Mission to Israel
A story about an Israeli ornithologist, a Norfolk print company and a team of Norfolk friends helping address a conservation crisis might seem unlikely, but it is just such a tale that NICK ACHESON has to tell
Taking the fight for our birds to the Middle East
THE STORY begins with birds; with millions of birds pouring in a great wave of life to Africa each autumn, and back to Europe each spring, their throats full of song. Some of these are bejewelled beauties, like golden orioles and bee-eaters, and some majestic giants, like steppe eagles and black storks.
But most are familiar to us all, the sorts of birds we hear in our gardens or on our walks with dogs and grandchildren around Norfolk villages. They include millions of willow warblers, sedge warblers, blackcaps, swallows and house martins. Among them too are birds which have entered the British psyche, whose songs and calls are rendered in our poetry and place names: birds like quails, corncrakes, nightingales and turtle doves.
But these birds are in crisis. No other word for it. Across Europe, North Africa and the Middle East they are illegally trapped and slain in their millions each year as they migrate: caught and killed for food, as cage birds and for the perverse pleasure of shooting beings of such beauty. Our nightingales, cuckoos and tree pipits – all of which in recent years have dramatically declined across Norfolk – have a real chance of being caught on bird lime, in mist nets or by a gun on their southward migration, as have countless millions of migrating birds further east across Europe. The crisis is bloody and huge in scale.
Enter Yoav Perlman. Israeli by birth and a lifelong birder, he was drawn to Norfolk both by its celebrated tradition of birdwatching and by the opportunity to study for a PhD at the University of East Anglia, which is world-renowned for ecology. Back home in Israel, Yoav is director of the national bird monitoring scheme at the Israel Ornithological Centre of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, the country’s BirdLife International partner (equivalent to the RSPB here in the UK).
Birders are a friendly bunch who spend at least as long chatting to one another on nature reserves (or in pubs) as watching birds. Birders share ideas, they share their passion, and they discuss the declining fortunes of their beloved birds and what must be done to reverse them. Yoav wasted no time getting to know everyone on the Norfolk birding scene. In a conversation with Mike Dawson, a director of Draytonbased Swallowtail Print, Yoav challenged him to catalyse the first Norfolk team to take part in the ‘Champions of the Flyway’.
In 2014 Yoav, his friend Jonathan Meyrav, and other colleagues at the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel launched ‘Champions of the Flyway’, as their stand against the tidal wave of bird slaughter which takes place each year in Europe and the Middle East. ‘Champions of the Flyway’ is a
24-hour race around Eilat in southern Israel, in late March each year when northward migration is at its peak, in which teams of birders from across the world compete to see as many bird species as possible.
The birding is fun, of course, as is the international camaraderie and competition, but far more important is the stand the birding community is taking against the illegal killing of millions of birds. More important still is the money raised by each team taking part, which is channelled by the race organisers to BirdLife International partners across Europe, helping them combat the illegal slaughter of birds. Our birds. Everyone’s birds.
With the gauntlet down, and Norfolk’s honour at stake, Mike could hardly demur. So he formed a team of well-known Norfolk birders to fly the banner for the county in Eilat on March 26 this year. Norfolk’s team is named Living With Birds and is supported by leading wild bird care company Jacobi Jayne and by East Anglia’s ethical optics company Viking Optical. Its members are all long-term residents of the county, whose lives and work are intimately connected to bird conservation here.
“The birding is fun, of course, but far more important is the stand the birding community is taking against the illegal killing of millions of birds”
Mike himself moved to Norfolk aged 18 to study at the University of East Anglia, where he fell in love with both the county’s birds and with his partner Deborah, with whom he has two children. With extended family in Israel he has long been impressed by the country’s attitude to conservation. Since he heard of ‘Champions of the Flyway’ and its message of brotherhood against illegal bird killing he has been itching to take part.
The second team member, Guy Kirwan, is also a graduate of the University of East Anglia, where he cut his teeth as a Norfolk birder. A resident of Norwich, he is a respected ornithological writer and editor. Having worked with birds in Turkey and Israel, and enjoyed a long and fruitful association with the Ornithological Society of the Middle East, he has first hand knowledge of the scale of bird massacre in the region.
If you are a birder in Norfolk, or indeed anywhere in the world, it is impossible not to know the third team member, largerthan-life Duncan Macdonald, who owns WILD Sounds and Books which is based on the north Norfolk coast in Salthouse. For years his bubbling enthusiasm has been heard – in his loud South African tones – at twitches for rare birds around Norfolk.
His love of birds and his effusive personality are matched only by his commitment to conservation. WILD Sounds and Books stocks the visitor centres of Norfolk Wildlife Trust, across the county, and of the Hawk and Owl Trust at Sculthorpe Moor Community Nature Reserve. The company is a great ally of staff and volunteers on these reserves and is the BirdLife International species champion for the critically endangered spoon-billed sandpiper.
Together these Norfolk birders are ‘Team Living With Birds’. They will proudly be representing the county in Israel on March 26, showing birders from across the world that no one cares more about birds than the good people of Norfolk, that no one is more committed to the fight against the barbaric slaughter of our nightingales, our blackcaps, our turtle doves and our quail.
Left: House Martin, (Delichon urbica)