Belief, Proof and the Ashbourne Vultures


soaring-vulture1Recently I went away to Norfolk and…watched birds. I have Tried Ashbourne First for my birding and 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 we live in, vultures, climate change and politics. Birders all dream of finding a bird that has never been seen in Britain before. The Internet and mobile phones gets news around very quickly and twitchers will drive long distances to add another rarity to their lists. It’s very competitive and some of the birds may only be there for a short period of time before flying on. There is a lot of time spent scouring empty hedgerows from fifty yards away! 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 the little Derbyshire town of 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 in the early evening. They went to Dr Sadler’s house and watched them for 20 minutes from around 100 yards. Luckily Mr Hollick was familiar with the species from his time in South Africa. If it happened today we’d be besieged by hordes of twitchers hoping to see the rarities and their progress would be tracked across the country as the alert spread.

So why did Hubert and Kathleen decide they’d seen Griffon Vultures rather than something more common? Birding is as much about experience as it is about science. The nearest analogy is sitting outside a crowded cafe and watching the world go by. Imagine that you occupy the same seat every day so that you begin to anticipate the arrivals and departures. You notice the differences rather than just the same events. You spot that the group of four that normally walk past now only have three in the group, the lady who normally stops for a coffee walks straight past with four large shopping bags, and the old gentleman who always sat in the corner making the most of a single mug of tea no longer arrives. You are able to anticipate and add a narrative to everyday events.

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 of the smaller species, regardless of sex, are remarkably similar with some of the distinguishing features being proportionately tiny. This has coined the dismissive phrase of LBJ – Little Brown Job – to describe some of the many warbler species that present themselves.

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 money, landowners wanting to install turbines, villagers opposed to the same, environmentalists seeking support for their cause, big business wanting to build energy plants and massed ranks of 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 payday. 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. Some species can only be finally identified by DNA or close examination in the hand; the world of birding is political too and there is room for subjectivity. Who saw the bird – their track record and integrity – is sometimes as important as what was seen. Even if I miraculously managed to identify a bird, it is very unlikely to be accepted unless a 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. There is little doubt that the Hollicks saw something special but other alternatives were not rigorously discounted. Today in birding, as in life, the level of scrutiny is so much higher. Our MPs, servicemen and bankers will attest to how life has changed for them too.

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, in my opinion, 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 (perhaps that’s one bird reference too many). Most importantly the lesson is to take the time to look a little harder to establish “the truth”.

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About justaukcook

/kʊk/ Not a chef, not an epicure, not a foodie. Just one who likes to prepare food – What really happens in the kitchen and on the high street is what I write about. Follow me on Twitter @Justaukcook and on https://www.facebook.com/justaukcook
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