Home to roost: the robin was recently voted the national bird but the house martin is our true human familiar. Photo: John Short / Design Pics
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House martins, the little dolphins that love to slide on your roof

Martins are in steep decline now, but once their mud-cup nests, slung under eaves, were a familiar sight across Britain.

So the robin has been voted the UK’s “national bird” by more than 224,000 people, beating the barn owl by three to one. Springwatch insisted that it wanted votes for a species that “represented” the nation, not just personal favourites. So commentators have had fun suggesting the image of the UK reflected by the back-garden worm-digger: something chipper, plucky, punching above its size, a feathery echo of the Spitfire. Or the descendant of William Blake’s “redbreast in a cage”, which stood for all tyrannical imprisonments. I’m sceptical about whether viewers were quite so politically calculated in their choices, and suspect most simply voted for a bird loved for its bright eyes, winter song and sheer companionability.

The native robin’s legendary fork-perching is an intimacy not seen in Continental robins, which lurk in woods and, inconveniently for myth-makers, often migrate to Britain at just the season the species becomes a national emblem of Christmas, too.

The idea of a “national bird” is odd, when you think about it, suggesting that nationhood confers similar characters on human being and bird alike. North Americans are proud of the magisterial symbolism of their bald eagle and ignore the fact that the real bird lives on fish and scavenged carrion and is far from unique to the land of the free.

But there are birds that are true human familiars, and live so close to us that they transcend metaphor and become real neighbours. I bet that 30 years ago one of these, the house martin, would have been high in Springwatch’s top ten. Martins are in steep decline now, but in those days their mud-cup nests, slung under eaves, were a familiar sight across Britain. A famous colony nested in the rose windows of the French embassy in Knightsbridge, another in the public conveniences on the chic promenade at Aldeburgh, Suffolk. Their Latin name is Delichon urbica. They are colonial, sociable, as playful as the miniature dolphins they resemble. To have them nesting on your house is to have engaging guests for the duration of summer. The intricate building of the nests, the diligent feeding, the games of the young (I have seen them tobogganing down tiled roofs) are an insight into a parallel civic society. One particularly hot summer, ours built a verandah for their first brood to roost in. They would, I think, be the co-op movement’s national bird.

In 1774, the godfather of nature writing, Gilbert White, presented a mould-breaking essay on martins to the Royal Society. Nothing remotely like it had been written about birds before. Virginia Woolf thought it had narrative structures worthy of a novelist. White’s observations and empathy transcend 18th-century science as surely as they do crude anthropomorphism. He respects the birds as fellow citizens, “industrious artificers”, and details how they construct their nests, observing “that this work may not, whilst it is soft and green, pull itself down by its own weight, the provident architect [builds] only in the morning and . . . gives it sufficient time to dry and harden”. Turning conventional human-centredness upside down, he suggests that human wall-builders may have been “informed at first” by the bird.

Now, modern builders and the owners of their constructions are partly to blame for the house martin being on the skids. Mud won’t stick to plastic roof seals. Householders illegally poke down nests to stop droppings soiling the Dulux. Across much of Europe, by contrast, nesting birds are regarded as a blessing on a house. I once saw some nests in Crete – still occupied – included in the repainting of a house’s exterior. Back home, I miss such human whimsy and avian communal spirit, and find our summers lonelier without them.

Richard Mabey will appear at Latitude Festival in July

This article first appeared in the 26 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Bush v Clinton 2

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How the Standing Rock fight will continue

Bureaucratic ability to hold corporate interest account will be more necessary now than ever.

Fireworks lit up the sky in rural North Dakota on Sunday night, as protestors celebrated at what is being widely hailed as a major victory for rights activism.

After months spent encamped in tee-pees and tents on the banks of the Canonball river, supporters of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe finally received the news they’d been waiting for: the US Army Corps has not issued the Dakota Access pipeline with the permit it requires to drill under Lake Oahe.

“We […] commend with the utmost gratitude the courage it took on the part of President Obama, the Army Corps, the Department of Justice and the Department of the Interior to take steps to correct the course of history and to do the right thing" said a statement released by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s chairman, Dave Archambault II.

With the camp’s epic setting, social-media fame, and echoes of wider injustice towards Native Americans, the movement has already earned a place in the history books. You can almost hear the Hollywood scriptwriters tapping away.

But as the smoke settles and the snow thickens around the thinning campsite, what will be Standing Rock’s lasting legacy?

I’ve written before about the solidarity, social justice and environmental awareness that I think make this anti-pipeline movement such an important symbol for the world today.

But perhaps its most influential consequence may also be its least glamorous: an insistence on a fully-functioning and accountable bureaucratic process.

According to a statement from the US Army’s Assistant Secretary of Civil Words, the Dakota Access project must “explore alternate routes”, through the aid of “an Environmental Impact Statement with full public input and analysis”.

This emphasis on consultation and review is not big-statement politics from the Obama administration. In fact it is a far cry from his outright rejection of the Keystone Pipeline project in 2015. Yet it may set an even more enduring example.

The use of presidential power to reject Keystone, was justified on the grounds that America needed to maintain its reputation as a “global leader” on climate change. This certainly sent a clear message to the world that support from Canadian tar-sands oil deposits was environmentally unacceptable.

But it also failed to close the issue. TransCanada, the company behind Keystone, has remained “committed” to the project and has embroiled the government in a lengthy legal challenge. Unsurprisingly, they now hope to “convince” Donald Trump to overturn Obama’s position.

In contrast, the apparently modest nature of the government’s response to Dakota Access Pipeline may yet prove environmental justice’s biggest boon. It may even help Trump-proof the environment.

“Although we have had continuing discussion and exchanges of new information with the Standing Rock Sioux and Dakota Access, it’s clear that there’s more work to do”, said the Jo-Ellen Darcy, the Army’s Assistant Secretary for Civil Works.

Back in July, the same Army Corps of Engineers (which has jurisdiction over domestic pipelines crossing major waterways) waved through an environmental assessment prepared by the pipeline’s developer and approved the project. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe subsequently complained that the threat to its water supply and cultural heritage had not been duly considered. This month’s about-turn is thus vital recognition of the importance of careful and extensive public consultation. And if ever such recognition was needed it is now.

Not only does Donald Trump have a financial tie to the Energy Transfer Partners but the wider oil and gas industry also invested millions into other Republican candidate nominees. On top of this, Trump has already announced that Myron Ebell, a well known climate sceptic, will be in charge of leading the transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency.

Maintaining the level of scrutiny finally granted for Standing Rock may not be easy under the new administration. Jennifer Baker, an attorney who has worked with tribes in South Dakota on pipeline issues for several years, fears that the ground gained may not last long. But while the camp at Standing Rock may be disbanding, the movement is not.

This Friday, the three tribes who have sued the Corps (the Yankont, Cheyenne River, and Standing Rock Sioux Tribes) will head to a hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, seeking to increase pressure on the government to comply with both domestic and international law as it pertains to human rights and indigenous soveriegnty. 

What the anti-pipeline struggle has shown - and will continue to show - is that a fully accountable and transparent bureaucratic process could yet become the environment's best line of defence. That – and hope.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.