Ian Francis

What Geography Mean To Me

Ian Francis
North East Scotland Area Manager, RSPB Scotland

A peregrine falcon flies in to a quarry face, carrying prey to its nest.  I sit on the cliff nearby, satisfied that this pair will rear young successfully.  This is a good outcome to a case that looked bleak.  A quarry operator intended to blast beneath the nest all year, potentially disturbing the birds.  But negotiations and guidance by RSPB and statutory bodies, backed by planning law, led to a satisfactory solution – a new working pattern, with the birds still inhabiting the quarry.

How does a working geographer fit into this?  I cover Aberdeen to the Cairngorms for RSPB Scotland.  I was faced with a classic ‘bird issue’ – but really it was a ‘land-use issue’, and often nature conservation is more about people than about animal ecology.  My job is to defend important birds, wildlife and their habitats against inappropriate development.  This involves field skills and bird knowledge, but also knowledge of planning, law and economic forces, set against the physical background of the land.  Hydrology, soils, topography, agriculture, forestry – all play a vital role in understanding and mitigating the excesses of human development.  Wildlife lives in this complex landscape, and nature conservation must work with these forces.

Studying geography is excellent background for dealing with nature conservation issues.  You certainly need biological skills to do my work, but also a wide ranging knowledge of land and its management.  My interest in birds comes from childhood, but my professional training is strongly geographical.  My geography degree at Sheffield University was strong in biogeography, and my PhD at Aberystwyth examined peat bog hydrology and the impacts of massive upland conifer afforestation.  There, I learned how land use changes occur, and how complex and often dubious forces influence these.  I realised how wildlife sits precariously in a human-dominated world, and became determined to work for its conservation.  My career then took me to work in Africa, helping to conserve tropical rainforest birds, where again, tackling land use change was crucial.

Geography covers many of the problems that need to be solved in the world.  As pressures on the environment grow, we need people with that training.  You have to get your hands dirty, and be interdisciplinary, but that mix of knowledge of wildlife and the physical and human background, and yes, even a bit of hanging, roped on, over a cliff, gives a unique perspective on nature conservation and many wider environmental issues.

This article was written for the Summer 2011 edition of The Geographer.