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Birding in the UK: Where Are the People Like Me?

There is a lack of diversity in the UK nature community, and it is not talked about enough.

“As a black birder, you have to be prepared to be the only one who looks like you when out birding.”

Sorrel Lyall (© Stephen Magee)

Whilst I do not experience the same issues as black birders, as an ethnic minority birder this quote from #BlackBirdersWeek is all too relatable. I will always remember how different and ‘looked at’ I felt when walking into a conference room as the only young, female, non-white birder. This lack of diversity has always been clear to me, but maybe I was naive in thinking that this was evident to everyone else too.

Birding in the UK is characterised by the old, white, middle-class male. This is an intimidating image and deters many from getting involved. I decided to write about this lack of representation in a Twitter thread, speaking from my own experiences, and hoping to start a conversation and hear the opinions of other minority group birders through a survey. The comments I received were interesting to say the least. The onslaught of trolling and negative responses, all from the white, middle-class male demographic, just proves that more discussion on diversity is needed. But not just discussion, action. We need to bring down the barriers that prevent people of all cultures and backgrounds from accessing nature. Nature is for all.

But why is there such a lack of diversity in birding? I would argue that for some, there is a cultural aspect. I was introduced to birding through the white British side of my family. My Indian grandparents who emigrated to the UK in the 1960s have never pursued hobbies or encouraged their children to do so. They came to this country to work. A hobby like birding requires free time and disposable income, making it immediately inaccessible for immigrants of a lower socioeconomic status. The disconnect between nature and people in cities is another clear factor. Urban centres with higher proportions of deprivation and minority ethnicities do not receive the education or exposure to nature that those living in the country do.

Then there are the barriers that stop those already interested in nature from pursuing their interest as much as they would like. These barriers reach further than ethnicity. It was evident in the survey that discrimination due to age, gender identity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, disability and being female in a male-dominated hobby — as well as racism — all deter minority groups from accessing nature.

How can we expect all areas of society to want to act and preserve nature, if we do not make the nature community open and inclusive to all?

We need to start by listening to minority groups. We need to ask what stops people from engaging with nature organisations, attending birding groups and visiting reserves. The Twitter thread and survey barely scratch the surface of these issues, but the following quotes speak for themselves.

“I felt my background makes me not British enough for British birds.”

“People took photos of me and called me a ‘rarity’ and used my photo on social media without my permission.” [On attending a birding event as the only minority ethnic person]

“When it comes to joining nature groups there is a subconscious tension due to my gender and sexuality.”

“Homophobic remarks on a few occasions, mostly from older male birders.”

“I can walk short distances but need a wheelchair for more than 1/4 mile. So most nature reserves or outdoor spaces are not accessible.”

“I didn't have access to a car, didn't feel confident walking alone outside away from people, and I couldn't afford binoculars or a scope, and nor could my parents. And it delayed my birding skills development.”

“Any rare birds I find and report I get told I didn't see them by being judged on my age and being a girl.”

“Hides are intimidating to enter.”

 

Sexism is another evident barrier affecting access to birding. Women are often blatantly ignored and receive sexist comments. Many women do not feel valued in birding groups or feel safe birding alone.

“Everywhere I've been to enjoy nature, whether that be in the local park or on a branded reserve, I've always been approached by men wanting to talk to me… You feel as though you can't sit back and enjoy things because you have to be on your guard all the time.”

One survey respondent detailed a case of sexism within a bird ringing group, facing sexist remarks and having her ringing training hindered as a result.

“Comments about my bottom as I climbed ladders, jokes about how I should make the tea... My skills and time are not equally valued or appreciated. I had to be twice as good and ring twice as long as my male peers to get my ringing licence.”

I was also shocked to read of a serious case of racism in a prominent ornithology organisation.

“After years of birding I recently resigned from a national bird club following sustained threats and racially based bullying. When I reported it, shoulders were shrugged and nothing was done.”

This discrimination is unacceptable. It is overwhelmingly clear that many people that don’t fit the old, white, middle-class, cis, straight, able-bodied, male demographic feel unwelcome, different and unsafe in the birding and nature community. This is stopping people attending events, joining birding groups and visiting reserves. This is stopping people engaging with nature and conservation. This needs to change.

Yes, these are issues of discrimination, racism and sexism in wider society. But looking at it in this passive manner, assuming we can’t make a difference, is a dangerous outlook. We must all enact change within our own spheres of influence ; through social media, by calling out racism and discrimination when we see it, by making everyone feel safe and valued in this community. As individuals we can make a difference. And the nature organisations have a duty to act now and make their activities and communities inclusive to all.

We want to see a diverse, welcoming community of nature lovers, with more representation of minorities, more people like ‘me’ in nature. We want to feel safe at events and reserves and in online spaces, “knowing our backs are covered”, knowing that organisations will not tolerate any discrimination.

There are some immediate steps that nature organisations can take. Organisations need clear, well-publicised and well-enforced policies to show that they will keep their members safe. The voices of minority groups need to be included in decision making. We need to publicise diversity, with social media campaigns, diverse speakers at events and more panel discussions like the #BlackBirders live stream. We need diverse role models and mentors. We need to focus on accessibility and publish clear access information for events and reserves. We need safe birding groups for minorities, through social media and group visits to reserves. We need diversity training in all organisations, for staff and volunteers. We need outreach work in deprived and minority ethnic areas in cities, with more nature education and trips to wild spaces. We need binocular access schemes, safe car sharing and childcare support for women with children. We need change across the whole sector.

This calls for a united effort across the conservation sector. Collaboration between organisations across the country to collectively address the multitude of barriers restricting access to nature. Education organisations working on outreach projects and working with schools. Research organisations making conservation science diverse and open. Visitor engagement organisations making their reserves accessible and welcoming. This is ambitious, but necessary.

It is not my intention with this to generalise the experiences of minority groups, I am speaking from my own experiences and voicing the thoughts of the survey respondents.

It is time for the birding community to open its eyes to these issues, and work to make nature and birding inclusive to all. I am hopeful that together, organisations and individual action will make this happen.

If any organisations would like a more detailed report of the survey findings, please contact me via Twitter @SorrelLyall.

 

Sorrel Lyall
25 June 2020

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