Blogging For Nature by Mark Avery


I can't think of too many jobs that are as challenging as the role of Director of Conservation for the RSPB. It takes a special kind of personality to fill it, someone with those metaphorical 'big shoulders'. Mark Avery, who has recently vacated Britain's conservation hot seat, certainly seemed to have the metaphorical big shoulders as well as the obvious large physical ones that dominate your eye-line when you meet him if, like me, you're less than six feet tall.

The RSPB, as the nation's leading conservation charity, face huge challenges. Many of the issues and projects they are engaged with are incredibly complex, and the organisation often finds itself pitted against a range of vested interests. Against this background it might seem surprising to some that Mark Avery found the time to start blogging in May 2009, and others may have been more surprised at how he managed to post frequently, and often at length, on a whole range of issues faced by the charity.

Mark's blog quickly became essential reading: a window into the soul of the RSPB, and occasionally the front-line of what can be a bitter conservation battleground. It was thought-provoking, insightful, contemporary and occasionally humorous, and I confess to having been a regular reader.

In just under two years Mark managed 750 blog posts; his self-published book captures 143 of them on topics ranging from Hen Harriers to Hilary Benn's Darwin Lecture. Most of the posts are faithful to the originals, with perhaps only minor structural tinkering here and there to save space and improve focus.

Mark is never afraid to be controversial and on occasion 'deliberately provocative'; as the rear cover quotes suggest, the posts selected for inclusion cover some meaty topics. Many of these continue to be hot potatoes, such as breeding Eagle Owls and the impact of Sparrowhawks on passerines such as the House Sparrow.

Blogging for Nature opens with some blogging tips from the author that offer some sound pre-planning to anyone using a blog for a specific business or marketing purpose. They also afford some insight into why Mark chose to focus his communication in this way. These, and the thoughts of some of his most regular readers, are the only new material incorporated into the book. How long the RSPB will leave the blog material of an ex-employee in cyberspace remains to be seen, but thumbing back through this book immediately took me back to the 'zeitgeist' of the times they were written in — even short posts such as his seemingly throwaway musing on the late-autumn Waxwing sightings of 2010, which echoed the 'will we won't we?' thoughts of many hundreds of birders pondering whether we were to have a Waxwing winter (we did).

I had and still have a great deal of admiration for the way Mark Avery engaged with his readers, took the time to respond to comments and in the process left you feeling you were having a personal dialogue. If I have one criticism of the "book of the blog", it is his decision to leave out all the comments that were added to his posts. An edited selection of comments on some of the major posts would have provided a bigger picture, a greater flavour of the reaction to the posts and perhaps a richer text as a result. The essential social interaction of the blog format is lost as a result.

The book draws a deliberate line in the sand, the point at which the guard has changed, and is worthy of a place on the conservationist's bookshelf. It captures much of the conservation conversation of the last two years at a time that could prove crucial for our nation's nature. It asks many questions, provides some of the answers, and offers an insight into not only the RSPB and what lies behind its policies but also the thinking of one of the key conservation figures of the last decade.

Blogging for Nature can be ordered direct from www.lulu.com. Mark Avery has a new personal website at www.markavery.info

Format: paperback: £9.92 + p&p, pp 278

Written by: Alan Tilmouth