Bill Oddie backs Big Charity Bird Race to re-create 1980s’ spirit of fun and fundraising
PUBLISHED: 13:00 14 April 2017
Bill Oddie’s reflection sparkled in the gleaming trophy that is a silver symbol of a golden age of birdwatching.
A quirky Holy Grail of the birding world, the unique silverware is an icon of the outstanding ornithological richness of Norfolk and Suffolk.
Broadcaster Mr Oddie, a lifelong birdwatcher, sat just inches from it at a table in the Halesworth headquarters of the global conservation charity the World Land Trust. He was tantalisingly close to the trophy he never won despite several attempts during what is regarded by many as the heyday of British “bird racing” - the now-legendary Big Bird Races of the early 1980s that were centred on the two great East Anglian birding counties.
Now, Mr Oddie is supporting a re-run of the race for the trophy – an inspired idea that aims to recreate the spirit of those manic, exhausting but fun-filled whirlwinds of birdwatching in which his team from the Flora and Fauna Preservation Society (ffPS) was up against a Country Life magazine team. The four members of each team hurtled around Suffolk and Norfolk on an allotted day in May, heading for far-flung, well-known hot-spots such as RSPB Minsmere and RSPB Titchwell, Benacre and Walberswick national nature reserves and Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Cley Marshes, as well as lesser known sites that hosted difficult-to-get species and which were kept secret from the opposing team. The aim was to see or hear more species of bird than the opponents in a 24-hour period.
With mass media attention and big-business sponsorship, the madcap marathons raised thousands of pounds for nature conservation causes – and the re-creation that will take place in May will hopefully do the same, albeit with a distinctly more environmentally friendly twist. A World Land Trust team will be competing against a Big Bird Race Challenge foursome, hoping to raise £15,000 for a conservation project in Bolivia to help the critically endangered blue-throated macaw, whose total population is thought to be down to about 250 birds.
The 1980s events followed a UK day record being set by a Country Life team led by the magazine’s David Tomlinson in 1980 and featured some of the biggest names in British birdwatching. The record was first challenged by ffPS in 1981 – through its then executive secretary John Burton, who has since gone on to found the World Land Trust. Country Life’s formidable line-up starred Mr Tomlinson, East Anglian birders Peter Smith and Bill Urwin and the then RSPB Minsmere site manager Jeremy Sorensen. The original ffPS team, with Mr Burton as its “non-playing captain”, included Mr Oddie with his friend Cliff Waller, then warden of Walberswick and Benacre, prominent ornithologist John Gooders who had a home in Suffolk and international conservationist Tim Inskipp.
Mr Oddie said he had fond memories of the 1980s races. “It was always very tiring but it was always great fun,” he said.
“We saw ourselves as the ‘gentlemen’ and Country Life as the ‘players’ – and we used the word ‘players’ as a slightly pejorative term. David Tomlinson always managed to wangle fast cars from sponsors and we thought ‘hang on a minute, is that strictly legal for this competition?’
“He always had a huge team of scouts as back-up to help him too – it was military precision whereas we were the ‘gentlemen’ and it wasn’t anything like ‘military’ with us but it certainly was very exhausting.”
The original Big Bird Race trophy will be up for grabs on May 13. It is a Victorian egg-warmer acquired in 1981 by Mr Burton at a sale in Suffolk. Impressive as the silverware is in its own right, it is made additionally special by a priceless feature. The late, great, naturalist Sir Peter Scott donated to the bird race challenge an addled egg of one of his beloved Hawaiian geese – a species he saved from extinction – and signed it for good measure.
The trophy, with its egg, has since been donated to the cause of bird racing by Mr Tomlinson, who has made it available to bird race devotee Andrew Whitelee. An upland ecologist who lives in Scotland, Mr Whitelee has organised bird races in Norfolk for the past two years – the events raising funds for a British Trust for Ornithology house martin appeal and for the wading bird conservation charity Wader Quest.
“I remember reading the Big Bird Race book by Bill and David about the 1983 bird race when I was a young boy from Nottinghamshire on holiday in Yorkshire and I was hooked by it,” said Mr Whitelee. “It inspired me about the concept of bird racing and when David offered me the original trophy I was absolutely amazed. It was a wonderful gesture. It had been gathering a bit of dust at his place – it is a beautiful thing and it is wonderful to think that it’s now the prize for a race that honours the great spirit of the original races.”
Mr Whitelee will be joined in his team by Ian Dearing, of Sheringham, Stuart Crutchfield, of Argyll, and Dave Foster, of County Durham.
They will be competing against a World Land Trust team being organised by the charity’s head of development Dan Bradbury. It will include the trust’s conservation programmes co-ordinator Charlotte Beckham and former trust employee Scott Guiver.
Mr Bradbury said: “We want to recreate the spirit and fun of the 1980s events. We will want to win but it’s more about the enjoyment of bird racing - and it will be about raising funds for an important conservation cause.”
May’s event will also have an international dimension, with World Land Trust partners in many countries being invited to take part in similar races on the same day. “We know that if we compare our totals to the ones in, say Ecuador, they will be hundreds of species short, so we will be working out all the scores as a percentage of the national bird list of the country in which a total has been achieved,” said Mr Bradbury.
Anyone wanting to help the fundraising in a similar way in the UK would also be welcome to join in the race. In keeping with World Land Trust environmental philosophy, any team taking part would have to make a contribution to offset their carbon emissions, with the funds going to the trust’s Carbon Balanced programme.
There will be zero emissions from the World Land Trust team’s East Anglian adventure – thanks to Halesworth-based motor dealers the Hammond Group, which is making a Nissan Leaf electric car available to the team.
Race sponsorship, pledges and donations can be made through the World Land Trust’s website