The actor, writer and broadcaster has probably done more than anyone over the past 20 years or to popularise birding (he prefers the term birdwatching).
Bill, who is 78, shares his birthday with Beatles drummer Ringo Starr (79) and golfer Tony Jacklin (75).
Below is an interview with him after he travelled up to Grimsby to carry out the official opening of new premises for Haiths Bird Seeds.
Do you recall how you first became interested in birds? Through egg collecting, sadly. I was aged about eight or nine. That's how I first became familiar with birds and their behaviour.
Was there any incident or sighting of a particular bird that transformed you from being an egg collector to a birdwatcher? No, it was probably a gradual thing. By collecting eggs, I learned to identify different species, their songs, their callnotes and their choices of nesting sites. I do recall being particularly pleased at coming across a cuckoo's egg in a dunnock's nest in a privet hedge outside our house in Rochdale. Maybe that was a turning point. Another time, while fielding in a cricket match, I was fascinated by the behaviour of a a skylark which obviously had its nest in the outfield. Later, as my enthusiasm increased, my father bought me a pair of binoculars. From then on, my egg-collecting days were over.
What's your favourite bird? I'll stick with the swallow. It has a graceful flight, a sweet little face, an attractive plumage, a cheerful song and it builds an intricate nest. It also carries with it the mystery of migration - I've seen swallows in all sorts of places, skimming over oceans, in deserts and even once over a volcanic island off Iceland where it is a very rare bird.
What other species do you particularly like? Stonechats and whinchats rate highly. So do wheatears - though they are birds of upland pasture and coastal cliffs, they can turn up anywhere on migration, even in Hampstead Heath near where I live. When they look out on an urban scene, they have a kind of quizzical look as if to say: "All very interesting but what am I doing here? Isn't it time to move on?"
Do you think there are any birds that tend to be underrated? That's probably true of certain groups of birds such as waders in winter plumage - what the Americans call "peeps". The same sometimes applies to warblers. Because they are predominantly brown and indistinct, people sometimes give up on them. But I like them - they're the worth the challenge.
Do you have a favourite habitat for birdwatching? Reservoirs. After we moved to Birmingham when I was growing up, my birdwatching patch used to be Bartley Reservoir. They may not be the most pleasing of landscapes. but you never know what might turn up at reservoirs - all through the year but especially at migration times
Are there any species that you are not so keen on - or may even irritate you? How about magpies, for instance? I'm not anti- any birds. All species have their own special appeal. In my garden I feed jays and the parakeets which have now become common Sometimes, they make an awful din and I tell them to shut up - but really I'm only saying it to myself. It's a pleasure to have them - especially the jays within just a foot or so away.
Ring-necked parakeets have become established in breeding colonies in parts of London after escaping from aviaries. Do you have any misgivings about the spread of non-native species. As far as I am aware, there is no evidence that parakeets compete with other species or cause crop damage as they are said to do in Asia. Actually, as a species, they are a bit "wet". Despite their aggressive appearance, they are timid - even woodpigeons frighten them off. Do you enjoy watching birds overseas? Yes, but it's a different sort of pleasure. I remember a visit to Kenya and seeing lots of different species. I thought I'd never get the hang of them all, but after a week you more or less work things out - for instance, which are the more common ones. Finally, did you see any unusual birds on your rail trip up from King's Cross to Grimsby? Not on this occasion. I do look out for birds through train windows but, apart from the last stretch, this is not the most interesting of lines. One of the best routes is the one from Paddington to Penzance. It was on one trip that I saw lots of little egrets - it made me aware how widespread they were becoming since their arrival only a few years ago.
Lundy Island - now believed to to be rid of rats (photo: Landmark Trust)
A CONTROVERSIAL cull of black rats has been credited with tripling the number of nesting seabirds on the island of Lundy in the Bristol Channel.
When the initiative was announced in 2002, it sparked opposition from the welfare charity, Animal Aid, who described "slaughter in the name of conservation as inhumane and a waste of resources."
Said a spokesman "The use of poison is inhumane, and there is a real possibility that other species might be attracted to the bait."
The project was initiated jointly by Natural England, the Landmark Trust, the National Trust and the RSPB who blamed black rats - unwittingly imported from shipwrecks or boats visiting the island - for feeding on the eggs and chicks of burrowing seabird nesters such as puffins and Manx shearwaters, with devastating breeding consequences.
By 2006, Lundy was declared "rat-free" since when seabirds have tripled to a current population of about 21,000 birds
Manx shearwater have increased to 5,504 pairs (from 297 pairs in 2001) and puffins to 375 birds (from fewer than 20 in 2001).
In a statement this week, Helen Booker, an RSPB conservation officer, said: “This clearly shows how quickly and positively seabirds respond to the removal of non-native predators.
"We had anticipated major population increases when the project was launched, but the scale of this recovery has far exceeded our expectations.
“The partners are grateful for all the support we have had over the years from a huge team of volunteers without which both the work to eradicate the rats and our knowledge of the seabirds’ recovery simply would not have been possible”.
Puffin (illustration courtesy of wildlife artist Ann Williams)
The warden on Lundy, Dean Jones, agreed “It is exciting to see this level of recovery in Manx shearwaters, one of our most important seabirds.
"In spring the island comes alive at night with the sound of these amazing birds. The increases in puffins, guillemots and razorbills is also very encouraging for the future of seabirds on Lundy and we are maintaining our vigilance to ensure rats cannot return to the island.”
Meanwhile, Natural England ornithologist Tim Frayling commented: “Lundy Island is home to one of the most important seabird colonies in England, so it is fantastic to see such a revival in numbers.
“The current challenges facing wildlife are huge, but this remarkable increase demonstrates that wildlife recovery can be achieved by partnerships and people combining expertise working together."
Tessa Boase - Fleet Street journalist turned author
One of the most fascinating books of last year explored the once-widespread female fashion for wearing highly-feathered hats - and the campaign by a small group of determined women to end what they called ‘murderous millinery’. The author of Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather is Tessa Boase who lives near Hastings, in East Sussex, with her young family. After graduating in English from Lincoln College, Oxford, she worked as a journalist and commissioning editor for The Daily Telegraph and its sister Sunday title, then as a freelance features writer, before turning to social history, authorship and lecturing. When not writing, doing amateur dramatics or walking the dog, Tessa produces olive oil from a smallholding in the Sabine Hills, Italy - the work, she says, of many years’ patient restoration. Here she discusses Purple Feather.
When was the fashion for feathers at its height?
For half a century, between the 1870s and 1920s, birds were killed on an industrial scale for the plumage industry. In every public place, from the opera house to the street market, an astonishing array of birdlife could be seen jostling for space on top of women’s hats.
Feathers from which birds?
Millinery trimmings included small native species such as blue tit, robin, swallow, chaffinch and blackbird. You might also see golden plover, heron, little owl, little tern, mallard, kingfisher and jay. In many cases a whole bird (or several birds) would be incorporated to dress a hat.
What about ‘windfalls’? Birds lose feathers when they moult.
Contrary to the soothing stories put out by the plumage trade, no moulted feathers were used by milliners. All came from slaughtered birds - taken all too often during the nesting season, when breeding plumage is at its finest. So the plumage trade killed not only adult birds but also their orphaned chicks which died in the nest.
Was there an appetite for foreign species?
Increasingly so. By the 1880s, as explorers and shipping routes carved up the world, an undreamed-of array of exotic birdskins flooded the plumage market. The more striking the species, the greater the novelty value to milliners and consumers. Brightly coloured birds such as parrots, toucans, orioles and hummingbirds were particularly highly prized.
Did the fashion extend beyond British shores?
Absoloutely. Demand soared in the feather processing and fashion hubs of London, Paris, New York and Berlin. Milliners were eager to serve every class of woman in every ‘civilised’ country in the world.
Is it known what the plumage trade’s value was to the British economy?
At its pre-First World War peak, it was worth £20-million a year: that’s around £204-million in today’s money, the equivalent to the combined worth of the UK hair and beauty industry today. A couture hat might cost £5 - the equivalent of £500 today.
A £5 price tag would surely be beyond what all but the wealthiest women could pay?
Single feathers and less fashionable birds could be bought for pennies by poorer women to dress their own hats.
Do you think the trade threatened certain species threatened with extinction?
Without doubt. By 1914, ornithologists estimated that hundreds of global species risked extinction.
Plumed paradise birds, great and little snowy egret, blue-throated and amethyst hummingbirds, Carolina parakeet, Toco toucan, lyre bird, silver pheasant, certain tanagers . . . the list went on.
Were any native species particularly vulnerable?
Famously, the great crested grebe. It was hunted relentlessly for its extraordinary head feathers which stand out like a halo when the bird is in breeding plumage.
Who transformed the feathers into hat ornaments?
An army of invisible female workers was caught up in the plumage industry’s coils. Feather washers, dyers, trimmers, thrashers, willows and curlers - all labour-intensive processes required before the adornments were dispatched to millinery trade warehouses.
Did the industry have an HQ?
London was the world’s feather bourse. It was a very different industry to the giant textile factories of the industrial north. The mostly female labour worked from crowded, unventilated, small workshops, fanning east from the City to Whitechapel, Spitalfields and Shoreditch. It was a shadowy, impenetrable, exploitative world where regulation was minimal to non-existent.
With very low wages?
So low that many employees took work home to earn extra pennies. Many resorted to selling stolen plumes on the black market.
Would children have been involved?
Yes: nimble fingers were good at ‘willowing’ ostrich feathers - lengthening them by tying feathery extensions on to each frond to create that full, lolling head so desirable to ladies of fashion. This work took place in homes, around kitchen tables, and was thus invisible to the eyes of the Victorian factory inspectors.
How did you track down all this information?
Resurrecting the stories of so many invisible or vanished women too two years of pretty painstaking research. I sifted through the fashion archives of numerous museums, particularly those in the V&A and the Museum of London.
I visited archive centres in provincial towns, from Woking to Barrow-in-Furness, and I spent many hours at the British Library poring through old newspapers and fashion magazines. Crucially, I gained access to the RSPB’s notoriously secretive library at its HQ in Sandy, Bedfordshire - a real treasure trove of unexpected discoveries. I must also acknowledge the information and advice given to me by numerous bird experts who were very generous with their time.
What brought the fashion to an end? Was it changing attitudes to bird conservation, a shift in fashion tastes or legislation?
All these things played a part, but crucial was the campaigning zeal of a group of remarkably brave and determined women - kickstarted by Emily Williamson, who founded the Society for the Protection of Birds in the Manchester suburb of Didsbury, and Eliza Phillips, founder of the Fur, Fin and Feather Folk of Croydon, Surrey.
When was that?
Both societies started, by coincidence, in 1889, then they joined forces in 1891 to become the RSPB. The Royal Assent was granted in 1904.
But all for their pioneering work, neither woman is really the hero of your book.
It was another woman who stepped forward to propel the RSPB forward. This was, a member of the Croydon group, Etta Lemon, who maintained a relentless focus - both on the frivolity of adorning hats with slaughtered birds, and on the cruelty involved.
What was her campaigning strategy?
She used to name and shame women whom she saw wearing ‘murderous millinery’ in church. She and her followers also took the battle to the streets with billboard parades highlighting the cruelty involved. The ‘feather fight’ was long and vicious - and Etta probably did more than anyone to pave the way for the 1921 Act of Parliament banning the import of plumage. This, in turn, led to further, more far-reaching bird conservation legislation.
So the bird and wildlife charities of today owe her a debt?
The RSPB would not have become the behemoth that it is had it not been for her vision, tirelessness, determination and clarity of focus, so it’s surprising she has mostly been overlooked by the charity she did so much to establish.
Perhaps your book will trigger some sort of a response?
Well, one pleasing outcome since its publication is that Emily Williamson is now remembered in a plaque on the house in Didsbury where she lived, while Etta Lemon’s portrait has pride of place in a main meeting room at the RSPB’s HQ.
What about Mrs Pankhurst, the famous suffrage campaigner of your book’s title? Was she an ally?
To the contrary. Emmeline Pankhurst was a dedicated follower of fashion, rarely seen in public without feathers and furs. And she encouraged her militant followers to use fashion to further the cause - to be, as she saw it, the most elegant ladies in the public sphere.
How dispiriting for Etta Lemon!
Mrs Lemon thought it a bitter irony that Mrs Pankhurst’s elegant supporters were all too often adorned in feathers, wings and sometimes whole birds.
Hence the purple feather of your book’s title?
One notorious day in 1908, Mrs Pankhurst stormed the House of Commons with a squad of militant suffragettes.What was she wearing on her hat? A voluptuous purple feather!
• Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather: Fashion, Fury and Feminism, Women’s Fight for Power (Aurum Press) is available as hardback, e-book and audiobook.
TV journalist Frank Gardner was today named as new president of the BTO.
Gardner (57), who is the BBC's security correspondent, succeeds another BBC broadcaster, Chris Packham, who has, after three years, stepped down by mutual agreement with the BTO because of pressure of other commitments.
An old boy of Marlborough College and graduate of Exeter University with a degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies, he spent between 1986 and 1995 as an investment banker with first Saudi International Bank, then Robert Fleming Bank, before making the bold decision to quite the financial world in favour of journalism, working initially for BBC World TV.
Spotting a gap in coverage he moved himself and his heavily pregnant wife to Dubai in 1997 to set up as a freelance Gulf stringer covering all 6 Gulf state countries and Yemen.
In 1999, London-born Gardner was appointed BBC Middle East correspondent in charge of the bureau in Cairo, but travelling throughout the region.
After the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York, Gardner focused on stories related to the so-called ‘War on Terror’, a phrase he always disliked, working to steer his audiences away from many of the prejudices and stereotypings that sprang up in the wake of those attacks.
Colleagues and viewers credit him for his excellent communication skills and his breadth of knowledge of Middle East affairs,
On 6 June 2004, while reporting from a suburb of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, disaster struck.
Gardner was shot six times and seriously injured in an attack by al-Qaeda sympathisers. His colleague Irish cameraman Simon Cumbers was shot dead. He was left partly paralysed in the legs and dependent on a wheelchair.
After 14 operations, seven months in hospital and months of rehabilitation he returned to reporting for the BBC in mid-2005, using a wheelchair or a frame.
A keen birdwatcher (he has made a TV documentary on birds of paradise), Gardner also enjoys scuba diving and winter sports
President of the Ski Club of Great Britain until 2017, Gardner is now a Patron of Disability Snowsports UK with Pippa Middleton.
After his injuries in 2004 he relearned how to ski using a bobski (also called a sit-ski), that allows disabled people to ski while seated.
Awarded an OBE in 2005, the father-of-two is author of three books Blood and Sand, recounting his Middle East experiences, Far Horizons, describing unusual journeys to unusual places, and Crisis, his debut spy thriller set in Colombia.
THE RSPB has today announced that Beccy Speight will become its new chief executive.
She will succeed Mike Clarke who revealed last September that he wanted to leave post by the end this summer
For the past six years, Ms Speight has been chief executive at the Woodland Trust where she is credited not only with having increased income by more than 35 per cent but also with sharpening the focus of that charity and raising its profile.
She has also won plaudits for building new partnerships, refreshing the culture and providing dynamic leadership.
It is possible she was encouraged to apply for the position by the chair of the Woodland Trust, Barbara Young - Baroness Young of Old Scone - who was herself the RSPB's first female chief executive.
Announcing the appointment, the RSPB's chairman, Kevin Cox, the charity's chair, said: “We are delighted to welcome someone of Beccy’s calibre.
“We are at a key point in history for nature conservation in the UK when the natural world is coming under increasing threat.
“At this crucial time of change, the RSPB must evolve to respond to these threats, ensuring that we are in the best possible shape to make a difference for nature.
“The organisation has undergone a period of significant change over the past year.
"Beccy’s outstanding track record, personal qualities and commitment to the cause of nature conservation will ensure the charity continues to move forward with confidence."
Mr Cox expressed his thanks to Mr Clarke who has served the RSPB in various capacities for the past 30 years.
Mike Clarke - bowing out after 30 years
He said: "Mike has been instrumental in driving significant growth in membership, while modernising our mission to ensure we remain relevant in a changing world."
Ms Speight faces a formidable challenge - she will be responsible for operations and management at more than 200 RSPB nature reserves across the UK, visited by around 2.5 million people every year.
Said she: “I am really excited about joining the RSPB. The fight to save nature has never been more important and the RSPB is uniquely positioned to make a difference.
“This is an interesting and challenging time for the charity and I'm looking forward to getting started."
Ms Speight's start date at the RSPB has not yet been announced.