As a teenage birder in the early 1970s coming across John Gooders's book Where to Watch Birds was a life-changing event. This was before mobile phones, pagers, the internet and even the publication of the first Britain and Ireland breeding bird atlas, so as a young birder, eager to see new birds, any information on where to go to was very welcome.
I knew that the RSPB's headquarters were in Bedfordshire and called The Lodge but Gooders's book told me that there were birds there too! In fact, in summer there were nightjar, redstart, tree pipit, lesser-spotted woodpeckers and woodcock. On a visit in the early 1970s I saw none of these! And even now I've never seen the first two species at The Lodge, my only lesser-spotted woodpecker was in April 1998, and I haven't seen woodcock or tree pipit at HQ for a few years. Such declines have been mirrored in woods across the UK but particularly in southern England.
On Thursday last week, through being in London, I missed the chance to see a roosting nightjar at work (which was seen by hundreds of people!). Perhaps the amazing churring song of the nightjar will be heard again at The Lodge this summer. Let's hope so, because we've tried very hard to make the site suitable - a conifer plantation has been felled to allow heathland habitat to re-establish. This should be just right for nightjars so it's good that one is checking it out!
Felling trees is always a bit of a sensitive issue - everyone likes trees! But we are talking about dark conifer plantations not ancient broad-leaved forests. There are cases where conifers were planted on open habitats of much higher conservation interest and getting rid of the trees actually improves the nature conservation value of the area. Because they were often regarded as being of little value, heathlands often suffered damage from the planting of pines or spruce.
By chance, this nightjar was seen just when Defra were completing a consultation on the Forestry Commission's open ground policy. We hope that our state lumberjacks, I mean the Forestry Commission, will do more to restore heathland in counties such as Dorset, Hampshire, Surrey and Suffolk so that nightjars, Dartford warblers, smooth snakes and sand lizards can have more places to live. Otherwise it is difficult to see why we do have a state forestry service - after all we don't have a state fishing fleet, or state farms, so why do we have state foresters unless it is so that they can deliver a whole range of other public benefits whilst growing trees?
And as climate change influences the distribution of species, restoring heathland in counties such as Bedfordshire, Nottinghamshire and Staffordshire may allow some species we tend to think of as southern to expand northwards.
Our heathland restoration at The Lodge may make it easier for me to see the nightjar that I never saw there in my youth - but we hope it will also make it easier for future young birdwatchers in the north of England to see a range of species that have used our nature reserve as a stepping stone to suitable habitats further north.
We spend 90% of net income on conservation, public education and advocacy
The RSPB is a member of BirdLife International. Find out more about the partnership
© The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) is a registered charity: England and Wales no. 207076, Scotland no. SC037654