Below you will find the full transcript from the 2023 Festival of the Cranes keynote presentation by Barnaby Briggs. A video of Barnaby Brigg’s Wetlands are Magic talk is also available to watch in addition to the audio recording below:
JONATHAN MANLEY – 0:11
Hello, that’s on. I’m going to make a request, which I know you’re going to completely ignore. But I’ve been told to make it anyway. So if those at the back could move closer to the front, then your enjoyment of the keynote will be greatly enhanced. Okay, stay where you are.
Barnaby Briggs, is the chair of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, which is a UK based global organization. That is its mission is to is to conserve wetlands and the wildlife associated with them.
I first heard Barnaby talk a couple of years ago. And it struck me that he would be the ideal person to come and address this group. He’s knowledgeable.
He’s been around the world. He’s done a lot. He’s seen things work and other things not work. He’s passionate about wetlands, and about wildlife and the role that wetlands in particular can and should and will play. Yeah, in our efforts to save… the planet. And he’s practical. He’s going to talk about things that work in the real world rather than things that only work in a PowerPoint presentation. But more important than all that he can also be quite funny. So that mixture, in my mind at least made him the ideal keynote speaker for this evening. So Barnaby, over to you sir.
BARNABY BRIGGS – 2:17
So thank you, Jonathan. And thank you very much to the Friends of Bosque for inviting me to speak tonight. And it’s a huge privilege. And in particular to Deb, Jonathan takes the credit for having the idea maybe, but Deb has been a fantastic host. And so I’m a bit nervous, obviously, so I discussed with my wife how to do this. And she said, Don’t be charming. Don’t be too charming. Don’t be too witty. Don’t be too intellectual. Just be yourself. Great. So, so thank you so much for all the warm welcome. And from the birding I’ve been doing in the last couple of days and getting on to the serious things. I saw the mountain lion signs. And that reminded me of the very wise advice my father gave me because it’s very important advice. If you’re being chased by a pack of taxidermists don’t, don’t play dead. So I want to talk about wetlands. I don’t need to explain why I need to talk about wetlands because they’re magic. And we all know that. But I really want to talk about a little bit about what is a wetland and what they are, what they really consist of, and how threatened are they but it’s really what’s the point? What’s the point of a wetland?
And that’s quite an interesting idea. Because they’re not just places on their own. They joined up right across the country. And they can be really important in dealing with wider stuff. That might be climate, it might be carbon, it might be jobs, there’s a whole lot of stuff around wetlands, which needs organizing in our heads a bit.
But really, I wanted to show you this photograph because this is a proper crane named after its call, and I’ll talk about them later. But WWT reintroduced cranes into the west inside of the UK. And one of the things you could do was go to the reserve dress up in a crane suit and feed the baby cranes with a crane beak, which was rather fun. And they’re great because they were reintroduced, they were taken down to a site a few miles away, and they’ve all come back to Slimbridge (Wetland Center) where they were brought up to nest.
So this brilliant photograph I took yesterday, or the day before yesterday. And I just wanted to make the point before we go into the sort of technical stuff about wetlands that this is a really dreadful version of it. But wetlands are quite beautiful, even even the one in this photograph. And so that beauty thing is obviously a key driver to it.
But the three things that I really want to get across tonight. Just three things, if you can remember three things, that’s it, don’t remember anything else.
The first is that we can’t do this. And I’ll talk about what this is in a minute. We can’t do this on our own. So we can’t make more wetlands, we can’t get bigger wetlands, we can’t save all these ducks and geese and swans and cranes on our own.
The second piece is that we need to do it at a much, much, much, much bigger scale. And I recognize that Bosque is about ten times, or a hundred times bigger than any of the reserves that WWT has. But that’s not nearly big enough, it’s got to be way bigger.
And the third piece is we need to know what works. So we’ve got to have underpinning science that’s rock hard.
So just three things, That’s all I’m asking you to remember. It’s not too hard. But immediately you’re thrown into a problem as soon as you start thinking what is a wetland? Beause the Ramsar Convention, which funny enough, WWT was a key part of starting. So Ramsar is a small town in Iran where the convention was signed. Peter Scott, the founder of WWT was involved in setting up the Ramsar Convention.
But it defines wetlands with all those words, I can’t be bothered to read, because I’m assuming that you can read them if they’re big enough letters. But it also is quite funny because it actually if you read it, it covers mangroves and coral reefs and a whole lot of other stuff that you don’t really think of as wetland.
So what is a wetland? It’s really quite hard to define them. Some of them are forests. Some of them are a fields that are more or less wet. Some of the fields that what I’ve been seeing here are not terribly wet. They can be huge!
I don’t, if you’ve been to the SUD? Have you been to the SUD? So there’s this thing called a shoebill that comes from… It’s a crane with an enormous… well it’s a sort of relation of the crane with a huge, great beak. But they [wetlands] can be tiny… the back of this building could have what they call a sustainable urban drainage system – a SUD. So what’s a wetland? Is it that or that? I don’t know. And they change all the time. So so they’re quite difficult. It’s really annoying if you talk about trees and forests, because yeah, I know what that is.
You talk about wetlands, and what does that mean? And also, wetlands are a bit full of bugs, and you might get wet. And so we have a bit of an image problem. And we have a real problem on the back of that.
Drain the swamp. Yeah. At nearly 90% of them gone across the world. And we all know why. Farmland, concrete, drought. It’s… they’re really, really threatened. They’re very, very precious, what’s left. Same as every other habitat, but interestingly, here in the US, if you really try, it’s been shown that you can make things a bit better. So, but 45% of people in the UK don’t know what a wetland is. Which is quite extraordinary. So what sort of lunatics work on stopping the demise of wetlands? Well, this lunatic is the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, the best NGO in the world.
It’s the UK is leading wetland conservation, charity, seventy-five years of experience in wetland conservation. A lot of people and I don’t know if you’ve ever managed volunteers, that difficult. A thousand of them and we have 80,000 members. Ten sites so one in Wales, one in Scotland, one in Northern Ireland and seven in England. And also some amazing international work, Madagascar, Cambodia, and something called a spoon billed sandpiper which I will check whether you think it is the cutest bird in the world later.
Been around for a while. Quite well respected in the field, but not big in. In, in the NGO world, so what do you what do you do with that?
So Peter Scott, who was the son of the Antarctic explorer, who actually died in his tent with this letter saying, make the boy interested in natural history. There are quite a lot of people including them. Conrad Conrad Lorenz, I don’t know if you know that name. He’s a very, very important German academic, very well respected who always said or the thing about PISA as he would have come back, his father, you know, was ignored all the advice .Amundson did followed the Inupiaq rules got back and Peter’s got, might have got back. He was a shooter when he was young, and he used to go off into the marshes and shoot ducks and geese.
But he didn’t like the fact that there are beautiful birds. And that some of them… didn’t then make it back to their summering grounds. He started hanging on to them started breeding them started keeping them. And in 1946, he set up a charity in the UK, in the West Country.
The interesting thing from with hindsight is that he was so far ahead of his time that not only did he try and get the science and the conservation there, but he also opened it to the public, which was not a big thing in the UK at the time. And his idea was that people and wildlife should come together, and that people will only want to save the wildlife they know about or even love. So he was very keen to televise it. And there’s some very shaky old black and white footage from the sixties filmed from his office in Slimbridge, which was the first live TV stuff on wildlife in the UK.
He was also brilliant sailor, a brilliant skater and painter. He created the IUCN Red List, which is incredibly important for conservation, Founding Chair of WWF and design the panda logo. So he got around a bit.
So I’ll show you a photograph that he’s not in.
So his his wife is in the blue on the on the right. Duke of Edinburgh, obviously the Queen and a previous director of WWT. The point of this picture is twofold. One is that Peter Scott knew how to get at the right people. And you do need the right people involved. It’s not just you, it’s not just supporters, you need some heavyweight support as well. But the other thing to look at is what the queen is holding the ex-queen, dead queen. How do you say? I don’t know what’s the respectful thing to say. So look what she’s holding. It’s a bag of bird seed. And some goose has obviously done something dreadful.
And that’s the thing – I love that photo because it was the only photograph that was in the papers a couple of months ago when she died, which showed her laughing. And she’s laughing because there’s a goose or a duck or it’s probably a nene [bird]. So some of the first geese that Peter Scott saved were the nene geese from Hawaii, who are greedy as anything. I mean, I’ve never met anything more greedy. We have to feed them lettuce now because if you feed them actual corn they just get fat. But so the point of this picture is to show that Peter Scott was connected to all of these people. There’s a there’s a museum and Slimbridge. When you come to visit, you must come and see it, with a tiny, really grotty table around which the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh sat and had lunch around which they created the IUCN, around which they drew the logo. His kitchen was was the center of conservation in the UK.
But the other reason about the photo is because it’s a bag of corn. It’s an engagement with the bird thing going on here. And that’s something that wetlands can do in a very special way.
So what you’re trying to do is sensibly and controllably bring people together with wildlife in a way that most people in the world are absolutely unaware that they broken that connection. They just haven’t got a clue.
What’s the difference between summer and winter? What’s the difference? You know, when did the geese migrate? I’t doesn’t feature for most people. But by bringing people into these places you can help them love them. But the trouble with all of that is you can end up as an NGO with 958 priorities.
So how do you do it? How do you prioritize? So we only do four things, as a charity.
These are the only four things we want to do. They’re sort of quite big when you unpack them. But the first one is this idea that you need bigger, better, more joined up wetlands. And for the UK, in particular, it probably applies to the US as well, we’ve lost most of our wetlands. So it’s really about making the ones we’ve got bigger, creating some new ones, joining them all up. ….we run about 10,000, maybe 20,000 acres on a good day. So it’s not going to be us doing this. So you see ,when you start unpacking these things it becomes quite interesting.
So the first ambition with a UK head on, and maybe this applies to the US, bigger, better, more connected wetlands.
The second one is millions of people engage with wetlands.
Now on a really good year when you don’t have too many pandemics, we can get about a million people and visitors in the UK.
I can’t tell you how grim it is, as a visitor organization to not have any visitors. And some of the ducks really missed the people. It was quite funny.
So how do you get millions of people involved in wetlands? Because we’ve only got one million. So what about the other 60 in the UK.
Three is when you look outside the UK, and particularly into places like Madagascar and Cambodia where we work most, there are some absolutely amazing wetlands which need to be protected.
And then this piece is a little bit easier, Tarik, because there’s things like the Ramsar Convention, the biodiversity convention, to the parties, even the climate change convention, where you need to have wetlands built in. And I’ll talk a little bit about carbon and wetlands. So we only do four things. But that covers a lot of ground. But we are the best NGO in the world.
And so that’s just the introduction, what I really wanted to get to is this bit. So these are the three things I want to talk about tonight. Because this is what I think matters for conservation as a whole, not about WWT’s view, this is me talking about the three things that matter.
And you know… so we’ve got all these wetlands. They’re really important. They’re really threatened. And that there’s organizations like WWT, which is perfect and Bosque and friends of Bosque, which is quite good, but.. and there’s lots of other friends out there. Lots of other friends. How do you work together to do this? And the three things I think you need to think about are we need to work together. Now the conservation movement is really good at fighting. We we’ve for the last well since Rachel Carson, we stood up and fought the bad guy, the man.
Well, it doesn’t work, that’s the only thing. I went I was talking to my old boss at the RSPB. Someone called Barbara Young who’s she’s called Baroness Young of Old Scone. I’ve no idea why. It’s a stone old scone or is it a place? I don’t know. Anyway, and I said to her, I’m now doing WWT and you’ve done RSPB, the environment agency. She’s a brilliant woman [who has] done fantastic stuff. And I said so what do about the fact that biodiversity has gotten worse since we began biodiversity?
And she said, “Well, that’s cheerful.”
But it’s true. And she said, Well, the only thing I can come up with is it’s got worse more slowly. So what we’ve done in the last, as a conservation movement, what we’ve done in the last 20, 30, 40 years, it’s got worse more slowly. Which is not too bad. I mean the old days you’d spray the DDT and you’d spray the drins, and you’d shoot everything. And now it’s not quite as bad as that. But we’ve got to work differently in the next 20, 30 years, and we can’t have organizations working on their own campaigning for the ‘”right way: because that’s going to alienate the other people, whoever the other people are. So the first thing is we’ve got to work together. I suppose what’s not in that sentence is we need to work together differently.
The second thing is we need to work at scale. And I don’t think this is a very difficult idea for you guys, because the scale of the wetland that we’re talking about at the moment here is, I don’t know, the Rio Grande? And that’s the scale at which we have to work. You can’t work one dot at a time. Doesn’t, doesn’t work.
The third one and I know I don’t need convince anyone in this room but funny enough you do have to convince the policymakers and other audiences. You need to know your science, because you need to know what works so that when you spend the money it works.
So those are the three things and I’ve just spent a bit of time on each.
When I’m talking about partnership, and this is a really difficult one for WWT because although our founder was a shooter [hunter], it’s still quite difficult for us to be seen to talk to shooters, duck shooters. But funnily enough, the best people we know, in the UK, who can tell bad duck shooters who shoot the wrong ducks at the wrong time and too many of them to go away in no uncertain terms never come back, are duck shooters. So we don’t really need to talk to the bad guys. Because we can talk to our friends and they go into dark places that we can’t go.
But you need them, you need them on side of farmers. And I’ll talk a bit more about farmers in a minute. But the farmers, ranchers, whatever they’re called, they are vital allies. If you’re going to have a wetland, if you can have a wetland that is bigger than the reserve, there can’t be a fence around a wetland, the water gets out. You got to have your farmer on the other side of the fence who’s farming in a way, that doesn’t mean that your birds die, simply.
So in terms of those old, what used to be enemies, maybe of the conservation movement – shooters and farmers? They can’t be enemies anymore. They just can’t.
And then you’ve got these new people. Blue carbon is this thing, and I’ll talk a bit more about what it is for us. For us, it might be tens, maybe even hundreds of millions of pounds in the UK. Probably already is hundreds of millions of pounds in the UK. At the moment carbon sequestration in the UK starts with the word “tree”, and that’s it. And no one’s quite twigged that wetlands are better. I’ll come on to that. But blue carbon is going to make a huge difference to wetland conservation, because there might be enough money to pay for what we need to do.
And then there’s this funky stuff at the bottom, which I really don’t understand, and luckily, we’ve got experts who do. But there’s, there’s obviously, clearly to all of us a very easy, quick connection between mental well being and a wet place. Particularly wild and wonderful wet place like you have on your doorstep. Governments are starting to recognize that and there’s money in it. I didn’t even think, we didn’t even think that was. We did some work, which showed the effects on your brain of being somewhere wet. It’s very positive, it’s very interesting. We didn’t realize that the government was going to jump on it and say right off you go. The problem with it is keeping control of it, riding the horse and not being dragged.
But one of the interesting things is if we’re going to work with people who aren’t conservationists. Because I’m going to say that most of us are mostly conservationists in the way we think. But other people have different timescales. So if talk to a farmer whose family, whose grandfather farmed that field 100 years ago, they think that 20 years ago is a heartbeat. And they think 20 years in the future is a relatively normal thing to be thinking. Whereas the agriculture subsidy mechanism in the UK is thinking 6 months ahead sometimes. So the difference in timescale is a problem. How do you work in partnership when you’re all on different timescales?
And sometimes, I mean, it seems a bit weird to say nowadays, doesn’t it? But sometimes governments have been in the lead on this stuff. You know, maybe in the 50s. Sometimes the conservationists have been in the lead. I have a feeling that farmers are about to take the wind out of our sails and work out that regenerative or low till or no till farming is going to save the world. And they’ll go screeching off and we need to go with them. So we’ve got some issues here with all these people.
Unknown Speaker 24:48
But we can do stuff. And this is a photo of Somerset at its best. to Somerset is in the West Country of the UK. It rains a lot there.
The government in its wisdom has allowed houses to be built in the wrong places, there are a brand new set of houses. And flooding is a real issue. It’s very expensive, very painful. And unfortunately, flooding in the UK always involves sewage. I don’t know why, but every time it floods is some sort of sewage thing in there. And so these houses are almost, you have to redecorate completely once you once it’s flooded. And so what WWT has done, and I hope you can read the words, I’ll pick out some of them. They’ve been working on natural flood management. A bit of a different concept because you don’t have water, but we have lots.
So this is working with 27 farms. The Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group is a farmers advisory group. It’s not a conservation group. They are a partner. And these little tiny things like hundreds of yards of hedges, three and a half thousand trees, livestock fencing, cross drains. I’ll show you a picture of a dam in a minute. You’ll be you’ll be amazed at the sophistication of the approach we’ve taken here. What you’re trying to do with this is slow down the water. So the water would come through with a huge great peak, and all you’re trying to do is get the peak lower. But imagine talking to 27 farmers, every single one of whom is [from] Somerset, so you can’t understand anything they say. And they’d been doing the same, they’d been doing the farming the same way they’d be doing the farming forever, and why would they ever change?
It turns out that’s not actually what happens. They’re longing to change, they’re desperate to change, they’re really interested in change. And you see why in a minute because this is the high tech dam solution. This is call a woody dam or the woody barrier. All you’re trying to do is slow the water down. All you’re trying to do is encourage the farmer to allow that to happen or make that happen. So it’s really simple stuff by this works. Of course you could get the beaver to do it that’s even cheaper.
So you can take this stuff and turn it into tiny little things. You can create new ponds – hundreds of new ponds. And the weird thing about ponds is that I really didn’t understand is that birds will go to them to feed. Because they get .. insects – special chemicals from insects – that only are found in ponds. So a farmland pond in the UK is an important habitat in its own right. And this pond, you can see how big it is. Brand new, or even better, it was the old farm pond that the guy remembers that he used to have. And that’s even better, because he swam in it or threw his brother in it or something.
So what I’m saying is on partnership, you can do it.
The next one is on waterscapes. And here we’re talking about, big big scale. And for you, UK that’s obviously smaller than big, big US, but big big scale for the UK. But it’s about joining up stuff, perhaps joining up old stuff that used to be wet. And again, it’s involving lots of other stakeholders. So it these topics overlap. But when I say scale for the UK, this is sort of as big as it gets.
This is a peninsula. With with a small village on this side….. with a small village on this side. This is the seventh estuary which has a tidal range of 40 feet. And the water in the seventh is as far as I can work out 98% mud, which I’ll come on to. That is a power station with the world’s biggest crane on it at the moment. It’s got a name like Brian, or something I can’t remember, but it’s that’s Hinkley power station. This channel was created by WWT.
So this is 450 hectares or 450 acres. All these little sub channels were created at low tide here. When the tide goes out there’s a seven metre cliff of mud and the mud is really important.
The reason for doing this was originally for flood protection. So those same floods I was talking about a minute ago. One of the reasons they happen is backing up from the sea. So if you can control the sea, as the river goes into the sea, you helped with a flood risk. Another reason was to compensate for land lost from sea level rise. So this is a government funded project 20 million pounds. 740 acres. It’s managed as farmland nature… the idea of the job that has blended benefits. It’s not just about ducks. It’s not just carbon. It’s not just about eels. When you stack them all up it becomes really important. But most importantly it just shows you can do it!
This thing is absolutely heaving with birds and amusingly, mice. So at very high tides, the whole thing floods, so you can’t even see the channels. And the gulls fly over the reeds and they eat all the mice as they climb up to get out of the water/ Which I’m afraid, makes me laugh, which is just shows I’m very sad person. But the thing that we discovered serendipitously, rather than by design was that that tidal range, a 40 foot tide of liquid mud, being splodged onto the marsh every day, twice a day, combined with the vegetation that lives on the marsh means you store more carbon in a salt marsh than you do in a forest. If you use this calculation. This is a special calculation that shows it. I have no idea how the numbers work, but it looks good, doesn’t it? It is definitely true for the seven which has this vast tidal range and is very muddy and the mud is full of carbon is much less true of the estuary is on the right hand side eastern side of the UK which are have much less of a tidal range. But no matter what the numbers are, in general, what we’ve demonstrated at Stewart is that if you had –
How big is Bosque? 57,000 acres? So if you had the equivalent of Bosque created a coastal salt marsh by 2050 in the UK, and we’ve shown you can do it, we know how much it costs we know which machine to use, we know which contractor can get the channels the right shape. You get to net zero, you’d still one and a half megatons of carbon. That’s like 770,000 cars off the road. So it’s proper staff at scale. And we didn’t even know this existed five years ago. Blue carbon? No one knew about it.
The point is when you stack it all up you get farmland, you get some rather good salt marsh beef which is delicious, you get commercial fish stocks in the creeks. Those creeks are full of eels. Eels, they want to be American, don’t they, because they live in the UK but they will only breed closer to America.
And then the glass eels, a little mini eels ,swim all the way back from the Sargasso Sea and come to those creeks and grow into adult eels. Which is a life you know what a stupid life design, I mean crazy. The only thing that’s worse than that is a godwit flying from Alaska to Australia in one go.
Anyway, I get distracted. So it’s part of protection for $6 billion worth of houses and businesses. It produces real value every year. This is a nature reserve which also provides for dog walkers, horseback riders – that’s different, is that the same as horse riding? I can never remember and bird watchers are allowed there too. One of the issues we have is a constant battle with dog walkers, because the hay that we want–we have a hay meadow around part of the reserve. We cannot use the hay for stock because of the dog shit.
And so we use that as an interpretation opportunity. We have a sign there saying Please Bag Your Waste, and a long piece of of stuff. And we never tell dog walkers not to come and we never tell them to go away because they’re all our neighbors. We also have one of the ponds has a sign by it that says if your dog likes swimming please can he swim here, because he’s got flea powder on. Flea powder has something that I can never say neonicotinoids that’s it, neonicotinoids and that kills everything in the water. So we say, if you’re the dog owner and your dog likes to swim, please let him swim in this pond because this is set aside for him. So again, it’s an opportunity to engage, not a sign saying, Don’t Let Your Dog Off the Leash. Don’t Let Your Dog Swim, Pick Up Your Waste. You can’t do that. They’re your neighbors. It’s complicated, though. Because we’d love to use that. hay for something we can’t.
So here are some facts, but here’s the important thing – a really rubbish photograph taken by me of lots and lots of birds. They are golden plovers and lapland.
The point is that now in Somerset, there used to be no avocets breeding at all. And now there are 150 pairs and they breed it’s there. And and and and. This stuff says, see it works. Waterscapes work. Partnership works. The final one then is science. And this is such fun. This is such fun, because there’s some really, really cool stories from the science side of what we do. And they demonstrate, you have to have it. Because you have to be able to say, we spent this much money in this thing happened.
You can’t say we want to spend this much money and this thing will happen. You have to be able to say, this is what happened. This is a demonstration. And funnily enough, the head of WWT’s science side often calls it, instead of science, demonstration. Because the science is sort of just a table stake. That’s just what you have to do. What you’re trying to do is, it can work. And species play a really important part in that. So that the little gold pin on my lapel is a species of Swan called a Buick Swan, which you call a tundra swan.
This is an incredibly important bird for WWT. It’s our logo. It’s one of the reasons Slimridge is where it is – the headquarters. It’s got an emotional story to tell. You can identify the individual buick swans by the shape of the yellow on their bill. Peter Scott discovered this in his study drawing swans. And he was drawing them, and drawing them, and drawing, and then realizing that that was that one. And that’s that one, and that’s that one. And you can then identify the families; you could then see how successful they’d been. Telling that story – allowing people to connect with one swan – is incredibly important.
It’s really scary, though. Because buick swans, like a lot of your birds are short stopping. So they’re stopping in the Netherlands or they’re stopping in Estonia. They’re not coming to the UK.
So that family of swans that we’ve been studying for the three, four generations don’t come. We don’t even know if they’re alive. So you’ve got to really tiptoe along this line between pinning everything on an emotional character this swan, and then it doesn’t come What do you do?
For WWT, that meant a really, really painful thing. We stopped doing that research, which is agony. It’s like pulling teeth. Why would you do that? That’s your DNA is to study swans, and you’re stopping studying swans. Why do you do that? We’ll come on to that.
On a more positive note, carbon. So no one knew about that salt marsh story, and how important they are for carbon.
The UK is starting, like many countries, to come up with ideas of how to sequester carbon. And we are writing the rule book on how you can do that in salt marsh. So instead of rushing down a slope of just loads of money going into projects that may not work, and then everyone loses faith and it all goes wrong, we’ve spent very little money, but we’ve written a rule book. That rule book is now being signed off by the International Conservation Movement, and that will then be adopted by the UK as the UK’s way of doing salt marsh carbon. The UK then can persuade other countries, like the US, to do salt marsh carbon using the same rule book. So things like stacked benefits – salt march been, as well as carbon, as well as eels – become built in from the beginning. But you can’t win that argument unless you’ve got the science behind it.
So it’s not about the duck. Okay, so, so I didn’t do a slide on this one because I wanted to tell a story. So there’s a duck, okay, the duck is really boring looking. It’s the most dull but that you’ve ever seen, the Madagascar potsherd. And there was thought to be extinct.
The brilliant duck conservation group, the Peregrine Foundation, discovered the last 20 individual birds in the wild in Madagascar. And they weren’t breeding successfully. The chicks would all die after about a week. And the reason they died is because they were on a lake that was very deep. And they couldn’t get to the bottom to feed.
So WWT did something completely mad. They sent a team to Madagascar, they could they caught as many of them as they could, and they took all the eggs that they could find. And they bred them in a hotel bathroom. The hotel bathroom, I wish I should have had the photograph of that actually, it’s quite funny, but there’s ducklings perched on the loo and around the bath, and things – hundreds of them. there is now an aviary. They breed very well in captivity, but they didn’t have anywhere to go, so we rescued them from extinction. But they didn’t have anywhere to go because the lake they came from was deep. So we went and found a shallow lake. It had 10,000 people living around it growing rice in extreme poverty. Not exposed to the outside world at all. So when they met the WWT team they were like, what are you doing here? It’s crazy, this is the middle of nowhere. It takes three days to get there from the capital. The diving conditions are really grim.
The issue is you have to have a lake to release the ducks onto that 10,000 people can also live nearby and depend on for their rice and for their other food.
So we now have the head of AV culture, who’s a very lovely guy. He’s from Newcastle, actually, I can understand anything he says. So you wouldn’t have a hope. His accent is so strong, and I won’t imitate him. But that’s his phrase. Because he is only interested in ducks. He loves ducks. He’s a very good, he can listen to ducks in their eggs and charm them out into healthy chicks. And he realized that to save the Madagascar pochard, it’s not about the duck. It’s about the 10,000 people who live around that lake, helping them get better lives. And the duck can coexist with them. This has gone so well we’ve got another lake. And interestingly, not just another lake. the project manager who is someone from Madagascar is now on the presidential advisory board for environmental diversity in Madagascar, one of the most difficult to work in. So it’s not about the duck, but it started with the duck.
You did have to breed them successfully though. And this whole story about head starting, which is kind of what we did with the pochard. But even more so with what I’ll talk about next is more based in science.
So if I keep going on science, look at this place. So this is the ooze washes. Sounds fantastic, doesn’t it? So these two dikes here, levees here, create a flood protection system. It’s relatively new for the UK. So it started in 1630 and finished in 1656, slightly interrupted by the Civil War. So it’s a new it’s a relatively new feature.
The point about it is this photograph shows it in sort of full flood. And it’s protecting hundreds of thousands of homes in very flat bits of the UK. So this water needs to go somewhere. It’s a 6000 acre nature reserve, which fills with water.
So that’s great in one way. Big nature reserve. It’s bad if all your birds are nesting when it fills with water and wet springs is a part of the feature of the UK at the moment. So if you look at these fields, this is something we call Lady Fen.
Lady Fen is sculpted into carrot field. So these are all carrot fields. You could see they do have different shapes and some puddles in them. And those are paleo channels or old bits of wetland. The whole thing was drained by our lovely Dutch friends in the 1630s.
And we’ve recreated Lady Fen and when I went to the reservem the visitor center, which is that thing there which I don’t know if you can see but there’s a bridge that goes from the Reserve or the visitor center. You see that little thing there. That’s the bridge. completely pointless bridge that goes across the road. Peter Scott loved it. Everyone hated it. It’s completely pointless. Anyway, beside the point, Lady Fen now has more breeding godwits on it, then the washes behind because the godwits have realized that this floods are really quite bad news.
To do that, we had to know that creating a wetland works, we had to show how a wetland works. And we had to work in partnership with government agencies, other NGOs. There’s another reservoir actually up this way, which controls the water coming in which again, is very large, has to be managed very carefully by, in terms of levels, by the government agency, which does water levels. Familiar stuff to you all, I’m sure.
So what you’ve got is a wetland that was created as a flood control, has a huge biodiversity gain. but it’s complicated. So you have to build a new thing. You have to work with partners in a very complicated way. And it’s all really, well one of the pieces out of it is godwits, and back to headstarting.
So take one step back – so you’ve got ooze washes, you’ve got gowits, and when you take one step back and go 8000 miles to the east. And remember this is very technical, very science-driven, no emotion governs any of this stuff.
So this is I think you’ll agree that wins the competition for the cutest baby bird. It’s the baby spoon billed sandpiper, completely insane bird whoever designed it. population of about 120 breeding pairs declining at 26% at the beginning of the project every year. So completely doomed.
Massive plan of attack to save this bird. first and very successful was to persuade China to protect vast, vast areas of wetland which they have done. And also to work with Burma, Myanmar, to protect wetland and to prevent people on the wetland hunting. That’s been very successful and that has had a huge impact. But even more successful was to take the first clutch of every spoonful sandpiper nest that could be found and headstart them. So this was started, I don’t know 10 years ago. Take these birds which are precious beyond precious. And the same bloke from Madagascar with the same accent no one could answer. I mean, imagine the Russians trying to cope with a Newcastle accent. He hatched these again in his bedroom in the far eastern Russia. So you take the first clutch, headstart them. Xecond clutch you let the parents go and try and do it. But there’s lots of arctic foxes, lots of bears, they do tend to hoover them up. These guys you grow them up until they’re a little bit bigger. You headstart them. And I’m not saying a species is safe. But these funky birds are more numerous than they used to be.
So headstarting works in an emergency. So could we use it in the ooze washes? Which means, is our science and our AV culture, good enough to work at scale?
And that’s the target: black-tailed godwit. They mate for life, very sensibly, I think. The males and the females winter in completely different parts of the globe. And one of the trackers we fitted to a female godwit ended up in I think, I think in… Mauritania, that is where the majority of the British female godwits go. And the males don’t go quite as far there, so to Spain and Northern Africa. Fifty percent decline across Europe in 25 years.
They’re such a common bird in The Netherlands, which…. I won’t say because it’s a lot of G’s and R’s and I can’t do it.
So over the three years of the project, the AV culture says in the scientists that the WWT increased the UK population by 350%, So this is the crunch really, Those are the buick swans.
Probably if you talk to the right person in WWT, they’d know the name of that swan from the shape of the yellow. And we don’t count anymore. We don’t do family site surveys anymore. We don’t even do the wetland bird survey (WEBS) which was set up by WWT. We’ve got other partners doing that now. We don’t do it.
We’re doing godwits. We’re doing spoonbill sandpipers, we’re doing steered. We have to choose. And it’s not just painful. There are individual people whose careers were pinned to some of these birds. It’s really really tough. So I’m not trying to say any of this is easy.
But remember the crane at the beginning? The proper crane, not your sandhill crane. We’ve reintroduced it successfully into the UK. Iinto the western side of the UK. It turned up naturally in the eastern side and we’re hoping that the two populations get to meet. But there are hundreds of cranes breeding in the UK which weren’t before. There are millions of people visiting reserves in the UK to look at wildlife. When you come to Slimbridge you can come and see cranes and some of the swans.
So I only wanted to say three things. We can’t do this on our own, we have to work in partnership. We must do this at scale. We must think about waterscapes. And we need to know what works, the science needs to be spot on. And I’m just determined – we covered this the other night over dinner. I’m determined to be optimistic about this stuff. It’s easy to say the end of the world is coming, the financial economic crisis is hideous, the well-being crisis is even worse, and have you seen the pictures of the tsunamis? If Covid is this size, then you’ve got climate change and then you’ve got the biodiversity crisis is this size.
What would you do give up? No, you can’t. What what WWT has shown and what you shown here is that wetlands can be saved, can be grown, can be expanded, that we don’t need to do all the work. By “we” I mean the conservation movement – our friends in the farming, the shooting, the hunting, the industry that all those other friends we have can help pay for this.
But all we have to do is work a little bit differently.
Simple, isn’t it? So that’s all I had to say. Thank you very, very much indeed for listening. And I’m very happy to take questions. Thank you.
So very happy to answer any question you have. By referring you, probably to Jonathan. Yes. You mentioned Cambodia in terms of water escapes.
Are you working in that area? So we were the cranes that were particularly interested there which are sorrow screens? Maybe yes. They they are the ones we look after in the winter, spend a summer around the time they sat, that’s where they breed the tunnel. This app is a focus for a number of other organizations. No one was looking after the wintering grounds of the crane. So we do the wintering grounds. Again, the story in Cambodia is all about the community because most of the cranes are using rice field rice paddy. So it’s about understanding rice. And the difference between one two or three rice crops a year and how you integrate that with community development.
Yes, your wetlands triple drought. So how do you address that?
Well, yeah, funnily enough that What tends to happen in the UK is both. So if you if you think of the ooze washes there, they suffer from flooding, particularly in the spring. So the whole of that top bit of the slide get swept through with it with floods. But the land either side has been drained for whatever it is 400 years. And it was peat. The peat has mostly blown away, because it’s been dried out. And so the water then does is not retained. So funnily enough, you get a drought and then a flood and then at the same time, so it’s almost worse.
The issue there is sort of so simple, in concept, but quite hard to do, is just add peat. Add carbon, add things to the soil that retain the water. And that Lady Fen, interestingly, is already showing signs that if you manage it for wildlife, and you retain water deliberately and you graze it in a certain way, most of the reserves – so one of the big differences I’m seeing this week, most of the reserves I’m used to seeing have grazing on it, quite a lot of it. And the grazing is quite, you know, mashes up the soil as much as anything else. So So you’re seeing Lady Fen deal with water retention better than the fields immediately alongside it. To the extent that the local farmer who did the leaning on the gate thing when we first arrived of us don’t want to do that. Now he’s saying, oh my soul’s god, I think I’ve got about 8 more years before I’m gonna go bust. How do I do what you did?
So there’s really interesting, dynamic, mostly when you’ve got at the same time too much and too little water.
JONATHAN MANLEY: 57:34
So I’m hoping that our takeaway from what Barnaby has been telling us is a message of hope that there are ways of making things work, even though it’s going to require us to work a little bit differently, as Barnaby has said. And he’s proved that by working a little bit differently, a huge difference can be made anywhere in the world. So if it can work in Russia, if it can work in the West of England, then it’s got to be able to work here. So these are all messages that are relevant to us. I’m hoping we can take what Barnaby has told us and put it into practice as we go forward. So just ask you to put your hands together one more time.
Thank you very much.
Want to learn more?
Watch another key presentation from Festival of the Cranes, about regenerative agriculture, the Johnson-Su Composting Bioreactor Method, with Dr. David C. Johnson.
Wetlands Are Magic video recording of the 2022 Festival of the Cranes keynote presentation can be found here.