I’ve spent all my working life doing things that were fun and fulfilling.
WHAT ARE THE RSPB LIKE TO WORK FOR AS AN EMPLOYER?
Well my daughter actually works for the RSPB now, and she enjoys it very much.
It’s a good organization to work for, very friendly, and looks after and cares for its staff. As a Director I had numerous meetings about things like the pension scheme, for example, and it’s a much better scheme than you’ll find in industry, and miles better than most other NGOs. So they go further than they need to look after staff.
Along with achieving an ‘Investors in People’ award, the RSPB has always scored highly on independent surveys of what the staff report about the organization. I always made a point of meeting new staff early on, and then once they’ve had time to settle in so I can ask them what the worst thing about working for the RSPB was. They often said there wasn’t a worst thing, which speaks for itself really. And I hope this is true of most nature conservation NGOs, despite them all having different personalities.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE SOMEONE WISHING TO FOLLOW IN YOUR FOOTSTEPS?
It is quite difficult, and competition for jobs in conservation is pretty strong at the moment. One bit of advice is stick at it, don’t give up if you really want to do it.
Another is that nature conservation is quite professional. I got into the RSPB because I was a very good scientist. If I had been an ok scientist, with stacks of passion for wildlife, I wouldn’t have got the job. You do have to be really good at something, just caring a lot isn’t enough. And that something can be anything, nature conservation needs people to set up computer systems, it needs media professionals, and people who can design a magazine and much more. There’s almost nothing that isn’t needed by conservation. Whatever you choose, be good at it.
I’ve looked at awful lot of CVs and they all look very similar – they all have good degrees and say they’re interested or passionate about nature conservation. You do have to stand out. You have to make your application look interesting in some way, or have done more than other people. Volunteering is a way to do that. Try volunteering for your local nature reserve or office, or even writing a blog or wildlife column for a local newspaper – anything that lifts your experiences above other people.
Many times I’ve had to shortlist from 50+ applications for one job, and I don’t spend an hour on each one. I flick through them, quite quickly, to get rid of the ones that don’t suit the role. Even then you’re still left with 20 people who look like they could do the job, and you can only interview about 6. At this point attention to detail can mean everything – If your spelling isn’t up to scratch that could be enough to put you in the reject pile.
You have to know your friends, but also your enemies. I think conservationists are sometimes a bit too nice. There are lots of people in the UK who have consciously decided that they don’t want to help the environment, and you have to be tough to stand up to them. If you’re on the side of the Hen Harrier, for example, it’s quite difficult to stand back quietly and watch people kill them. Socially I would get on really well with such people, but it was my job, and personal view, to challenge them. Always being friendly and polite is important, but you have to be prepared to stand up to people where it counts.
You can find about more about Mark on his website https://markavery.info/.