Don't believe what you read in the papers!


On Monday, February 21 The Independent, a newspaper with a good record on environmental issues and which regularly uses my output, published a double-page spread titled 'Out of hiding: How Britain has become a nation of twitchers – by Brian Unwin and Helen McCormack'.

Unfortunately it was riddled with errors and crass statements misrepresenting birding and, because my name was in the byline and I am fairly well known in birding circles, an impression was widely formed that I must have been responsible for the appalling items that were in print. This is not so and as the story has been flashed around the world I have spent the past few days emailing disclaimers to hundreds of people and organisations involved in birding internationally.

In fact only about 10% of the published article involved my contribution, most of which was ditched when (as the paper has explained to me in a subsequent apology) a decision was made very close to deadline "to give the piece a more textured feel" and one of their office-based reporters was given this task. The mistakes that were fed into the article were all in the other 90% written into it during the course of this re-texturing.

What was published can be seen by clicking on http://news.independent.co.uk/uk/environment/story.jsp?story=613171 (full article no longer available without payment - Eds.). Anyone seeing it or who bought the paper and was shocked by what is splashed across pages 16 and 17 will find it illuminating to contrast that with the original news story that I sent to the paper. While not everyone will agree with all the points made in it, the contents are fact-based and present birding in a way that I think most would find acceptable, given that I had to explain it in around 500 words. It was as follows:


By Brian Unwin

Britain is highlighted as the birdwatching centre of the world by a report stating it is the pastime of one in 20 of the population.

A staggering 2.85 million adults aged over 15 "go birdwatching regularly or occasionally", according to Target Group Index (TGI), one of the UK's most trusted market research organisations.

"This figure supports other evidence of the nation's growing passion for birds", said Grahame Madge of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Europe's biggest wildlife conservation organisation, which subscribes to TGI.

"Our million-plus membership, our nature reserve network attracting well over a million visitors annually and two out of every three householders claiming to feed birds in their gardens all point to the extent of this fascination."

A minority activity 50 years ago is now fashionable, with politicians and entertainers in its ranks. Demand for specialist gear spawned a whole industry; Europe-wide suppliers exhibit at the annual British Birdwatching Fair, the world's biggest, at Rutland Water.

Modern technology means the discovery of a rarity on the Outer Hebrides leads to twitchers, as more fanatical seekers are known, being instantly alerted and booking plane seats. Gaining extra ticks on life bird lists costs the most determined thousands of pounds a year.

TV wildlife programmes fuelled the wider mania and easing of international travel is another factor. Siberia's tundra and what's left of the Amazonian rain forest are no longer impossible dreams, experienced only on the small screen.

BBC nature programme producer Stephen Moss, author of A Bird in the Bush: a Social History of Birdwatching, said: "Undoubtedly interest is massive but it's hard to put figures on it because there is such a range of categories."

"One Bill Oddie birdwatching series had a total of five million viewers and a survey found ten per cent - 500,000 - regarded themselves as birdwatchers."

"Almost three million UK birdwatchers is certainly possible if you include everyone with only a casual interest. Perhaps they just do it on occasional outings or while on holiday. Many do no more than look at what turns up in their gardens."

Twitchers turn out in force for rarities - up to 3,000 per day went saw Britain's first Golden-winged Warbler from America near Maidstone, Kent, in February 1989. However, the majority of casual birders don't bother.

Lee Evans, founder of the twitcher organisation, the UK400 Club, said the number of interested people might be into seven figures but he reckons there are just 60,000 "capable birders." Only 8,640 are "very keen" - willing to drive 400 miles for a rarity.

Total participation levels are indicated by the multi-million pound spending on optical equipment and garden bird feeding, pointed out David Cromack, editor of Birdwatching magazine, the longest-established title in its field.

"Several upward surges of interest in birds have occurred since the 1960s. This seems to be happening now from all the mail I receive from people who have just become birdwatchers and are asking for more to be published to help them."

"The number of people involved is so big that they have great potential to influence government decisions affecting the environment. We have real muscle now and need to make full use of our lobbying power."

Sonja Taylor-Jones of the 130,000-member Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust also senses a growth trend. "The pleasure people get from birds seems boundless. More people flock to our centres each year and our membership keeps on rising."


I was as shocked as anyone by what was published because it bore so little relation with the article I supplied. However, it was worse for me because with my name on top of the story I quickly became aware through emails I received that birders in Britain and overseas (it was being debated on email groups as far afield as Birding Australia) believed that I was responsible for the horrors in print.

Subsequently I emailed the editor of The Independent pointing out all the errors that had been written into the story after it left my hands and what I thought about them. These are as follows:


"Equipped only with a set of binoculars and a kagool and ready to spend long hours waiting in all weathers for a precious glimpse of a rare bullfinch or barn owl, Britain's birdwatchers had long been presumed to be lovers of a minority sport."

MY COMMENT: No birdwatcher would spend "long hours" for what would be an everyday glimpse of a Bullfinch which is not rare, although scarcer than in former times. It's a species liable to be seen without difficulty during any stroll through suitable habitat. Barn Owl is a bit harder due to their nocturnal habits and the population is much reduced, but there are still plenty being seen around the country; all one needs to do is go to a known location at dusk and wait a few minutes for the bird to show. Had someone asked me to suggest a rare finch and owl to include in this way in the intro I would have suggested Pine Grosbeak and Scops Owl - both recorded in Britain just a few times and I happen to know birders have spent a lot of time trying for sightings.

THIRD PARAGRAPH (first sentence)

"Dedicated twitchers of the Bill Oddie variety, those prepared to travel thousands of miles for a sighting of a rare Siberian waxwing may remain in a league of their own."

MY COMMENT: Bill Oddie repeatedly stresses on his programmes that he is not a twitcher (i.e. someone who regularly travels long distances to see a rarity that will add another tick to his or her life list). I know that and he knows I know that so he must be wondering why something under my name should suggest that he would.

Also there's no such thing as the "rare Siberian waxwing." The full name of the waxwings seen regularly in Britain and which do nest in Siberia is Bohemian Waxwing. They are not rare - there are thousands spread around the UK currently, hundreds of them within 30 miles of the centre of London. What was rare was the Cedar Waxwing from North America (only the second for Britain) that attracted many birders, including former Chancellor Ken Clarke, when it turned up at Nottingham in 1996. However Nottingham isn't thousands of miles from anywhere in Britain.


To show how birding is growing the changed story claims that the Ogston Bird Club has built up its membership to 12,000 in two years.

MY COMMENT: In fact the club website home page says that it has 700+ members.


My original story referred to Britain's first ever Golden-winged Warbler that appeared in Kent in 1989. In the published version its named has been changed to 'golden-winged songbird'. Changing its name like this, for no logical reason at all, makes the paper look silly - and me even sillier because everyone in the birding community who knows me must have a pretty good idea that I know the species' correct name so they think I must have flipped.


  • Most reserves have "hides", huts for viewing birds, making a foldaway chair an optional extra.

MY COMMENT: Apart from the patronising explanation of the purpose of a hide, a foldaway chair is not something the vast majority of birders would dream of having on a typical outing. There are some who are disabled who use them and sea-watchers looking out from the coast for long periods certainly do. Particularly birders doing a lot of walking and also carrying a telescope on a tripod and maybe a camera with a long-focus lens wouldn't also want to be lumbered with a foldaway chair.


Scilly Isles (sic): Puffins and shearwaters mingle with waders and the occasional birds of prey overhead.

MY COMMENT: Normally this archipelago is referred to as the Isles of Scilly or just Scilly but the main problem here is that there is no mention of the reason for their fame in birding circles - the regular appearances of birds from North America and Asia, thousands of miles off their normal migration routes and in recent years also Antarctic-nesting Wilson's Storm-petrels.

Loch Garton (sic), Scotland: Attracts hordes of visitors for the large numbers of ospreys on the island.

MY COMMENT: I won't say anything about the mis-spelling of Loch Garten as such mistakes can happen anywhere, but "large numbers of ospreys on the island" is totally inexcusable. As the tens of thousands of people who have walked to the RSPB visitor centre annually for nearly 50 years know, what is to be seen is ONE pair of Ospreys with a large nest at the top of a battered Caledonian pine in a forest clearing half a mile from Loch Garten (which has given its name to the reserve as it is the main feature of the locality) - and, by the way, the loch doesn't have an island.

As I stated earlier, I have received an apology from the newspaper for what happened. That's fine and I accept it but it doesn't return the three days I have spent assuring birders and their organisations world-wide that I was not responsible for these errors and repair the damage to the reputation I hope I have gained during 45 years of involvement in this wonderful activity of ours.

I hope this explanation of the circumstances will set the record straight.

Written by: Brian Unwin, freelance wildlife writer