Next weekend sees the biggest event in the global birding calendar: Global Birdfair. Originally begun in 1989 – as the British Birdwatching Fair – it takes place from 12-14 July at Rutland Water, in the heart of England’s smallest county. I’ve been going to ‘Birdfair’ every year since 1992, and this year we have our very own Birdfy Stand, appropriately in the Robin Marquee! So if you are visiting, please do drop by and say hello! 

Rutland, England’s smallest county, is a fairly calm and tranquil place. But once a year, for three hectic days in mid-July, birders arrive there in their thousands to take part in the annual Global Birdfair.

‘Birdfair’, as it is usually known, is like a cross between the Chelsea Flower Show and the Glastonbury Music Festival. And while it may not be able to boast the cachet of the former, or the coolness of the latter, it is still the unmissable event for birders; not just from Britain, but from all over the world. 
A whistle-stop tour of the Birdfair reveals much about the nature of birdwatching in the 21st century. People come here to meet old friends and make new ones, attend lectures and sign up for foreign birding tours, or simply to sit outside the beer tent and soak up the sunshine. From time to time, if they get tired of the crowds, they can even wander around the nearby nature reserve to watch the birds. 

Many visitors head straight for the optics marquee, where the latest models from Leica, Zeiss and Swarovski are on display – few giving the buyer much change from £2000. Others browse the second-hand bookstalls, handling copies of the New Naturalist volume on British Warblers with a reverence normally shown to the Dead Sea Scrolls. For many visitors, the highlight of the fair is a visit to the Art Marquee. Here, every possible way of depicting a bird is on display: from an almost photographic representation of every fine plumage detail to an impressionistic sketch capturing the indefinable quality of a flock of birds in flight.

But all this commercial activity is only a small part of the Birdfair. There are huge white marquees, like something out of a society wedding. And there are quizzes and talks, book signings and barbecues, presentations and debates – everything imaginable related to birds and birding, and a lot more besides.

Despite its very English surroundings, the Birdfair is also a truly global event. People come here from every corner of the world, to share their love and enthusiasm for birds.

Through the entrance fees paid by visitors, and by charging the exhibitors for the privilege of selling their products, Global Birdfair makes a considerable profit, which each year is donated to a conservation project somewhere in the world. Since the fair was started in the late 1980s, it has raised well over than £3 million for conservation, benefiting places as diverse as Madagascar and Morocco, Spain and Cuba, Poland and Vietnam. The format has also been successfully replicated all over the world, with similar fairs taking place in such diverse locations as Taiwan, Holland, Ecuador, Australia and India.

Like many great events, the Birdfair arose from humble beginnings. Its genesis can be traced to a meeting of two old friends and colleagues, in a pub appropriately called the Finch’s Arms, in the summer of 1986. At the time, Tim Appleton was working for the Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust, while Martin Davies was the regional officer for the RSPB. Their original plan of inviting a few local businesses and wildlife charities to a hastily erected marquee in the corner of a quiet field by Rutland Water, has grown into a major global event which, like painting the Forth Bridge, takes all year to set up.

In the three-and-a-half decades since Birdfair began in 1989, it has grown into an unmissable event for birders from all over the world. But more importantly, it has opened up birding to everyone, whatever their experience or level of knowledge. It has democratised a pastime that used to be insular, cliquey and often unwelcoming. It has created a birding community that is genuinely global, and genuinely diverse and inclusive.

The creation of this worldwide birding network happened more or less by accident. No-one planned it; no-one ever dreamed it would happen. By combining the British amateur tradition with a very professional commercial awareness, Global Birdfair has managed to achieve the best of both worlds, with a huge benefit for both birders and the birds. 

Global Birdfair takes place from 12-14 July 2024 at Lyndon Top, Rutland Water, Rutland:
July 04, 2024 — Stephen Moss

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