Bird brained?

The incredible enthusiasm of birders and twitchers

The recent stretch of good weather has seen the return of that most seasonal of visitors to the island: the tourist.

There are a variety of different species of tourist to be seen in Fair Isle during the course of the year. These include the ‘relaxers’: middle-aged couples and families who come to sit down for a few days, and occasionally stroll slowly down to the beach then back again, just in time for tea. The more elderly relaxers tend to be a little more adventurous, and sometimes make it as far as the shop during their stay.

Then there are the ‘explorers’, who come to island in mid-summer dressed for trekking in the Arctic tundra. They are easily spotted, wearing expensive hiking gear in pristine condition, striding assuredly around the island’s roads with a walking pole grasped tightly in each hand and a compass dangling pointlessly from their huge rucksacks. I’m not entirely sure what these people do once they have completed the few miles of roads; I have certainly never seen any of them venture off the tarmac. Perhaps they sit down and join the relaxers by the window, eager to tell their friends back home about their adventure.

By far the most numerous visitors to Fair Isle, though, and certainly the earliest arrivals, are the birders.

For over half a century Fair Isle has been a Mecca for bird lovers, particularly in spring and autumn, when rare migrant species take a break from their long journeys, or else arrive on the island lost and confused, after getting blown completely off course. The sight of a “mega rare” American warbler, half dead with exhaustion after its accidental journey across the Atlantic, is enough to send grown men (they are, invariably, men) into a terrifying frenzy, and anyone or anything that stands in their way is likely to get crushed in the stampede.

But birders too come in a number of different sub-species, or perhaps a hierarchy is a better description. At the bottom are the common or garden ‘birdwatchers’: people who enjoy looking at blackbirds and starlings from their kitchen windows, and who may even confuse the two.

Above them are ‘twitchers’, who are basically checklist birders. Like trainspotters, their interest is in amassing the longest list in a given year, area or lifetime, and they will often go to unbelievable lengths to see a new species. When the rarest birds appear in Fair Isle (usually in September or October) it is not unusual for twitchers to charter flights from England up to the isle, occasionally coming back again days later if another rarity appears. Our airstrip can be a very busy place at such times.

‘Real’ birders, at the top of the ornithological social ladder, tend to take themselves and their hobby very seriously, and they also like to exaggerate the difference between themselves and twitchers. The main difference, so far as I can see, is simply that twitchers have got the time and money to do what birders would like to be doing.

My brother is a recent convert to birding – a born-again birder, you might say – and like all converts he suffers from a certain over-zealousness. Everything else in his life, including his sanity, has been sacrificed to his binoculars. He wears them at all times now, even when in bed, just in case a bird should fly in through the open window and perch atop his wardrobe at night. He talks about birds, reads books about birds, watches DVDs about birds, listens to CDs of birds making bird noises.

I have disowned him.

Malachy Tallack is 26 and lives in Fair Isle. He is a singer-songwriter, journalist, and editor of the magazine Shetland Life.
Photo: Getty
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Something is missing from the Brexit debate

Inside Westminster, few seem to have noticed or care about the biggest question mark in the Brexit talks. 

What do we know about the government’s Brexit strategy that we didn’t before? Not much, to be honest.

Theresa May has now said explicitly what her red lines on European law and free movement of labour said implicitly: that Britain is leaving the single market. She hasn’t ruled out continuing payments from Britain to Brussels, but she has said that they won’t be “vast”. (Much of the detail of Britain’s final arrangement is going to depend on what exactly “vast” means.)  We know that security co-operation will, as expected, continue after Brexit.

What is new? It’s Theresa May’s threat to the EU27 that Britain will walk away from a bad deal and exit without one that dominates the British newspapers.

“It's May Way or the Highway” quips City AM“No deal is better than a bad deal” is the Telegraph’s splash, “Give us a deal… or we walk” is the Mirror’s. The Guardian opts for “May’s Brexit threat to Europe”,  and “May to EU: give us fair deal or you’ll be crushed” is the Times’ splash.

The Mail decides to turn the jingoism up to 11 with “Steel of the new Iron Lady” and a cartoon of Theresa May on the white cliffs of Dover stamping on an EU flag. No, really.  The FT goes for the more sedate approach: “May eases Brexit fears but warns UK will walk away from 'bad deal’” is their splash.

There’s a lot to unpack here. The government is coming under fire for David Davis’ remark that even if Parliament rejects the Brexit deal, we will leave anyway. But as far as the Article 50 process is concerned, that is how it works. You either take the deal that emerges from the Article 50 process or have a disorderly exit. There is no process within exiting the European Union for a do-over.  

The government’s threat to Brussels makes sense from a negotiating perspective. It helps the United Kingdom get a better deal if the EU is convinced that the government is willing to suffer damage if the deal isn’t to its liking. But the risk is that the damage is seen as so asymmetric – and while the direct risk for the EU27 is bad, the knock-on effects for the UK are worse – that the threat looks like a bad bluff. Although European leaders have welcomed the greater clarity, Michel Barnier, the lead negotiator, has reiterated that their order of priority is to settle the terms of divorce first, agree a transition and move to a wider deal after that, rather than the trade deal with a phased transition that May favours.

That the frontpage of the Irish edition of the Daily Mail says “May is wrong, any deal is better than no deal” should give you an idea of how far the “do what I want or I shoot myself” approach is going to take the UK with the EU27. Even a centre-right newspaper in Britain's closest ally isn't buying that Britain will really walk away from a bad deal. 

Speaking of the Irish papers, there’s a big element to yesterday’s speech that has eluded the British ones: May’s de facto abandonment of the customs union and what that means for the border between the North and the South. “May’s speech indicates Border customs controls likely to return” is the Irish Times’ splash, “Brexit open border plan “an illusion”” is the Irish Independent’s, while “Fears for jobs as ‘hard Brexit’ looms” is the Irish Examiner’s.

There is widespread agreement in Westminster, on both sides of the Irish border and in the European Union that no-one wants a return to the borders of the past. The appetite to find a solution is high on all sides. But as one diplomat reflected to me recently, just because everyone wants to find a solution, doesn’t mean there is one to be found. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.