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Panel 5. Sharing Outdoor Space

Birds in the Shared Spaces of British Farms from 1960

Paul Merchant, National Life Stories, British Library, UK

This paper is concerned with the relations between people and ‘wild’ birds in the shared spaces of British farms from about 1960 to the present. It draws on extended life story interviews with farmers, landowners and scientists – recorded recently by National Life Stories at the British Library – to reveal very different ways in which birds appeared to farmers and landowners on and over their fields in the period (as, for example, welcome sounds and sights, pests, sporting quarry, matters of concern, things to be ignored, representatives of ‘wildlife’). Through the period, a smaller number of people worked in agricultural fields, they often moved more quickly, and – anyway – certain bird populations were in decline. Meanwhile, other changes were having the effect of making birds more likely to be attended to, as indicators of biodiversity, markers of environmental performance, and subjects of ambitious experiments and recording schemes. Addressing a gap in animal geographies centred on farms, which have tended to focus on livestock, the paper will use life stories to trace the spatial and material connections between agricultural change and the visibility of, and attention to, ‘wild’ birds.

The Changing Geographies of Human-Starling relations in the Shared Spaces of the Anthropocene

Andy Morris, Department of Geography, Open University, UK

The European starling is a bird which can be readily inscribed within conventional stories of unwitting casualties of the Anthropocene, the effects of agricultural intensification having seen a dramatic decline in their population. But, since the early 20th century, the relationship between starlings and humans have played out in an increasingly complex and intimate story of entangled spatial relations.

This paper takes, as its starting point, the growth of starling populations in the emergent urban centre of early 20th century London. It then traces this story through the starlings growing presence as a pest species, becoming the subject of parliamentary debate and political satire. Many initiatives failed to rid the capital of these huge flocks, but it wasn’t until a wider population crash during the 1980s that they disappeared from London’s skies. Since the early 2000s however, the geographies and sensibilities of human-starling relations have shifted as starlings, now roosting in rural and coastal locations, draw human flocks to the affective spectacle of the starling murmuration – the aerial display of mass flocks as go to roost for the night. But, as people gather with mobile phones pointed skyward across Britain, a contemporary counterpoint to this story is playing out in Rome. Here the geographies of pest and spectacle co-exist in a city where audiences of tourist gather for the spectacle whilst city authorities count the cost of the clean-up operation. Here the changing temporal and spatial patterns of these relations are all co-located in a tale for the Anthropocene.



A Close-up View of Birds: Bird Reserve Management and the Shaping of Human/Avian Relations, circa 1940-75

Sean Nixon, Department of Sociology, University of Essex, UK

The paper reflects on the role played by Britain’s main bird conservation organization, the RSPB, is shaping popular engagement with and feeling for wild birds in the mid-late twentieth century. The paper focuses, in particular, on the reconfiguration of bird sanctuaries into ‘modern’ spaces of encounter with wild birds. The designed environment was central to this process. Observation hides and screens, together with interpretative signage and trails formed ‘instructive landscapes’ that linked people and birds to a managed environment. These constituted an assemblage of material forms that were part of a post-war observational culture of nature: ways of looking produced from field guide, bird book, pamphlet, magazine and documentary film to bird hide. Drawing on internal memorandum, correspondence, policy statements and reserve management plans, the paper details the shaping of the behavior of both birds and people at the Society’s Minsmere reserve on the Suffolk coast. The approach developed by the RSPB was rooted in a shift from an exclusive emphasis on secrecy and protection to one based upon controlled access and the orchestration of human-avian encounters. Managed access and the organizing of attention still involved high levels of security enacted through barbed wire, keep-out signs and (occasionally) armed watchers and the tight control of information about rare birds. But these techniques sat alongside the opening up of human-avian encounters and the framing of ‘close-up’ views of birds.

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