Often, we aren't conscious of our safety until something threatens it. Peering over the edge of a high cliff, crossing a busy main road, a near miss while driving in a car, walking through a wild place in broad daylight … if you blinked at the last one, that's because (lucky you!) you've never felt unsafe in this situation. Odds are you're white, odds are you're male.
Please read this with an open mind. One of the biggest barriers to change is when a problem is laughed or scoffed at, or simply denied. People can be in the exact same situation and have completely different experiences. For lots of men, natural spaces are places of solace, safety and security. They can be for women, too, but there is often an undercurrent: always be on your guard.
Most women recognise this. I was taught by my mum how to carry my keys in my fist for self-defence. Make sure someone knows where you are, check in with friends to say you're safe, don't walk in the dark and, if in doubt, scream. We're taught to walk in groups, not to exercise with both headphones on, drink out of bottles with our thumbs pressed over the tops, change our routes home – just in case. In case of what? Harassment, confrontation, assault – or worse.
Female birders experience barriers that men will rarely or never have to deal with (Rob Lambert).
A few weeks ago, a rape case came to light in the US whereby a female birder was sexually assaulted by a high-profile male birder. And there are few women who have been unshaken by the recent story of Sarah Everard. Women have shared their own harrowing stories of physical harassment, online harassment, indecent exposure and threats to their safety. Often women bury these experiences, the victims carrying the shame, guilt and humiliation. Something is broken.
I've been birding for nearly 10 years, enjoying overwhelmingly positive experiences: laughter, fun and camaraderie. But there was that time where I talked about a Minke Whale blowing and someone made it sexual. And that time when a drunk birder groped me at a bird log. And that thread on a Facebook group devoted to trashing me. And the comments made about me on private WhatsApp groups. And that meme that circulated a few weeks ago. And so on.
These incidents do not in any way speak for all men, but on reflection, they're more common than I'd realised. I didn't admit to myself how much some of it bothered me, but they knocked my confidence, made me doubt myself and made me feel sick and anxious. They gnawed at me and made me second guess my behaviour. For other women, these experiences have been much worse. Lucy Lapwing tweeted a photo of the 'defence spray' she had to buy following sexual harassment at a nature reserve. Another sickening incident involved sexual comments on a private Facebook group aimed at an 11-year-old female birder.
Like many women mostly birding with a partner, I feel safe at nature reserves. For those out exploring on their own – whether that's birding, exercising, trail hunting, whatever – there is a common theme of worry, doubt and even fear. Sometimes even trusted friendships turn nasty.
Listen, hear, empathise
You might be thinking 'I've never seen it'. This is not a birding issue, it's a societal problem. But, as birders, there are things we can do to make these spaces safe for women.
The first step is to accept and validate a person's experiences: if a woman says that she has felt unsafe, belittled or harassed while birding, it's true. Don't roll your eyes or blame her or accuse her of being weak, dramatic or silly. Violent attacks and sexual harassment can happen to anyone, but most cases involve a female victim and a male perpetrator. As young birder James Beaumont eloquently tweeted: "it's not EVERY man, but it could be ANY man." These are not just 'facts of life' or a 'woke' agenda. Show empathy; don’t be defensive.
Most women and men will appreciate a friendly smile while birding, a "hello" and any helpful information on sightings. Avoiding women completely is just as bad as crowding them. A useful tip whether you're birding or just heading to the shops is, if you see a woman walking ahead of you, try not to follow her. Cross the road, pop into a hide, pass at an appropriate distance.
Whether we're exercising, walking or birding, we're conditioned to look over our shoulders and that feeling of being followed, even accidentally, is skin-crawling. Equally, if you see a man acting suspiciously, a gentle challenge or being on your guard could literally save a woman.
One young female birder told me that a male birder and friend became aggressive when they found out she was dating someone else. "It's common for a lot of young men to seek out a partner with common interests," she explained. "But it can be absolutely terrifying to be cornered in a remote place when they make their advances."
Ringing and surveying present challenges, too; long periods of time in isolated spots, often with lone or groups of men (sometimes strangers), early in the morning. This is not a naturally tenable situation for most women. Reassure your trainees that their safety and confidence is paramount, ask them if they have any concerns and, if needed, get advice from the BTO.
Call it out and condemn it
My own negative experiences have mostly happened online. Do not assume that online groups are private and you can get away with it; we've all seen the screenshots. I've also heard of women being sexualised, disparaged and targeted like trophies in group situations – laddish behaviour at bird observatories, in pubs and on male car journeys. If you feel uncomfortable now, you've probably witnessed (or worse, instigated) it.
To make birding a truly safe place for women, especially welcoming new faces, this behaviour needs calling out by peers as it happens. Men have the power to hold their male friends to account and to stop this. Speak up, report it, challenge it, tell your friends that it is not OK to degrade women: not even in the name of banter. No woman, no matter how she acts, talks or dresses is ever 'asking for it'. That is an oxymoron of the highest level.
This is just the tip of a complicated and sinister societal iceberg and I'm not accusing anyone. But going forward, you can share this and say: "I will listen more. I won't undermine your experiences. I will show self-awareness. I will challenge bad behaviour, even from my closest friends. I will make this space safer for all of us."
Women cannot fix this problem. We have tried changing the way we dress, the way we act, the way we talk, the way we think, and it isn't going away. Thank you to those men who have already expressed their solidarity and commitment to changing this culture. We need men to stand with us and show the best side of our vibrant, warm and welcoming wildlife community, a community I love and one that I hope more women can be part of.
Stories and messages from female birders
"Please, don't corner women or make a move on them in a place where they can't escape, and respect the word 'no'." – anonymous.
"I think some element of fear is a big barrier. Even unconsciously. For example, I don't go looking at wildlife at night." – Kelly.
"Every time I read related news stories, I feel anxious, because things like this have happened to me. I then feel fear about speaking up about it, because I'm scared of the reaction to that as well. Understand that when a woman speaks up, she isn't doing it for attention, or because she hates men, but that she actually had to fight through so much fear and risk to get those words out in the first place. Behind all these comments and stories there are women crying and shaking from re-living these experiences. And then there's all the women too scared to speak for the same reason. We need them to understand, desperately. We need everyone!" - Laura.
"I had a bad experience when I was doing some wader survey work. We'd been dropped off in singles at various places along the estuary. A man approached me and started making suggestive comments. There was no-one else around. I got my phone out and called the organiser to come and pick me up and the man left thankfully. I think I was lucky." – Jenny.
"If you are surprised that a woman is birding, you don't have to voice this out loud. I am probably already aware that I might be the only female in this space, drawing attention to it won't make me feel more comfortable." – Eliza.
"We need greater respect, empathy and increased self-awareness from male birders, appreciating that people enjoy birds for different reasons." – Lizzie.
"I haven't ever felt unsafe visiting nature reserves or going birding, but I don't have to visit urban nature reserves. I'm a bit wary of the cemetery near work because birders have had issues with drug addicts. I camped and hitch-hiked around Shetland on my own when I was 19, but I wouldn't have hitch-hiked on my own on the mainland as that would be a good deal riskier." – Alison.
"I wonder whether the fact I feel safe and have never felt threatened stems from being with my partner. This said, when I am birdwatching, surveying or ringing I am much more confident and comfortable speaking out, pointing out or talking about something with women. I find I am less confident when with a group of men." – Rachael.
"My only significant personal threatening situation happened when I was 21 in Poland. A female friend and I had hired a guide to take us into a very large forest to visit a Black Woodpecker nest. Things took a rather nasty turn when sexual innuendos and interest in us both took over from our guide's task of finding the birds. We were in the middle of nowhere, there was no obvious way out, our guide would not tell us where we needed to go and he smugly and constantly flicked a large Swiss army knife. Luckily, we were not harmed, but were made to feel incredibly uncomfortable and vulnerable and we didn't see a Black Woodpecker." – Rebecca.
"I can vividly remember when I was starting my bird ringing training – this involved meeting a man I didn't know, in the early hours, in the middle of nowhere, to be taken in his car to a remote area. Of course, it was all perfectly fine, and they ended up teaching me a huge amount. But when driving to the meeting point for the first time I can vividly remember thinking 'is this a good idea?'" – Hannah.
"Recognise that as a man dressed in dark colours or head-to-toe camouflage gear and a balaclava you appear intimidating, so your demeanour and body language are really important." – Vanessa.
"I am always afraid of being judged with the added pressure that if men don't know many female birders or conservationists then I somehow become the representative for all of them. I am helping recruit volunteers for the National Turtle Dove Survey and it is sad that I am getting women who either for safety reasons or confidence want to take part but don't want to do it alone." – Eliza.
"Very much depends on your previous experiences of course – I have been lucky to not have had any bad ones, but if you have, your risk analysis changes greatly and I can imagine being uneasy and on guard at any potential time/location/unknown figure when alone, and eventually avoiding that for the sake of a peaceful time outdoors." – Kate.
"I feel uncomfortable if alone on a narrow path in an isolated place and have to pass a man (after an unpleasant encounter a few years ago)." – Kelly.