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My Cardiff

Professor Steve Ormerod.

Steve Ormerod

At Reedley cricket ground, Burnley, aged 4. The swallow-shed is just out of shot.

Professor Steve Ormerod of the School of Biosciences writes about the childhood influences that led to his research and teaching career in ecology and his role as Chairman of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) Cymru.

“One of my earliest memories is of being taken into a cotton-mill by my grandfather – a weaver all his working life.  By then, both he and the Lancashire cotton-trade were in their last years, but the clatter of looms and smell of raw cotton mingling with engine steam are as fresh in my mind as ever.  Grown from coal and grit-stone, this was Burnley and the largest 19th century producer of cotton-cloth anywhere on earth.

Steve Ormerod and stepson watching birds on Skomer Island

Watching seabirds from Skomer Island with one of my three step-sons.

“Even here, the natural world was never far away.  Every dawn and dusk, I’d hear the rooks passing over our terraced house on their raucous commute between feeding and roosting in the local hospital grounds. Then, leaning from our upstairs sash-window, my elder brother taught me to recognise the house sparrows, the males with their brown bibs as dark as my mum’s Bisto gravy.  He owned the ‘I-spy birds’ book, and so was an expert. Where my dad played cricket for his factory team, he showed me how the groundsman left ajar the door of the tractor-shed each spring for the swallows that nested in the rafters. Beyond the town, before the river Brun was turned ochre by mine waste, there were dippers, and once even the blue dart of a kingfisher.  Up here, the hills were alive with the sound of music – but it came with a north-country accent and the rain-soaked voices of lapwing, curlew and redshank.

“I recognise now that these were seminal moments, and even proto-models for the way I came to view nature conservation.  People cared about the wild birds that, in this working landscape, connected them with nature.  In the Pennine’s semi-wild places, we not only opened our lungs, but moved among the animals and plants whose actions ran the world: by their presence or absence, birds revealed whether environments were ailing or functioning as they should.  Some, like my first kingfisher, literally startled me with their beauty.

“When I eventually came to Cardiff, it was to learn about rivers and to enter the world of professional ecology. The parallels between South Wales and Lancashire, at that time, were large: here was another industrial landscape hacked from hillsides that were unique, but also recognisable to me in their huge character. What was more, my PhD supervisor, Ron Edwards, was interested in the effects of pollution on rivers, and I soon found myself in familiar terrain.

“Tasked to find out why communities of insects differed in some rivers from others, I became interested in the effects of acid rain. Streams that appeared to gush clear and sparkling from the Welsh hills were sometimes so altered chemically that many of the expected insects were absent. Concerned about the consequences for the dippers that depended on them for food, the RSPB’s Stephanie Tyler and I showed how feeding, breeding and survival were all impaired, and some populations had plummeted. In the best eureka spirit, I’d hit on these results by accident while still a PhD student. Nevertheless, the world’s first evidence that birds could be affected by acid rain captured people’s attention. For decades, Welsh miners had used canaries to warn of the presence of explosive or toxic gasses in deep mines, and here was a similar symbol that something was amiss.

“Birds still figure in some of my research, but these days I have more contact through my links with the RSPB. I joined the Wales Committee in 1996, becoming one of 23 Trustees and Council Members in 2003, and then chairman of RSPB Cymru in 2007. With the strength of over a million members, including 150,000 young people, this is undoubtedly one of Europe’s most respected and influential environmental bodies. People might have met them through events such as the Big Garden Birdwatch, which attracts over 400,000 participants annually. They might also have heard about the network of 200 reserves that are owned or managed by the RSPB to safeguard not only important birds, but also many other species that share their habitats. The most exciting Welsh development, at the Newport Wetlands (opening March 2008), will provide opportunities for children and schools throughout the urban south to have the kinds of contact with nature that I know, from my own childhood, can be so pivotal.

“But the RSPB’s million voices reach even further. In an age when environmental change has never been so rapid, species extinctions so many, and the need to live sustainably more pressing, the RSPB’s actions, education and advocacy – all rigorously evidence-based – have an important bearing on the current environmental debate. When, for example, 80% of Wales’ curlews disappear in just 25 years, or 19 or the world’s 22 albatross species face extinction – all wonderfully iconic animals – something cannot be right. The problems are complex but, in finding solutions for birds and their habitats, the benefits will ultimately go much further in safeguarding environments that we all depend upon so fundamentally.

“My grandfather might have been a weaver from the age of 10, but I think that’s a message he would very soon have grasped.”

Professor Steve Ormerod

Born in Burnley in 1958, Steve Ormerod came to Cardiff in 1980 for a Master’s degree, remaining thereafter as a PhD student, post-doctoral researcher and faculty member before gaining his personal chair in 2001. Although best known in the University for river ecological research, he is a trustee of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and became chairman of RSPB Cymru in 2007.

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